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The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882

Let not those who deny thee to us,
make of thee a graven image and invite us
to bow down to it

writes Saum Song Bo. He says, graven, an idol beyond us
stone or steel, unalive

he says deny, foot barely on shore, spun around, go home

How to escape exclusion, keep one step ahead of the tiger’s teeth
snapping at your heels?

He says those, their Central Pacific dreams of gold rumbling along
on a bed of a thousand Chinese lives

the traincar rhythm not/your/tired/your/poor, your/tired
your/poor, not/the/tempest/tossed, the/tempest/tossed

not the yearning/yearning/yearning to breathe free
a chant hammered into gospel, sung out loud, written in ink

sealed into law, so easy, it’s always been.

(Saum Song Bo aspired to be a U.S. citizen. From a letter, 1885.)

Denise Bergman is author of Seeing Annie Sullivan (Cedar Hill Books, 2005), poems based on the early life of Helen Keller’s teacher, and the editor of an anthology of urban poetry, City River Voices (West End Press, 1992).

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