Punctuated by historical images and told through multiple voices, languages, literary forms and documents, West: A Translationexplores what unites and divides America, drawing a powerful, necessary connection between the completion of the transcontinental railroad and the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882-1943).
In 2018, Utah Poet Laureate Paisley Rekdal was commissioned to write a poem commemorating the 150th anniversary of the transcontinental railroad. The result is West: A Translation - an unflinching hybrid collection of poems and essays that draws a powerful, necessary connection between the railroad’s completion and the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882-1943). Carved into the walls of the Angel Island Immigration Station, where Chinese migrants to the United States were detained during the Chinese Exclusion Act, is a poem elegizing a detainee who committed suicide. As West translates this anonymous Chinese elegy character by character, what’s left is a haunting narrative distilled through the history and lens of transcontinental railroad workers, and a sweeping exploration of the railroad’s cultural impact on America. Punctuated by historical images and told through multiple voices, languages, literary forms and documents, West explores what unites and divides America, and how our ideas about American history creep forward, even as the nation itself constantly threatens to spiral back.West is accompanied by a website (www.westtrain.org) which features video poems and encourages self-exploration of the transcontinental railroad’s history through an interactive, non-linear structure. Pairing this urgent book and innovative website, Rekdal masterfully challenges how histories themselves get written and disseminated. The result is a tour de force of resistance and resilience.