the museum of americana

a literary review

Jeffrey Thomas Leong’s Wild Geese Sorrow: The Chinese Wall Inscriptions at Angel Island—Review by Karen Llagas

When a poet finely attuned to his craft takes on literary translation, the results become as deeply felt and articulated as the poems in the original language. Jeffrey Leong, poet and translator of Wild Geese Sorrow, has produced new translations of the poems inscribed by Chinese immigrant detainees in the wooden barrack walls of the Angel Island Immigration Station. Much has been written about the historical significance of these poems. They are artifacts that document the injustices, rage, despair, and uncertainty experienced by the detained men in the immigration holding station near San Francisco between 1910-1940. Leong selected 70 of more than 200 wall poems for this new collection, and arranged them chronologically and thematically—a structure that gives a lyrical and narrative arc to the poems, as well as a rich sampling of the voices found on the men’s barrack walls. That Leong was able to shape intimate and compelling speakers from anonymously signed poems is a testament to his poetic intelligence and craft.

Leong’s new translations are both timeless and contemporary. Written in the form of classical Tang poetry, in which these detainees have been culturally, if not formally trained, traditional tropes permeate the original poems—landscapes and seasons, a speaker standing witness to the beauty of the physical and the animal world:

Bored in the wood house I held open a window,
Dawn breezes, the day-bright moon, linger together.
In distant memory, an old village obscured by clouds,
On this small island, tiny cries of wild geese sorrow.

                                    Poem 10

Contrast these images with the reality of these detained men, their futures now urgently precarious, as they face racial discrimination and verbal harassment from interrogation officials. Confronting possible deportation, which will bring shame to their family in China, they seek refuge in their writings, using poetry to simultaneously face and dignify their struggle:

Outside four walls, insects chirp,
From the residents inside, many sighs.
When thoughts turn to important family matters,
Without will, tears trickle then soak.

                                    Poem 33

Consider, also, Leong’s deliberate translation choice to stay close to the original Tang poetic form and rhythm while crafting lines that are accessible to the present-day reader. His translations pay homage to the original wall poems while transforming them into contemporary political poems—what Leong aptly calls in his introduction, “poems of resistance as well as poems of resilience.”  

Throughout the collection, Leong successfully employs poetics with acute empathy and cultural sensitivity—as seen in the examples above. The images are direct and minimalist, the line is controlled, the diction plain-spoken. What we experience in these translations are both artfulness and restraint, even when the emotions expressed are despair and rage. These poems express lament but also console. The poets grieve but also make a gesture of defiance. Perhaps another way to articulate this would be what’s been referred to as the “elusive beauty” in these poems, and it is through this that we viscerally connect to these detainee poets across time, place and privilege.

Perceiving the Landscape, I Compose This Worthless Verse

Blue-green ocean encircles a solitary peak,
Rugged hills edge this prison cage,
Birds to avoid cold mountain fineries,
Wild geese make no trace.

Landing has been hard for more than half a year,
My face flushed with hatred and worry,
Now I must return to my country
Like the jingwei bird having toiled in empty air.

                                    Poem 62

In poem 62, the “wild geese” reappear, this time invoking the spirit of freedom that still stubbornly resides in the poet. The air is “empty” but nevertheless charged—with anger and irony, but also with vision towards the future. The “I” here may have felt defeated, but his fierce and unrelenting seeing— his “eye”—perseveres.

Leong passionately argues, in his introduction and translations, to complicate and blur the divisions placed between the poetic and the political. In Wild Geese Sorrow, he shows how that fluidly energizing space between the individual and the collective, the private and the public, is negotiated. It is a book that shows how artistic practice elevates both the struggles and the larger imaginative lives of marginalized and displaced peoples—a reminder profoundly needed in these times.