* "Elegiac and shot through with righteous anger, this essential collection demands a national reckoning."—Publishers Weekly, STARRED REVIEW
* "A must-have for libraries.” —Booklist, STARRED REVIEW
"A remarkable collection offering history not typically told in textbooks."—Library Journal
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.
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.
Former Utah Poet Laureate, Paisley Rekdal is the author of four works of nonfiction, including Appropriate: A Provocation, and six collections of poetry, most recently Nightingale, which won the 2020 Washington State Book Award for Poetry. She is the recipient of fellowships, grants, and prizes from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, Pushcart Press, and the Academy of American Poets, among others. A Seattle area native, Rekdal received her MA in Medieval Studies from the University of Toronto, and an MFA from the University of Michigan. Her work reflects her academic background in its frequent exploration and engagement with historical events that propel future narratives and identity politics that shape her life as an Asian American woman. She is a Distinguished Professor at the University of Utah, where she is also the creator and editor of community web projects Mapping Literary Utah and Mapping Salt Lake City.
Praise for West: A Translation
National Book Award, 2023 Longlist
"Paisley Rekdal has always been a breathtakingly ambitious poet, and this is her most ambitious book so far – a work of seamlessly blended poetry and history. In lyric poems in many forms and spoken through many voices, as well as in corresponding essays, Rekdal traces and grieves the sorrowful politics that link the building of the transcontinental railroad and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 ('Congress had to pass an act/ to make the building stop'). She excavates an American shame that has yet to be reckoned with, though this extraordinary book, which finds a fresh purpose for poetry as a reliquary of evidence, perhaps makes a start."—Craig Morgan Teicher, NPR "Books We Love 2023"
"A fluid, striking blend of poetry and essay that limns the railroad workers, the treatment of Chinese immigrants, environmental devastation, and the fate of immigrants everywhere: 'What is freedom/ butthe power to choose/ where you won’t die?'"—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal, Best Poetry of 2023
"Through these poems, readers are asked to wrestle with the complex, layered histories of race, creed, class, and gender that are all too often overlooked in monolithic presentations of America’s past and present. Elegiac and shot through with righteous anger, this essential collection demands a national reckoning."—Publishers Weekly, STARRED REVIEW
"A captivating, extensively researched book blending poetry and essays, told from the perspective of the railroad workers while focusing on the lives and treatment of Chinese migrants and the devastation to the environment during the building process. . . . A remarkable collection offering history not typically told in textbooks."—Library Journal
“Rekdal mixes the documentary and the speculative to assemble a wide range of histories that originated in the transcontinental railroad. Another way of saying this is that Rekdal deploys the formal techniques of appropriation, collage, and speculation to translate the silences of the archive. . . . In a sense, West is a book of ghosts—not the white-sheeted apparitions of the popular imagination but specters of the past that flicker imperceptibly in the present, shaping our lives in ways we cannot grapple with until we recognize them.”—Teow Lim Goh, Los Angeles Review of Books
"In West, Rekdal elaborately translates an elegy carved into a wall at Angel Island Immigration Station (where at least five hundred thousand Chinese migrants were detained between 1910–1940) through poetry, essay, video, and fragments of historical records to offer a complex and nuanced portrait of the American West. As much a research project as a work of literature, West reveals the layered histories and overlapping narratives of the region and its peoples. For Paisley, the triumphalism that marked the railroad’s construction often overshadows the histories of violence, exploitation, and discrimination that continue to reverberate into the present day."—Kenneth Tam, BOMB
"West: A Translation is a hybrid collection of poems and lyric essays inspired by an anonymous carving at a detention center in San Francisco eulogizing a Chinese migrant who died there by suicide. Informed by historical artifacts and her own family’s history, Rekdal presents a translation of the anonymous poem followed by “notes” that contextualize the completion of the first transcontinental railroad, built during the Chinese Exclusion Act."—National Book Award Longlist Citation
"Reflects on American unity and division in poems that adopt multiple voices, languages, and forms and are juxtaposed with historical images."—Publishers Weekly, Spring 2023 Announcements
"The powerful latest poetry and essay collection by Utah poet laureate Rekdal tells the story of the transcontinental railroad through the voices of the workers who built it. . . . Each piece offers a unique and evocative perspective, portraying migrant workers, railroad tycoons, labor activists, and politicians, among many others. . . . There is an accompanying website with companion videos and audio to enhance an already immersive and stunning collection. A must-have for libraries."—Allison Escoto, Booklist, STARRED REVIEW
"A daring and serious attempt to move from a work of online art to a book, pushing at the inherited limitations of both."—Jesse Nathan, McSweeney's
"Rekdal forges a meaningful intersection of translation and documentary poetics. Rekdal’s essays and the companion website further contextualize and complicate, but it is the poems themselves that reveal the magnitude of this history."—Rebecca Morgan Frank, Harriet Books at the Poetry Foundation
"Part oral history, part 'translation,' in which [Rekdal] turns the American sentence into a document of witness."—Diane Mehta, Electric Lit
Praise for Paisley Rekdal
“[Rekdal] [m]akes us feel and see the complicated and violent nature of the issue of race and identity. Rekdal writes with eloquence, liveliness, and poignancy—a truly impressive achievement.”—Ha Jin
“Rekdal is relentlessly heartbreaking and intense, but also full of the pleasures of closely observed detail and imagination given free rein.”—Publishers Weekly
“Compelling, appealing, cinematic . . . Rekdal refreshes the meaning and the image of being displaced in this world.”—The Boston Globe
“Rekdal's work deeply satisfies, for it witnesses and wonders over the necessary struggles of human awareness and being.”—Rain Taxi
“In acknowledging the disappointing facts of our existence and singing her way into its amazement, she has created poetry that lives alongside the misery we sometimes witness—and sometimes cause.”—Slate
“The razor’s edge that always accompanies eros that makes the poems of Paisley Rekdal fresh, intense and ultimately irresistible.”—Jay Robinson
“The paradox of intimacy and distance can be found woven throughout Rekdal’s work.” —Salt Lake Tribune