In the voices of the ambitious “West,” Utah Poet Laureate Paisley Rekdal is writing a soundtrack to a distinctively American story.
By Ellen Fagg Weist | Photography by Austen Diamond
If you know where to look, the ghosts of Chinese workers appear everywhere on Utah’s Transcontinental Railroad byway.
On a warm November morning, I’m standing with poet Paisley Rekdal in what was once the bustling town of Terrace in rural Box Elder County. Some 1,000 people lived here during the early 19th century, when this was the largest railroad maintenance town on the Central Pacific’s Promontory Branch line.
We’re scouring the desert for artifacts here where the abandoned railroad route is still visibly etched in the land. Our guide, archaeologist Christopher Merritt, points to the east where a thriving Chinatown once was home to as many as 500 people. The shadow history buried here makes this a perfect spot to yield material for Rekdal’s new poem, “West.”
CHAPTER ONE: ‘WE DO NOT RIDE ON THE RAILROAD; IT RIDES UPON US’
Rekdal, Utah’s poet laureate, was commissioned to write a poem as one of the artistic centerpieces for Spike 150 celebrations. This spring, Utah is throwing a $2 million party, with events, art performances and exhibits all over the state. [See https://spike150.org/events for event dates and times.] An Utah Museum of Fine Arts exhibition is even displaying the original gold spike driven at Utah’s Promontory Summit on May 10, 1896, which capped one of America’s most remarkable nation-building feats.
“I think they were expecting a three- or four-stanza poem,” says Rekdal, a longtime Utah transplant. “I think that would be great, too, but it’s become a massive project.” A massive project, that is, in the form of a sonnet cycle that she plans to perform with recordings and visual projections.
Nearly a year into the project, Rekdal has accumulated more than 80 pages of research notes and an idea for the structure for her train book, anchored by a spine of 35 sonnets. “I’ve read every poem written about trains in America,” she says with trademark wry humor. “Believe me, it wasn’t fun.”
The only problem? Just like the students she teaches at the University of Utah, she’s got a lot of ideas, the terror of looming deadlines, a day job, another book deadline, and — on this morning — not yet one finished poem.
The poet is aiming to translate — and amplify — the voices of the railroad’s workers as she mines history to create art. The poem’s themes, rooted in a time when the railroad was built across a divided country in the traumatic aftermath of the Civil War and President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, seem doubly resonant as American politicians are again so loudly divided.
In a separate project, Rekdal was invited by Philadelphia-based composer Tony Solitro to write the libretto for a short opera, one of four commissioned by the Utah Opera to mark the railroad anniversary. “Burial” unfolds a fictionalized version of a contemporary news story about the conflicts that arose in a small Nevada town after forgotten graves of Chinese railroad workers were uncovered.
But for now, you can set aside talk of building walls or debates about immigration policy.
On this morning, Rekdal is chasing the railroad’s shadow history. On this morning, the writer is chasing ghosts.
CHAPTER TWO: ‘WE CANNOT COUNT OR NAME THE DEAD.’
Earlier in the SUV as we’re heading north, Rekdal explains she was planning to list the names of the Chinese workers in her poem. But she quickly learned that the railroads hadn’t kept accurate payroll records.
Most of the names of the 15,000 to 20,000 laborers — nine out of every 10 workers who built the Central Pacific Railroad line were Chinese — have been lost to history. Workers were listed on payroll records under the name John Chinaman, an insult suggesting that all Chinese men looked alike.
So instead of names, Rekdal selected three refrains, including this from Henry David Thoreau: “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.”
She’s recording those refrains spoken in the languages of the laborers, maintenance workers and indigenous people who were displaced by the train. She sought Chinese voices and Irish and Polish and Greek and Shoshoni and others, as well as the voices of descendants of contract Mormon and African-American railroad workers.
“You’re going to get to hear the dialects and accents,” says Rekdal of the recordings she’ll weave through her short performances, at Salt Lake Acting Company in early May and then at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. She wants the reader to imagine herself part of the railroad’s creation, to feel what the labor demanded of its workers.
