A brilliant second collection by Sally Wen Mao on the violence of the spectaclestarring the film legend Anna May Wong
In Oculus, Sally Wen Mao explores exile not just as a matter of distance and displacement but as a migration through time and a reckoning with technology. The title poem follows a nineteen-year-old girl in Shanghai who uploaded her suicide onto Instagram. Other poems cross into animated worlds, examine robot culture, and haunt a necropolis for electronic waste. A fascinating sequence spanning the collection speaks in the voice of the international icon and first Chinese American movie star Anna May Wong, who travels through the history of cinema with a time machine, even past her death and into the future of film, where she finds she has no progeny. With a speculative imagination and a sharpened wit, Mao powerfully confronts the paradoxes of seeing and being seen, the intimacies made possible and ruined by the screen, and the many roles and representations that women of color are made to endure in order to survive a culture that seeks to consume them.
|Product dimensions:||6.80(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.50(d)|
About the Author
Sally Wen Mao is the author of a previous poetry collection, Mad Honey Symposium. Her work has won a Pushcart Prize and fellowships at Kundiman, George Washington University, and the New York Public Library Cullman Center.
Read an Excerpt
Forgive me if the wind stole the howl from my mouth and whipped it against your windowpanes.
When I lived, I wanted to be seen.
I built this mansion made of windows for my prince and me. He feinted,
I knocked — we were apparitions of splendor.
Our dining hall was the Santa Maria Novella.
Our bedroom was the Izumo Shrine.
Our study, a study in tension. Books slid off the buttresses. We bluffed a life together on this mattress. When I kissed him,
I kissed a marble statue. It was Apollo,
it was Krishna, it was Ra. Monitor lizards wandered through the empty halls.
The pianola a stronghold for tarantulas.
We relied on our plasma television to pull us back to the world again.
Downstairs, the curtains parted, exposing us to the wolves above. We beamed our searchlights onto them. Soon a Technicolor wilderness surrounded us. Turquoise stags watched us shave with electric razors. We built new barricades between ourselves. Our bathroom,
a wallpaper of scars. After he fled the premises, I unearthed my binoculars before the mansion was razed. That was the last time I trusted a body that touched me.
All a ghost wants is to be chained to a place, to someone who can't forget her. Every day I try to fight my own brokenness. But once you are forgotten,
it's not so bad: a heart broken joins another chorus. Can you hear the chorus speak? Can you bear it? The words of apparitions do not belong to a language. They flit over pines, meaningless,
and shed their skins in your hands.
Before I wake, I peruse the dead girl's live
photo feed. Days ago, she uploaded
her confessions: I can't bear the sorrow
captions her black eyes, gaps across a face
luminescent as snow. I can't bear the snow —
how it falls, swells over the bridges,
under my clothes, yet I can't be held
or beheld here, in this barren warren,
this din of ruined objects, peepholes into boring
scandals. Stockings roll high past hems
as I watch the videos of her boyfriend, cooing:
behave, darling, so I can make you my wife.
How the dead girl fell, awaiting a hand to hold,
eyes to behold her as the lights clicked on
and she posed for her picture, long eyelashes
all wet, legs tapered, bright as thorns.
Her windows overlook Shanghai, curtains drawn
to cast a shadow over the Huangpu River,
frozen this year into a dry, bloodless
stalk. Why does the light in the night
promise so much? She wiped her lens
before she died. The smudge still lives.
I saw it singe the edge of her bed.
Soon it swallowed the whole burning city.
A man celebrates erstwhile conquests,
his book locked in a silo, still in print.
I scribble, make Sharpie lines, deface its text like it defaces me. Outside, grain
fields whisper. Marble lions are silent yet silver-tongued, with excellent teeth.
In this life I have worshipped so many lies.
Then I workshop them, make them better.
An East India Company, an opium trade,
a war, a treaty, a concession, an occupation,
a man parting the veil covering a woman's face, his nails prying her lips open. I love
the fragility of a porcelain bowl. How easy it is, to shatter chinoiserie, like the Han
dynasty urn Ai Weiwei dropped in 1995.
If only recovering the silenced history
is as simple as smashing its container: book,
bowl, celadon spoon. Such objects cross
borders the way our bodies never could.
Instead, we're left with history, its blonde
dust. That bowl is unbreakable. All its ghosts still shudder through us like small breaths.
