Sally Wen Mao is the author of two books of poems, Mad Honey Symposium (Alice James Books, 2014) and Oculus (Graywolf Press, 2019). According to the biography on the back of her first book, she was “born in Wuhan, China and grew up in Boston and the Bay Area.”
I like the fact that Mao leaves the reader to decide how she identifies herself. (Is she “Chinese” or “Chinese-American”?) That deliberate elision reminded me that in 1996, Marjorie Perloff, citing my first full-length book, Sometimes (1979), which was published after my chapbook, Crossing Canal Street (1976), felt comfortable enough to write: “[…] there was no indication, at this stage of Yau’s career, that the poet is in fact Chinese-American.” She would go on to write: “Yau is calling attention to the lingering orientalism of U.S. culture, the labeling that continues to haunt Chinese-Americans.”
Perloff would have the reader believe that any racism directed toward the Chinese was really the harmless residue of a “lingering orientalism” that, at most, “haunts Chinese-Americans.” Nearly 25 years after Perloff made these claims, I don’t think it is at all farfetched to say that she inhabits a different America than those people living here who are identified as Asian, and that she is not alone.
Mao recognizes that — no matter what she does — she will never gain entrance to Perloff’s privileged domain. “Occidentalism,” which is included in Oculus, ends:
The tome of hegemony lives on, circulates
in our libraries, in our bloodstream. 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 out the text and say: go ahead–
The form that Mao often uses to explore what it is like to live in a circumscribed world with a glass ceiling (let’s call a cage a cage) is the soliloquy, which is different from a monologue. Most monologues are based on the “I” and assume that someone is listening. In his most famous poem, “Traveling Through the Dark,” William Stafford can stop on a country road in the middle of the night and say, “I thought hard for us all,” and never question who comprises the “us” or hesitate about the link to “all.” Mao does not make this assumption (“a girl like me may come across it on a shelf …”).
This is the isolated condition that Mao inhabits, and the reasons for it are complex — at once brutally obvious and unsettlingly subtle. It begins with the fact that she lives in America, which passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882; this was the first significant law restricting immigration into the United States, a practice that the current administration has continued to elaborate upon in one way or another.
At the same time, Mao recognizes that being born in China is different than being born in America to Chinese parents, or being adopted, or being born in Japan, or immigrating to America from Korea or Vietnam: there is no commonly shared Asian American experience, except racism of one form or another.
In Mad Honey Symposium’s poem “The White-haired Girl” — which is “after the 1945 revolutionary opera of the same name,” considered one of the classics of revolutionary China — Mao replaces the opera’s happy ending, which the Chinese Communist Party added, with: I bow/only to pick the ticks of my shoes,/brand them clean across your cheekbones.”
The poem’s voice is that of a defiant woman. Mao returns to this voice in both books. It is telling that she picks animals, which humans regard as voiceless creatures, as subjects, as in “Sonnets for Kudryavka,” the dog better known as “Laika, the original cosmonaut.”
On November 3, 1957, Laika, a stray dog picked up from the streets of Moscow, was launched into space as a test of whether or not cosmonauts could survive the first stages of space flight and pulling free from earth’s gravity. Returning to earth was never part of the plan and Laika died within hours after liftoff. In the last poem in the sequence, Mao writes: “you are alone with your breathing./Your lungs plump. You cannot understand/the machine of your solitude, its axles,/its weights.” She could be speaking about the condition of all immigrants living in America.
The solitude that Mao recognizes in these lines permeates the poems in Mad Honey Symposium. In the first three poems of her sequence “Mad Honey Soliloquies” (which is based on a “Case Study: Kayseri, Turkey, 2008,” as its subtitle states) we hear from the “[Patient: Husband],” “[Patient: Wife],” and “[Cardiologist].” With the series, Mao explores the extremes that individuals will go to in order to attain intimacy — in this case, ingesting toxic honey, which can be derived from rhododendrons — “as if poison answered all the questions/about their bodies.”
Honey, the hive, the queen bee, flowers, and fruit recur throughout Mad Honey Symposium. Through them, the poet explores the relationship of the isolated individual to others and to the natural world. Two things are striking about this debut collection. The first is the amount of research that Mao has undertaken to write about such diverse subjects as the honey badger, Venus flytrap, Xenophon, and the Trinidad Scorpion, while also exploring personal states of consciousness in poems such as “The Bullies”:
Ovoid girl–black hair, burnt skin, snaggletooth
and sexless ruin. I saw tumors grow the size
of California. Nobody spat. Only suggested.
The second striking thing is how deftly she combines research and imagination to shape the multiple tones and inflections of the voices we read and hear.
In Oculus, Mao brings this combination to bear on the figure of Anna May Wong (1905-1961), who was the first Chinese American movie star and the first to gain recognition abroad. Wong initially gained attention in the colorized silent film Toll of the Sea (1922), at the age of 17, when she played a doomed Madame Butterfly-like figure.
At the end of the film, her character, Lotus Flower, drowns herself so that her mixed-race son will never know about his mother or his biracial origins; it is the first of many times she will die to preserve whiteness. This early image of self-erasure has persisted through Hollywood’s history to the point that the movie industry simply erases Asian roles by inserting white actresses and actors in their place. Mao uses the figure of Wong to expose, counter, and defy the erasure that is a central part of the Asian experience in America, what the poet Cathy Park Hong calls “minor feelings” in her brilliant book Minor Feelings (One World, 2020).
Mao speaks through and about Wong in more than a dozen poems, beginning with “Toll of the Sea” and continuing through to “Resurrection,” the last poem in Oculus. What she understands is the inescapable state of contradiction from which Wong could not free herself. The poem “Anna May Wong on Silent Films” ends:
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 the first lady on the celluloid
screen–I had to marry
my own cinematic death.
I never wept audibly–I saw my
sister 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.
At the same time, in poems such as “Anna Wong Makes Cameos,” which are “cut […] from the film” “Anna May Wong Dreams of of Wong Kar-Wai,” and “Anna May Wong Stars as Cyborg #86,” Mao dreams up alternative ending to Hollywood’s erasures.
I admire the defiant voice running throughout both of Mao’s books, and the degree to which she has raised the stakes in Oculus, in poems written in response to a young woman in Shanghai who, as she tells us in the “Notes” at the end of the book, “uploaded her suicide onto Instagram in 2014,” as well as the suicide of “the famous Chinese film actress Ruan Lingyu.” In “The Diary of Afong Moy,” about “the first Chinese woman to travel to the United States in 1834,” she writes:
The lyrics, if I remember–
how a face conceals its intentions
like a woman conceals her name.
(The cited lines are from a section of the sequence titled “The Oval Office, Washington, D.C.” that ends with Moy singing to President Andrew Jackson, whose nickname is “Jackass.”)
Mao never loses touch with what W.E. B. Dubois, in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), called “Double Consciousness,” the awareness that one’s identity is fractured and consists of multiple parts, and the difficulty, if not impossibility, of unifying them. It is to Mao’s credit that she never seeks refuge in the single identity, no matter what comfort it promises, because she knows it limits her in ways that she finds unacceptable.