She hopes these voices will create a soundtrack as distinctive as the clank of a steam engine’s wheels striking iron rails.
CHAPTER THREE: AN ELEGY FOR WHAT WAS LOST
Graffiti gave Rekdal the structural foundation of her poem. On the freeway as we pass the exit for Corrine, the town once considered the “Gentile Capital of Utah,” Rekdal explains her literary obsession with Chinese poems found at Angel Island, a squalid early 20th-century San Francisco immigration center.
It was like a Chinese Ellis Island, but immigrants were forced to stay for weeks or months or years. And the place was grim, with conditions that might be closer to today’s border detention centers. While awaiting interrogations, people whiled away long, hopeless days carving poems into the walls.
One poem found buried under layers of paint was a lament addressed to a late railroad worker who had failed in America. The narrator is mourning and considering the ritual of wrapping the worker’s bones to send them back to his homeland for burial.
The poem is an elegy for lost dreams for all the people caught between life and death, ambition and failure, their homeland in China and their adopted homes in America, Rekdal says. She’s using translations of Chinese characters from that poem as anchors for each section of “West.” The metaphor of translation — across history, across cultures, across languages — will be one of the main themes of the work.
“I never thought I’d have much to say about a train,” Rekdal posted on Facebook a month later. “But it turns out, if you’re interested in writing about race, class, gender, violence, sexuality, technology, automatons, labor, capitalism, the environment & genocide, the transcontinental may be your subject.”
CHAPTER FOUR: WHY THE HISTORY BEHIND THE HISTORIC PHOTO MATTERS
What most Americans remember about the five deadly, expensive years crews spent building the first nation-spanning railroad line are two Hollywood-ready episodes.
There are the dangerous accounts of workers blasting tunnels through Northern California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. And then there are the celebratory tales that led to one of the country’s most famous historic photos. Union Pacific Railroad photographer Andrew Russell’s camera captured the Champagne-pouring moment when the Union Pacific No. 119 and the Jupiter locomotives met.
Owners and dignitaries and engineers were included in the photo’s frame. Not pictured are the Chinese, Irish and other hard-working laborers who performed the work of laying the rails. In recent decades, their American descendants have worked to expand the focus of history books to include their back-breaking contributions.
To understand why the story of the Chinese railroad workers matters, you need to know what happened after the word “DONE” rang across the newly completed telegraph line threaded alongside the railroad tracks.
Here’s the backstory: American laborers mostly didn’t want to work on the Central Pacific Railroad, because they were more interested in striking it rich in the California gold fields. At first, railroad managers were reluctant to hire Chinese crews until the bosses realized they had struck it rich, labor-wise.
Bosses quickly learned that Chinese immigrants, many driven from their homeland due to a devastating civil war, were hard-working and ingenious. Quickly, the railroad companies turned to recruiting more and more Chinese workers.
In the American West, the Chinese lived in segregated camps, and were even charged rent for unheated tents. They stayed healthy eating rice, tea, and dried vegetables — in marked contrast to the drunken “Hell on Wheels” brothels and saloons in the camps that sprang up along the Union Pacific Railroad line — although they did indulge in smoking opium at private gatherings.
After the Transcontinental was finished, some of the Chinese crews were hired to maintain the route. But their success sparked fears that immigrants were taking American jobs. That threat led to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred Chinese immigrants from citizenship — a discriminatory law that wasn’t repealed until 1943.
CHAPTER FIVE: CHINESE CULTURE, SHAPED BY IMMIGRATION LAW
Like most Americans, Rekdal wasn’t taught in history classes about the Chinese laborers who were instrumental in building the West, or about how the Exclusion Act led to decades of discrimination against Chinese-Americans.
Rekdal’s railroad research has helped her understand more about her American-born mother and grandmother’s people, who didn’t work on the railroad but were also marginalized in other manual labor fields.
“For me, this is a fairly personal story because so many of my family members on my mom’s side of the family came over looking for work and had so many of the same concerns,” she says.
Rekdal thought her scores of “paper uncles” were based on her mother’s fluid sense of family, until she realized it was “Chinese culture, shaped by immigration law.”