The tome of hegemony lives on, circulates in our libraries, in our bloodstreams. One day,
a girl like me may come across it on a shelf,
pick it up, read about all the ways her body
is a thing. And I won't be there to protect her, to cross the text out and say: go ahead —
touches flare little moths
faraway clavicles ribs
a pornography live
electrodes touch your internet through your clothes
for kinesthetic toes
next to the lifeless reefs
chafe the skin
maybe I'll spend the rest
of my life
with my remote control under the never-ending sun
paradisiacal goggles my VR headset
for our millennium
we'll live and love forever
by the sea that will never drown us
in the wellness shore
and the undulating rice fields where all touch gives pleasure
all touch is welcome
and nothing will hurt
and nothing will bruise
This is not an ode. February's ice razor scalps
the gingko trees, their hair pulled skyward
like the ombre roots
of young women. March harrows
us mottled girls. Vernal equinox:
a hare harries the chicks, hurries
behind wet haystacks. Livestock.
Gnats. The glue-traps are gone.
March, ladies. March for your dignity.
March for your happiness. March, a muss
of lidless eyes. In the forest, a handsome man pisses,
puissant, luminary's ink leaking on trees.
Penury I furl into the craven lens, in its mirror, a pulse:
webcam where I kiss my witnesses.
They watch and watch and watch the butcher
cut, the surgeon mend, they watch the glade
of crushed femora, they watch my dorsal fin,
they watch my scales dart across the cutting
board. They watch the way I open, flinch, bent
against the wind that beheads the nimbuses.
Or April's turning toward ecstatic sob — departure.
Networks freeze, all sloe, all ice. Transmitters
falter. The cicatrix soaped, cilia and pus rubbed raw. No machine. I dare
my witnesses to stick their pencils on me.
Do they marvel at a conquest —
blue flesh and gills. Do they think of me as soiled or new soil. Do they take notes in their medical
journals. Am I their inspiration — O Vesalius, god
of anatomy, is that why they ask so softly for my name.
After I am dead, I will hunt you
day and night. Pixelated ghosts
will haunt your ears. Trees will crack
under my digital weight.
In a minute my arrest
will go live, handcuff you to your bed.
It's starting: I watch you watch me.
I watch you lurk me, my starling,
it rolls: I'm the beggar. I shake the train —
gyrate, move, bare my shoulders, they come
for me, jostle and flay.
I am a fish and a pariah
drying in my oubliette.
Release me — share me, my shards
and my innards —
reduce me to a watering hole
for your thirst. Thrash
against my pincers. Undo
yourself, let the oculus
burn through my clothes, record
every mistake I make.
I feed you my limbs
in this glass container. I limn
you with this fodder
and you taste.
In December 2012, a father from Queens, Ki Suk Han, was pushed into the train tracks of an oncoming Q train.
This poem is for his daughter, Ashley Han.
The cover of the magazine. I throw it open.
I throw it out. THIS MAN, announces the headline. THIS MAN IS ABOUT TO —
Blood broadcasts the story. Noise rakes
the story and pummels it to the ground until there's nothing left. No story. No man.
No wife and daughter, no life in Queens.
His daughter doesn't speak. She closes her eyes, and her lids sear the whites beneath.
At the press conference, she hides her hands
inside her hoodie. All the cameras. They point,
they shoot — she reels, she shatters.
A year later I will meet her. We will walk down West 4th,
MacDougal, under the arches on a crisp October day. We will eat crepes in the East Village,
watch a man play piano in the square.
She will talk about her father — the story
of all our lives — how she didn't have the chance to connect with him fully, and then suddenly —
it was the story of none of our lives —
and she was 21, an only child, with her father's
fate on a magazine cover, piled in grocery stores across America, in low-res, high-res,
the pixels blurred like smudges on skin.
For now, it is December. The shadows on the platforms
elongate. I have not yet met her. I turn off the television,
afraid of its heft, its volume, its relationship to gravity.
Lately, I can't go underground without shielding
my body with my hands. The train whines and goes. The stories about our lives do not have faces.
Provenance: A Vivisection
"[The Bodies exhibition] is a redemocratization. The human body is the last remaining nature in a man-made environment."
— Gunther von Hagens
You, you are a factory of muscle. You, you are an empire of polymer. I recognize myself
in your face, your posture, your severed epiglottis. Take it off. Take it all off for us to see: first the clothes,
then the epidermis, then your mouth,
your country, your context. Provenance:
a chronology of ownership —
all tautology, for none of our emissaries have uncovered the tampered body's histories. The prophet calculates
the profits. Exhibit A: Hottentot Venus,
1810. Pregnant woman from village X,
reclining nude in lit interior. Excision —
watch the womb peeled back,
see what milkless plastic the baby suckles, how he crows against the vernix
of his mother's plastic gluetrap. Baby,
do you dream of trapezes? Baby, do you choke on the inchoate cloud?
Gunther von Hagens was born in Poland,
January 1945. That season, snow shuddered everywhere and ashes too descended from crematoriums onto frozen glades.
The Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet wrote to his wife from prison: even at the dump our atoms will fall side by side.
Tired fires cleaved through cities, rivers choked on human glands. Hemophilia wracked von Hagens' childhood: blood scissored out at every gust. Decades later, he invented plastination to tame the rogue artery.
He became Doctor, curator of skulls,
Inventor, perfecter of preservation:
it takes three years to plastinate an elephant.
Two for a horse. Just one for a man.
You, you are my clout, menagerie.
When I imagine your bedroom positions, you will enact my fantasies.
In my dreams, I ask you to stop licking your pelt, whip you like an elder god.
Your fats, sternums, orifices
will educate us, provide the jolt for a Sunday afternoon. Soil yourself and I'll be the one to wipe you,
I'll be the one to flense your skin.
Exhibit B: Chang and Eng, 1829.
Exhibit C: Afong Moy, 1834.
Exhibit D: Ota Benga, St. Louis World Fair, 1904. It's a simple exchange. We will pay for you.
Your hanging organs — our garden.
Gelatins astound us, fill us with relief for what we have: golden hearts
that rouge the very air around.
Lungs that breathe. Gills that sing.
We are an abattoir of gratitude.
This is a fatty market. It blooms a corpulent flower. Body suppliers. Rafflesia. Rapeseed. Boom,
boom, drones the Dalian corpse plant. Production line: technicians dehydrate faces, bones, cartilage,
soak the cadavers in pink effluvia.
Autopsy hour — watch the fatty tissues sap,
seep, curdle. Watch the sticky plastic pump into their ribs, ravish them. Kiss the cadaver
with a scalpel. Knives pare their eyes. Bad pears:
cores swarm with gnats, millipedes, wormseeds.
Insects coil over their golden flesh. Their mouths are blood diamonds. Rumor has it,
the world is gorging on Chinese secrets.
Cover this wound before the flies find it.
Sir, I look at you through your vitreous blue eyes, and your shorn life passes through me in one thrush. Boy who flunked his college
entrance exams. Man who ate abalone from the can. How were you punished?
With bullwhips and jellyfish stings?
You died not long ago: I can tell by the way your ligaments curl. Have you traveled as far in your life as you've toured
posthumously, torqued in a prison of cryogenic light? Amsterdam. Paris.
New York: what does it mean, anyway —
the provenance of a corpse? Who may possess the body — spirit, demon, man, enterprise?
You cannot exorcise the black
market from the body, though I want to smash that slipshod glass, obliterate the price on your head. I want to wreck the paraffin
that suspends your dancing spine in the air.
I scratch the cage, wipe your name in pellucid bones. When they kick me
out, I search for you in my father's face and find you in my son's. Pittsburgh's highways soliloquize your anonymity,
your face on the billboard a marvel.
You gaze at my city with your pupils sealed. Wherever I go now, you follow.
Thief of my skin, you can arrange my bones so I fly,
a raptor — you can cure my meat, summon the flies in summer. My body is my crypt, your masterpiece.
Turkey vultures scare the stratosphere searching for carrion, follow the scent in my limbs,
its feral suet. My name does not end in fury.
I'd rather you blow my alien bits into a black hole than keep me here, intact and jaundiced. So please,
I ask: incinerate me. Let the sky be my open grave.
The Toll of the Sea
The first successful two-color (red and green) Technicolor feature, a retelling of Madame Butterfly starring Anna May Wong (1922)
GREEN means go, so run — now —
GREEN the color of the siren sea, whose favors are a mortgage upon the soul
RED means stop, before the cliffs jag downward
RED the color of the shore that welcomes
WHITE the color of the man washed ashore, from his shirt to his pants to his brittle shoes
WHITE the color of the screen before Technicolor
WHITE the color of the master narrative
GREEN the color of the ocean, so kind, not leaving a stain on the white shirt
GREEN the color of the girl, so kind — but why?
She speaks: Alone in my garden I heard the cry of wind and wave
In the green girl's garden, the stranger clamps her, asks:
How would you like to go to America? A lie, soaked in the
RED of the chokecherries that turn brown in the heat
RED the color of the roses that spy
RED the color of their fake marriage
WHITE the color of the white man's frown
She asks: Is it great lark or great sparrow you call those good times in America?
GREEN the color of his departure
WHITE the color of the counterfeit letters she sends to herself
WHITE the color of their son
WHITE the color of erasure
RED the color of the lost footage
RED the sea that swallows our stories
RED the color of the girl who believed the roses
RED the color of the ocean that drowns the girl
RED the color of the final restoration
In every story, there is a Technicolor screen: black / white / red / green
In every story, there is a chance to restore the color
If we recover the flotsam, can we rewrite the script?
