Senryu : ghost poems

ghost waits for freedom
spilling words, pain carved in wood
I heard your lament

senryu by M. Nakazato LaFreniere

A response poem responds to another poem. This senryu is in response to the following poem carved on the barracks wall at Angel Island.




Random Thoughts Deep at Night

In the quiet of night, I heard, faintly, the whistling of wind.
The forms and shadows saddened me; upon seeing the landscape, I
composed a poem.
The floating clouds, the fog, darken the sky.
The moon shines faintly as the insects chirp.
Grief and bitterness entwined are heaven sent.
The sad person sits alone, leaning by a window.

(signed) Yee of Toishan

Immigration station, Angel Island, photographed in 1917, National Park Service

Angel Island rests within the San Francisco Bay and once immigrants coming into San Francisco were sent there. From 1910–1940, Angel Island was seen as the “Guardian of the Western Gate” and unlike it’s counterpart Ellis Island on the east coast, officials saw it as their duty to block Asians from immigrating, especially the Chinese. The Chinese Exclusion Act initially enacted for 10 years was extended until 1943. Many Chinese were kept on Angel Island, while officials quizzed them to determine their eligibility and the correctness of their papers. In these interrogations, the officials would even ask questions like “how many windows does your next-door neighbor have?” This detention could last weeks, months or even years before the officials made their determination.

Angel Island poems. Photo by Chris Carlsson. Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0.

In 1910, within a few months of opening, District Commisioner North complained the detention barrack walls were being defaced by graffitti. Maintenance workers would fill in the carvings with putty and repaint the walls but the detainees would carve new poems once they were done. When the facility was closed down, the word-lined walls were forgotten.

In 1963, Angel Island became a state park which led to the Ranger Weiss rediscovering the Chinese carved poems and messages carved in the old barracks. With the shifting of time, the words were now recognized as a anthropological treasure drawing scholars and tourists to the island. The prisoners/potential immigrants had spilled their fears, longings and frustrations into words onto the walls trapping them while they awaited the official verdict. Some people died during their wait, through illness or even suicide so Angel Island is known to be haunted.

Immigration station, Angel Island, c. 1915 by J.D. Givens

A museum was created in the barracks and people can read about the history of Angel Island as an immigration center and view the poems. More than 200 poems have been discovered along with other writings and images.

original photo (without senryu or additional text) from


Library of Congress

(note: also source of the Chris Carlsson photo)
Shaping San Francisco


imaginary garden with real toads

Angel Island Immigration Station History Foundation

California Parks

Angel Island State Park
California Dept of Parks and Recreation


Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910–1940, 2nd Edition
by Him Mark Lai,‎ Genny Lim,‎ and Judy Yung

Island tells these immigrants’ stories while underscoring their relevance to contemporary immigration issues. First published in 1980, this book is now offered in an updated, expanded edition including a new historical introduction, 150 annotated poems in Chinese and English translation, extensive profiles of immigrants gleaned through oral histories, and dozens of new photographs from public archives and family albums.

Disclaimer: I have signed up as an Amazon affiliate so I may get a small payment if anyone buys anything by clicking a link. The sheet said 4.5% if it’s a book. I earned $3 in August, $3 in September and $3.41 in October so not going to get rich anytime soon, lol. I think Amazon requires this next quote. “We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.”

Originally published at .



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