After the Chinese Exclusion Act passed, illegal immigrants turned to buying forged identity papers detailing their blood ties to American relatives. Others conveniently claimed their birth certificates were burned in the fires that swept through San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake.
These transfluences of public and private history offer a backdrop to reconsider what the Transcontinental Railroad means. A railroad route connecting the country didn’t mean just one thing, Rekdal says. It represented freedom of movement. It represented employment and a chance to escape Southern racism. It was a testament to American progress, ingenuity and unity, at the same time it led to the loss of land and loss of game — even genocide — for Native Americans.
Rekdal, 48, grew up in Seattle, the daughter of a Chinese-American mother and a Norwegian-American father. She was studying to become a medieval scholar, before she found herself, like literary alchemy, transforming her research into poems. Later, she changed focus to earn an MFA in poetry.
Identity, and its shifting, conflicting nature, is one of the themes in her body of work, which includes her sixth poetry collection, “Nightingale,” to be released this spring. (She’s also published three award-winning nonfiction books, “The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee,” the photo-memoir, “Intimate,” and the lyric argument, “The Broken Country: On Trauma, a Crime, and the Continuing Legacy of Vietnam.”)
Her poem, Four Marys, was selected for the 2019 edition of Best American Poetry collection, her fifth selection in the annual series, and her work has won Guggenheim, Fulbright and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships. She moved to Utah in 2003, and was named by Gov. Gary Herbert as the state’s poetry ambassador in 2017.
Rekdal is a “thinker who can really sing,” says Craig Morgan Teicher, a poet and critic, who calls her “a very, very good poet who should be better known.” He labels her upcoming “Nightingale” poems as “equal parts gorgeous minor key music and cold-eyed analysis.”
CHAPTER SIX: THE SHADOW HISTORY OF ‘WEST’
On the ground in this ghost Chinatown, Rekdal and I find china shards, the lid of an opium tin, colored glass and a button. “The archaeological record is like a book,” Merritt says. “These artifacts are really the only text of where they lived, what they ate, what they did for recreation.”
Much of the railroad traffic on this line was rerouted after the Great Salt Lake Causeway was built across the lake in 1904, while the route’s steel and iron rails were removed before World War II. Yet this area is so undeveloped that the view south to the lake appears similar to what early train travelers might have seen, Merritt says, after reading a description from a 1872 guidebook.
“When you get people onto the landscape that they built through, the landscape they encountered, you get the real bread-and-butter of the story,” he says. “It shows you what they built, how they lived, what they ate, the weather conditions they were exposed to. To me, the experiential part is as important as the historical narrative. I want you to see the jackrabbits. I want you to hear the silence.”
This morning, we’ve crawled inside dugouts anchored with old railroad ties. We’ve walked under wooden trestles and through stone culverts engineered 150 years ago by railroad workers.
Merritt points to the Grouse Creek Mountains, explaining that maintenance crews buried trunks of redwood trees deep in the ground to create a 13-mile water aqueduct to feed the steam engines and town residents. Now it’s a ghost pipeline.
These images will show up in Rekdal’s sonnet “Terrace,” the title taken from the name of the Utah ghost town. In a literary coincidence, terrace also happens to be one of the Chinese words found in the original Angel Island poem as the narrator gazes homeward.
The idea of shadow stories left behind in the landscape seems metaphorically rich, another form of translation. “In Cantonese culture,” Rekdal tells me later, “there are many words for white people, and one of them translates to ghosts.”
“This is one of the few times in my life where I feel as if I’m in the right place at the right time,” Rekdal says. “I think I do actually have something to say. I really want to do this well. I want to do the subject justice.”
Paisley Rekdal will read from her poem, “West: A Translation,” at Salt Lake Acting Company May 6 and 7, before staged readings of David Henry Hwang’s “The Dance and the Railroad,” based on the Chinese railroad workers’ strike of 1867.
View the contemporary art exhibition Transcontinental: People, Place, Impact at the Rio Gallery, 300 S. Rio Grande St., Salt Lake City. Artist reception April 19, 6-9 p.m. Through June 14. Daytime hours. Free.