Alone in a stranger's garden, I run — I forge a desert with my own arms
BLUE the color of our recovered narrative
BLUE the color of the siren sea, which refuses to keep a white shirt spotless
BLUE the color of our reclaimed Pacific
BLUE the ocean that drowns the liars
BLUE the shore where the girl keeps living
There she rises, on the opposite shore
There she awakens — prismatic, childless, free —
Shorn of the story that keeps her kneeling
BLUE is the opposite of sacrifice
Anna May Wong on Silent Films
It is natural to live in an era
when no one uttered —
and silence was glamour
so I could cast one glance westward
and you'd know what I was going to kill. Murder in my gaze,
treachery in my movements:
if I bared the grooves in my spine, made my lust known,
the reel would remind me
that someone with my face could never be loved.
How did you expect my characters
to react? In so many shoots,
I was brandishing a dagger.
The narrative was enchanting
enough to make me believe I, too, could live in a white
palace, smell the odorless gardens,
relieve myself on their white petals. To be a star in Sun City —
to be first lady on the celluloid
screen — I had to marry my own cinematic death.
I never wept audibly — I saw my
sisters in the sawmills,
reminded myself of my good luck.
Even the muzzle over my mouth
could not kill me, though I never slept soundly through the silence.
Anna May Wong Fans Her Time Machine
I've tried so hard to erase myself.
That iconography — my face in Technicolor, the manta ray
eyelashes, the nacre and chignon.
I'll bet four limbs they'd cast me as another Mongol slave. I will blow a hole
in the airwaves, duck lasers in my dugout.
I'm done kidding them. Today I fly the hell out in my Chrono-Jet.
To the future, where I'm forgotten.
Where surely no one gives a fuck who I kiss: man, woman, or goldfish.
In the blustering garden where I was fed compliments like you are our golden apple and you are our yellow star, I lost
my lust for luster. They'd smile, fuck me over for someone else: ringletted women with sloping eyelids played the Chinese
cynosure, every time. Ursa Minor, you never warned me: all my life I've been minor,
played the strumpet, the starved one.
I was taproot and crook. How I've hunched down low, wicked girl, until this good earth swallowed me raw. Take me now, dear comet,
to the future, where surely I'll play some girl from L.A., the unlikely heroine who breaks up the brawl, saving everyone.
Anna May Wong Goes Home with Bruce Lee
We meet while he's filming The Orphan.
My young skin gleams. I'm in the future,
1960. My real self is alive somewhere,
but I've jinxed my own time machine to find him. The bar sweats, sweet with salt, conk,
lacquer. The jukebox plays "Chain Gang."
We were born in the same golden state, surrounded by cameras, chimeras for our other selves. He admits
some applause can be cruel, then steals a kiss.
Only he knows this terror — of casting so huge a shadow over a million invisible faces. The silver of our eyes dims them, and for that I don't forgive
myself. But Bruce understands. He knows the same shame. On the dance floor, he cups the small of my back, his hands cold like gauntlets.
I like how he describes a machete. How he hooks his digits with my incisors, how he rips the skin off bad memories, with just one lip, bloody apple,
and one battle has me pinned, saddled, on my spine.
In the aftermath, he reads me his poems — "Though the Night Was Made for Loving" and "Walking along
the Bank of Lake Washington"— and kisses me with both eyes open, staring straight into me.
At this time, my heart dead, little pigeon buried
beside the torn twig. He asks me to take him with me, to the future. It's the only place we can live together, he ventures. I want to say yes. I want to let
the flush flood us and take him there, our own happy ending. But instead I say, It's not ours to keep.
Instead, I kiss him. I bury his silence with my mouth.
Excerpted from "Oculus"
Copyright © 2019 Sally Wen Mao.
Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Provenance: A Vivisection,
The Toll of the Sea,
Anna May Wong on Silent Films,
Anna May Wong Fans Her Time Machine,
Anna May Wong Goes Home with Bruce Lee,
Anna May Wong Has Breakfast at Tiffany's,
Anna May Wong Blows Out Sixteen Candles,
Close Encounters of the Liminal Kind,
The Mongolian Cow Sour Yogurt Super Voice Girl,
Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles,
The Diary of Afong Moy,
Anna May Wong Meets Josephine Baker,
Anna May Wong Makes Cameos,
Anna May Wong Rates the Runway,
Anna May Wong Dreams of Wong Kar-Wai,
Anna May Wong Stars as Cyborg #86,
Anna May Wong Goes Viral,
Ghost in the Shell,
Dirge with Cutlery and Furs,
Yume Miru Kikai [The Dreaming Machine],
The Five Faces of Faye Valentine,
The Death of Ruan Lingyu,
After Nam June Paik,