REVIEW BY JIMI SHARPE
How do you write someone else’s story? Where do personal and inherited histories collide? These are the questions immediately facing Denver-based poet Teow Lim Goh in Islanders. The collection constitutes something of an imagined history—Goh imagines the voices within the poems, but each one is based entirely in historical document. Between 1910 and 1940, many Chinese immigrants were detained at The Angel Island Immigration Station. Some of those detainees wrote poetry on the barrack walls. Many of those poems exist in record to this day, but not all. Only the poems of the male detainees survive. A 1940 fire destroyed the women’s barracks and, with them, every one of their poems. These are the poems that Goh imagines and crafts in Islanders.
The collection begins with Angel Island, a Howl-esque piece that acts as both prologue and dedication. Goh acknowledges the separation between her personal and cultural history. She was not one of the women detained at Angel Island, but she understands that, decades earlier, she easily could have been. The volume is then divided into five chapters, the first of which are Voices, Echoes and Work, a trilogy of interconnected poems that comprise Islanders’ main body. It’s here that the strength of Goh’s creation comes into play because Islanders is a work designed to be consumed as a whole. Many individual poems contain moments of subtle, formal beauty but only in the context of the collection as a whole does the true power of Islanders show itself.
Voices is Goh’s direct imagining of the female detainees. It includes poems about women trapped, waiting, abandoned, scrutinized, examined and finally freed. Most of the poems are small and self-contained, consisting of slight moments that one would record in silent isolation. Certain poems such as “Scrutiny” and “Virtue Exam” skirt at the fringes of heavy-handed but it’s hard not be drawn in by the intensity and intimacy of the images that Goh creates.
If Voices existed in isolation it would stand as a flawed but fascinating exercise in fictional history. Fortunately, it does not. The true strength of Islanders comes in the form of the following two chapters. Echoes contains the stories of those left behind and those forced to move on ahead. It becomes clear quickly that these stories exist in direct parallel with those in Voices, the unfaithful husband wracked with guilt; the widower, left in the wake of a dark and brutal suicide; and the man filled with hate at those who subject his wife to cruel humiliations. Work goes a step further and imagines the voices of those on the other side, the guards, the gatekeepers. In these chapters, Goh’s voice is muted and with them she introduces fresh layers of nuance. We shift from the hot intensity of a woman accused of being a whore, to her husband’s impotent rage, to the quiet self-loathing of the Chinese guard instructed to tell her of the inspector’s opinions. Goh builds a world so rich that it moves past history into something alive, at a time when it stands as a crucial addition to America’s cultural conversation.
Riot delves further still into history as it chronicles the 1877 San Francisco labor rally that devolved into violence in Chinatown, giving the preceding chapters context. Every moment of the collection until now is provided extra weight as Goh ties together these intimately connected historical narratives, one feeding directly into the other. The emotions of the preceding chapters turns to something even darker as four words echo through Riot, and through time: “the Chinese must go.”
Islanders ends much as it begins: with Goh herself. In Pilgrimage, Goh returns to Angel Island. Here, confronted with the distance from her history as she reads the poems on the walls written “in a language I no longer understand”, Islanders comes full circle. Through her poetry Goh has found those lost voices and brought them to life in a collection that is, at times, flawed but still feels rich, vibrant and, more than half a century removed from its events, utterly necessary.