by Sally Wen Mao


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A brilliant second collection by Sally Wen Mao on the violence of the spectacle—starring 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.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

There are eyes everywhere in Oculus, but not all of them are blessed with sight. Some are all-seeing, panoptic; others are yearning and blinkered, unable to return the gaze they attract. These poems are haunted by images of human faces staring out from all kinds of screens, faces that are themselves screens upon which the world projects its fantasies and anxieties. . . . The poems in Oculus are rangy, protean, contradictory. They offer an alternative to the selfie, that static reduction of a person to her most photogenic poses.”The New Yorker

“In her stunning second collection, Mao stages a searing ventriloquy act. . . . These depictions speak and fight back against the white gaze that has framed them.”NPR Books

“By telling [Anna May] Wong’s story, and those of other women of color who have been defined by images in popular culture, [Oculus] explores the ramifications of being seen and objectified but never truly known.”The Washington Post

“If you love the work of Janelle Monáe, you'll love Oculus. From the very introduction, Sally Wen Mao doesn't hesitate to make sure the reader knows this is a book about Asian Futurism and the way technology impacts us all. The section on Hollywood will destroy you, focusing on telling the story 1930's actress Anna May Wong. But really, Oculus is both complex, but totally universal.”Marie Claire

Oculus is a deftly structured volume of hauntingly perceptive poems, peering backward through the 20th century while penetrating our contemporary moment. It’s an homage to pioneering Chinese Americans and an indictment of Asian representation in American culture, which never for a moment shies away from the difficult tasks of taking on race and history and technology all at once, but confidently looks them right in the eye, unblinking.”Vulture

“Stunning, expansive. . . . [Oculus] marks Sally Wen Mao as one of the most compelling, provocative poets working today. . . . Mao’s language beautifully encompasses both the natural and technological worlds, infusing both with humanity, and offering a crystal clear vision of the ways in which our culture corrupts and consumes those who don’t fit within it seamlessly.”Nylon

“Mao’s poems weave deeply between the quotidian and the global, limning the afterlives of those absent from history but over-used as representation. They remind me of the connections between aesthetics and politics: how we must imagine otherwise in order to affect political change.”—Anne Anlin Cheng, BOMB

“Sally Wen Mao’s poetry is at once speculative, sharp, lush, and precise. . . . Oculus tackles distance and exile, technology and time––several poems are told through the filter of a time-traveling Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American film star, which is all I needed to hear to zoom through space and time wherever she asks me to.”Literary Hub

“The poems in [Oculus] consider the detritus and delirium of digital life. . . . Whether wayward spirit or nefarious satyr, Mao’s narrators and characters inhabit the sense of oculus as eye-opening, a transformative door.”The Millions

“[In Oculus] Mao manifests images of robots, electronic waste, Instagram-uploaded suicides, casting a suspicious glance on the perpetually-growing nature of technology.”Electric Literature

“The imagination in . . . Oculus, revels in cybernetic possibilities, especially for the women of color who inhabit its pages. . . . Mao’s poems in Oculus ask what technologies already shape our vision of the world and how they might be disassembled in order for new lives to be forged from their parts.”Los Angeles Review of Books

“Sally Wen Mao’s stunning second collection, Oculus, focuses not just on sight but on the politics of seeing.”Columbia Journal

“[In Oculus] Mao discusses the dehumanization of women of color by offering them protection: blurred images, new armor, grounds and oceans to bury and lose themselves in. . . . A victorious and worthwhile review.”The Arkansas International

“[Oculus] is a book consumed first and foremost with the impact of the spectacle on those of us for whom representation is both rare and often rapacious: women of color.”Anomaly

“In Oculus, Mao demonstrates how the hyper-visibility produced by and through technology is often as effective a force for the Imperial gaze to ‘unsee’ or ‘missee’ non-white bodies as ignoring them altogether.”The Bind

“Sally Wen Mao’s Oculus is a jolting lyric study of the white heteropatriarchal gazes that have vivisected racialized bodies throughout history.”Lantern Review Blog

“The poems in Mao’s collection execute a deft two-punch maneuver. They first generate internal spectacle on the line, distracting from their local plot with flashy words and glittering gadgetry. Then . . . Oculus as a whole starts to look like spectacle, unveiling the artistic distance between the poetry and the very real, very serious topics and themes it comments on (the text and the notes, if you will). Mao’s poems don’t just comment on spectacle — they literally perform it, unveiling its subtle machinery and complicated network of repercussions right there, right on the page.”The Michigan Daily

“Mao crafts strangely elaborate yet piercing poems, which struggle with past and future problems of representation; she shines this intricately focused, futuristic light onto questions of what and who we allow on our screens.”DigBoston

“Sally Wen Mao’s heartbreaking and unforgettable poems limn the tragic consequences especially for women of color attempting to overcome the consumptive and obliterating gaze of western consumerist culture.”RHINO Reviews

“[Sally Wen Mao investigates] a technology-subjugated world in take-no-prisoners language. . . . Raw and impressive. . . . A strong second collection from a rising poet.”Library Journal

“Reading Oculus is like being given the gift of sight. . . . the possibility of being restored to who we could be, and who we could be next.”—Alexander Chee

Oculus is a stunning and mesmerizing journey. . . . and it is brilliant. Mao’s is a consistently inspiring and exciting voice."—Morgan Parker

“Both scalpel and flood, poems of brooded, subtle syntax that build and accrue toward inevitable and stifling ferocity. Mao’s work reclaims for itself an acidic possibility.”—Ocean Vuong

“I simply trust no other poet to confront and fracture notions of Empire more deftly—and with such élan—than Sally Wen Mao.”—Aimee Nezhukumatathil

“A tour-de-force, a rousing ride.”—Marilyn Chin

Library Journal


After debuting with the smart, blistering Mad Honey Symposium, Mao returns to investigate a technology-subjugated world in take-no-prisoners language. The first of several poems titled "Oculus" chillingly depict a young woman's upload of her suicide on social media ("She wiped her lens/ before she died. The smudge still lives"), and in another poem, "pixelated ghosts" are what's left to haunt us. Poem after poem conveys the creepy feeling of surveillance and indeed control; in the raw and impressive "Mutant Odalisque," the speaker says, "They watch and watch and watch the butcher/ cut, the surgeon mend,/ …They watch the way I open, flinch, bent// against the wind," then concludes, "Do they marvel at a conquest." Elsewhere, we are so "kinesthetically, and fucked" that we barely register the world, mediated as it is by the Internet. Of course, technology in some form has always been with us; a strong series of poems limns the film actress Annie May Wong, trapped first by cultural assumptions and then by celluloid ("the camera pans to your vulnerable self"). Though enduring contemporaneous distortion ("I wake up with a different face.// Who am I? Champion of drowning,/ champion of loss"), the speaker concludes "In my chest, what beat/ was cracked but still salvageable." VERDICT A strong second collection from a rising poet.—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781555978259
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Publication date: 01/15/2019
Pages: 96
Sales rank: 497,191
Product dimensions: 6.80(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.50(d)

Read an Excerpt


Ghost Story

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

rewrite this.


  touches flare little moths
    or schisms

faraway clavicles ribs
    a pornography live
    through open
    electrodes touch your internet through your clothes

kinesthetic sand
    for kinesthetic toes
  kinesthetically fucked
    next to the lifeless reefs
    palm trees
  chafe the skin

maybe I'll spend the rest
    of my life
    with my remote control under the never-ending sun
    the never-fallow
    the never-breaking

    paradisiacal goggles my VR headset
    newest stereoscope
    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

Mutant Odalisque

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.

Live Feed

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.

No Resolution

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"
by .
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.

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