“有 識: Have Knowledge” by Paisley Rekdal


有 識: Have Knowledge

 –From the immigration questionnaire given to Chinese entering or re-entering the U.S. during the Chinese Exclusion Act


Have you ridden in a streetcar?
Can you describe the taste of bread?
Where are the joss houses located in the city?
Do Jackson Street and Dupont run
in a circle or a line, what is the fruit
your mother ate before she bore you,
how many letters a year
do you receive from your father?
Of which material is your ancestral hall
now built? How many water buffalo
does your uncle own?
Do you love him? Do you hate her?
What kind of bird sang
at your parents’ wedding? What are the birth dates
for each of your cousins: did your brother die
from starvation, work, or murder?
Do you know the price of tea here?
Have you ever touched a stranger’s face
as he slept? Did it snow the year
you first wintered in our desert?
How much weight is
a bucket and a hammer? Which store
is opposite your grandmother’s?
Did you sleep with that man
for money? Did you sleep with that man
for love? Name the color and number
of all your mother’s dresses. Now
your village’s rivers.
What diseases of the heart
do you carry? What country do you see
when you think of your children?
Does your sister ever write?
In which direction does her front door face?
How many steps did you take
when you finally left her?
How far did you walk
before you looked back?


Copyright © 2020 by Paisley Rekdal. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on May 11, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets and reprinted with the permission of the author.

Listen to Rekdal read “有 識: Have Knowledge” here.


Paisley Rekdal is the author of a book of essays, The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee; the hybrid photo-text memoir, Intimate; and five books of poetry: A Crash of Rhinos; Six Girls Without Pants; The Invention of the Kaleidoscope; Animal Eye, a finalist for the 2013 Kingsley Tufts Prize and winner of the UNT Rilke Prize; and Imaginary Vessels, finalist for the 2018 Kingsley Tufts Prize and the Washington State Book Award. Her newest work of nonfiction is a book-length essay, The Broken Country: On Trauma, a Crime, and the Continuing Legacy of Vietnam. A new collection of poems, Nightingale, which rewrites many of the myths in Ovid’s The Metamorphoses, was published in spring 2019 and is available for purchase hereAppropriate:A Provocation examines cultural appropriation and is forthcoming from W.W. Norton in February 2021. She is the guest editor for Best American Poetry 2020 and a Distinguished Professor at the University of Utah, where she is also the creator and editor of the community web projects Mapping Literary Utah and Mapping Salt Lake City. In May 2017, Rekdal was named Utah’s Poet Laureate and received a 2019 Academy of American Poets’ Poets Laureate Fellowship. Source: paisleyrekdal.com.

Watch a performance of excerpts of Rekdal’s multimedia poem “West: A Translation,” the book-length work from which “有 識: Have Knowledge” is taken. This longer video features another performance along with a talk and Q&A.


Poet’s Note

This poem is from a book-length work I’m finishing on the transcontinental railroad, titled West, a poetic ‘translation’ of a poem carved by an anonymous Chinese immigrant into the walls of the Angel Island Detention Center during the enforcement of the Chinese Exclusion Act. The Act was passed thirteen years after the completion of the railroad, and each of the carved poem’s characters (or pair of characters) opens up into a cultural history of the workers who built the transcontinental or a history of the cultural impact the railroad had on the U.S. as a whole. During the building of the railroad, Chinese men were eagerly recruited by the Central Pacific Railroad; afterward, they were portrayed as criminals, drug addicts, and a national danger to white labor. [Source: Poem-a-Day feature]


Commentary by Amanda Moore

Some poems hold a mirror up to the reader, offering new ways to see and consider our lives and ourselves. Other poems work as portals, transporting readers outside familiar and known experience to provide insight and empathy for other ideas and other lives. Paisley Rekdal’s “有 識: Have Knowledge” is one such portal, moving the reader through questions posed by immigration officials to Chinese immigrants entering the United States during the Chinese Exclusion Act. While this experience may indeed echo or reflect some part of the way immigrants are questioned and treated even today, the poem offers readers access to a specific historical moment, offering an opportunity to expand our knowledge and understanding of a complicated, troubled immigration history.

