Poems: Teow Lim Goh

From China Mary


                            Evanston, Wyoming, 1869

Down by the river, I watch the water
crest into waves and crash on rocks, spitting
bits of froth into the air. On the banks
the trees are starting to bud, flashing a hint
of green in this bare land. Spring melt,
I’ve heard people say, from the mountains
that soared over the trail I took here, blue
in the distance and their peaks still gleaming
with snow. Bear River, they call these waters,
really a cub compared to the oceans
of my youth. I watch the waves crest and flow
toward dreams I cannot yet see, singing
of journeys across this desert of sage
and rock and bringing me farther from home.



Some nights I wonder how I got here, these desert
badlands where taking a breath feels like shards

in my lungs. I live in a shack by the river
and I wander where I wish. There is no other

Chinese woman in town, nor have I seen the kind
of white woman who shivers at the sight of

debauchery. I tried to make good – I lost a man
in Park City, a mine blast, I could not even

find his body to bury. I cooked for the Pony
Express but they let a man take my place, though

I spoke English and he did not. So I returned
to my old profession. A customer told me

about the railroad they are building across
the country, something about a sea and shining

sea. So I came to Evanston, where the sun
burns in my eyes and at night, the winds bristle

through the slits in the walls. The candles flicker
and I hold my wool blankets closer to me.


The tracks run along the river and nearly
every night I wake to trains arriving
in town, steam puffing, horns blaring, steel
clashing on steel.

I close my eyes but I cannot
return to sleep, my mind rewinding
these last years, trying to forge a story
from shreds of memory.

The night is quiet again but still I feel
the weight of the steel, as if

the trains would turn back and crush me.



Black clouds blanket the evening sky and shoot
claws of lightning to the earth. I have never
seen rain like this, ceaseless grey drapes that pool
on the parched soil and spill like rivers along
the streets.
               Men huddle by the stove and pass
bottles of wine. I light a joint of opium
and fill the room with sweet smoke.

                              They tell stories
of working the railroad in the high peaks
of the Sierra, blasting rock and laying track,
sleeping in snow sheds, praying that the earth
would not crack and bury them.
                                       Years ago
some white devils tried to cross that pass but
         a blizzard trapped them in the mountains. In the spring
they were found to have eaten the flesh
         of their dead – and they call us barbarians?

         Now they hammer in some golden spike
                 and when they went to their cabins to party
         it was we who lifted that chunk of gold
                 and drove in the iron for the final strike.

 We risked our lives for their glory!

                                      They pass me
a bottle and I take a swig – I listen
to rain splatter on the roof and drip on me.


Maybe I can never leave this terrible
profession – two husbands and three towns
later I’m still selling what is left
of my youth. At least I can keep what I earn
and some of the men I consider
both customer and friend.

              They thought they’d spend
a year or two in America,
return to their families as rich men.
But they are still here, working in the mines
and the railroads, not knowing if they would see
their children again.

                       Sometimes I hold them
as if I could assure them their bodies
would never give out – but who will hold me
when my youth and beauty fade away?


Teow Lim Goh is the author of Islanders (Conundrum Press, 2016), a volume of poems on the history of Chinese exclusion at the Angel Island Immigration Station. Her work has been featured in Tin House, Catapult, PBS NewsHour, Colorado Public Radio, and The New Yorker. She lives in Denver. The ‘From China Mary’ poems above are a part of a book-length sequence of lyric-narrative poems on Chinese prostitution in the Old West. They are loosely based on the life of a woman in San Francisco and Evanston, Wyoming whose story has been largely lost to history.


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