Bridge Across The Sky: The Poems

The Poems

In their anger and despair over the conditions of their detention, Chinese immigrants imprisoned at the immigration station while their claims were being evaluated wrote poems on the walls of their barracks. If you visit the immigration station today, you can see traces of them still on the walls.

I quote many of them in the course of the novel.

Here’s a scene from early in the novel that includes a few of the actual poems written in the past by Chinese detainees (as translated by Genny Lim in Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940, second edition):


There are poems
carved on the walls,
even at the height
of my topmost bunk, even
on the windowsills
and doorframes. There are poems
where poems have already been written
and faded with the years, poems beneath
the already old paint
on the walls. They cover
every inch of space so thoroughly
that up till now, I didn’t see them
as anything more
than the mute texture
of the wood.

My reading is strong.
My mother also taught me
to read and write
our own language. My father
said it would be
important for business.
But there’s a difference
between these foreign walls
and the neat writing tablets of home.
I do my best to retrieve the words
from the background layers
of history:

I have been imprisoned on Island for seven weeks.
In addition, I do not know when I can land.
It is only because the road of life has many twists and turns
That one experiences such bitterness and sorrow.

Seven weeks? Another poem
laments that

several months have elapsed.
Still I am at the beginning of the road.
I have yet to be interrogated.

And another:

Today is the last day of winter,
Tomorrow morning is the vernal equinox.
One year’s prospects have changed to another.
Sadness kills the person in the wooden building.

The bell
announces breakfast.
Father calls to me to come.
How many meals
will we go to here? How long
before we’re cutting
our own poems into these walls,
replacing the faded verses
of the past until our own inscriptions
fade themselves, are painted over,
overwritten, and they
and we
are forgotten?

— From Bridge Across The Sky, Atheneum Books for Young Readers (Simon & Schuster).

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