Passed in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was the first significant law to restrict immigration to the United States and deny naturalization to Chinese residents. It was based on the same outright racism and unfounded fears over declining economics and job scarcity that we see shaping unjust immigrant policy in the United States today. Chinese immigrants trying to enter or reenter the country faced rigorous interrogation and were often detained for long periods of time—weeks, months, and even years—at Angel Island Immigration Station.

Rekdal’s poem is a “found poem” with lines comprised of questions asked of these Chinese immigrants. By deploying the actual questions from the interviews, the poem forces the reader to experience the interrogation firsthand. The order in which Rekdal organizes the questions highlights how officials worked to unsettle and upset interviewees as part of the process. In the opening, for example, the questions transition rapidly between divergent subjects and the types of presumed answers, starting with the objective yes/no of “Have you ridden in a streetcar?” to the unconnected and more subjective “Can you describe the taste of bread?” From the very beginning of the interview, there is no logic and no discernable connection between question topics.

Rekdal also uses pacing and lineation to emphasize the upset and disorientation of the interview process. The poem’s first three lines are whole questions, each line ending with a question mark, a steady and somewhat predictable pattern. In the fourth line, however, Rekdal begins to employ enjambment, running questions over line breaks, and even combining more than one question in a single sentence. The effect at first is confusion—what exactly is each question asking when the line break suspends or delays full comprehension, as in “Have you ever touched a stranger’s face / as he slept?”? The questions pile up, joined only by a comma as they shift wildly from questions about street directions to “what is the fruit / your mother ate before she bore you” until the confusion and pace become anxiety-provoking. It’s a breathless act even to read along, much less recall and construct answers. Keeping in mind that these questions were likely being asked in a foreign or unfamiliar language to nervous detainees, the impossibility of successfully navigating the interview is overwhelmingly evident.

Rekdal further emphasizes the inhumanity of this interrogation by highlighting the emotional manipulation inherent in details that comprise the inquiry—the way questions touch on immigrant trauma and seek to trap the interviewees into self-implication. Questions about family members, weddings, and even the deaths of loved ones seem designed to provoke and upset—“did your brother die / from starvation, work, or murder?”—while others seem calculated to evoke feelings of culpability and shame: “Did you sleep with that man / for money? Did you sleep with that man / for love?” Even if an immigrant were to correctly answer this disparate group of inquiries, ranging from where “joss houses” are located and what tea costs to what “a bucket and a hammer” weigh, it’s hard to imagine recovering from the emotional devastation of being asked to recall parents and children from whom they were likely separated. The final lines of the poem—“How many steps did you take / when you finally left her? / How far did you walk / before you looked back?”—twist the knife, reminding the interviewee of all they have left and insinuating that the leaving may have done lightly. The poem’s structure and organization provoke a dispirited exhaustion in me at the end, only a fraction of what victims of these interrogations must have felt.

The Chinese characters 有 識 from the poem’s title come from one of hundreds of poems inscribed by detainees on the walls of Angel Island, a detail that piqued my interest when I first read Rekdal’s description of her project, “West: A Translation.” Although my family and I have camped on Angel Island for years, and my daughter has been on at least two school field trips there, I knew little of these poems. Rekdal’s project has become a portal for my own education, and it is enlightening to use the poem as a jumping-off point for research into this still-living piece of history. The Smithsonianoffers a primer on the Chinese Exclusion Act, Angel Island, and the poems; there are photos of the original carvings available on the Re-Imaging Migration website; the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation is a deep resource with maps of detainee barracks and several translations of the original poems; and this short film discusses the history of Angel Island, the discovery of the poems, and the experiences of immigrants. I look forward to the publication of Rekdal’s project to continue my education.

Start the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.