Oculus, Sally Wen Mao’s second collection, travels swiftly and deftly through time and urban landscapes across continents. Unbounded by death and transcending history, these poems interrogate the relationship between technology and the body and confront the symbolic violence of the camera’s gaze. Mao employs a range of forms, from compact couplets and tercets to extended, multi-sectioned meditations. With sharp wit and linguistic brio, these poems reanimate and revitalize historical and fictional characters—primarily women of color—whose stories have long been silenced. Mao’s re-imagining of the marginalized is an act of deep empathy and care.
The 1930s Chinese American actress Anna May Wong, who often lost leading roles to white actors in yellowface, figures prominently in the collection, and in Mao’s imagination Wong travels forward in time and spends a night with Bruce Lee in a vignette where they can bear witness to their shared burdens of representation:
Only he knows of this terror—of casting so huge
a shadow over a million invisible faces. The silver
of our eyes dim them, and for that I don’t forgive
myself. But Bruce understands. He knows the same
Later in the book, in “Anna May Wong Makes Cameos,” Mao writes Wong into movies and music videos made in the early 2000s that all have Asian themes. For the 2003 film The Last Samurai, starring Tom Cruise, Mao imagines Wong as a minor character “so frail I cry at the sound of a twig / cracking,” exaggerating the stereotype of Asian women as delicate, weak, and in need of rescue. “In the end I am sacrificed / so Tom can shed tears.” In the next stanza, Mao places Wong in the music video for “Hollaback Girl,” from Gwen Stefani’s 2004 album Love. Angel. Music. Baby. In the original video, Stefani is accompanied by four back-up dancers she calls the “Harajuku girls,” referring to the street fashion of the Harajuku district in Tokyo. In Mao’s poem, Wong’s cameo is cut from the final edits “to make room for Gwen’s cheerleading routine.” Mao’s pointing out that in every role Wong dies or is cut from the final version—the last line of the poem is “I perish, of course”—is an example of the poet’s playful humor, a knowing nod to the ways in which non-white actors so often appear only to advance the development of the white protagonist, even in film and other media that purport to engage Asian American themes.
By the end of the book, Wong has traveled in the time machine that Mao has given her, and in “Anna May Wong Stars as Cyborg #86,” a reference to the 2012 film Cloud Atlas, she’s able to say, “Darlings, let’s rewrite / the script. Let’s hijack the narrative, steer // the story ourselves.”
In an interview with Jenny Xie for the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, Mao explains that she was able to use Anna May Wong’s own first-person accounts to gain insights into her character, which Mao describes as “outspoken and charismatic.” By not only acknowledging the shame and humiliation the actor suffered beneath the white gaze, but also giving voice to her ambitions and to her power, Mao’s poems offer to Wong a fuller, more deeply imagined humanity.
The reach of Mao’s poetic protection extends beyond the silver screen and exhibition to violence in the everyday. “No Resolution,” a poem early in the book, concerns the 2012 incident of a Korean man in Queens, New York, who was pushed to his death in front of an oncoming subway train. The last moments of his life were caught on camera, and Mao dedicates the poem to the man’s daughter, who was forced to confront that image, plastered across magazine covers, its “pixels blurred like smudges on skin.”
For people of color, media images, roles, and representations we see so often flatten, dehumanize, and disappear us. The poems in Oculus are acts of resistance and protection, but they also serve as an invitation, a call to gathering, as in “Occidentalism”:
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—
Mao’s rewriting never results in the labored, trite revenge fantasies one has come to expect in mass media. There are no machine-gun-toting, tank-top-wearing men shouting “This time it’s personal” as they open fire on a crowded city street. This is rewriting that does not repeat the past wrongs of caricature or leveling. Rather, these poems “promise you a body, some muscle, some organ, a brain”; in other words, they render characters more fully human.
In speaking of the resistance, imagination, and empathy that propel these poems, I do not mean to gloss over Mao’s linguistic inventiveness and often thrillingly insightful diction. The most startling and pleasurable moments arise from her interrogation of how technology mediates bodily experience. “Blood broadcasts the story” in “No Resolution,” and in “Anna May Wong Goes Home with Bruce Lee,” the speaker says, “We were born in the same golden state, surrounded / by cameras, chimeras for our other selves.” In “Electronic Motherland,” “Digit by digit my hand / comes apart, tissue from phalange, aluminum from bone,” and later we hear “how to play midwife to machines.” I find the pairings of these words—blood and broadcast, cameras and chimeras, midwife and machine—deeply pleasurable in their alliterative playfulness and in the way they compel new images and nuance from the juxtaposition.
In “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles,” one of the longer poems, which occurs at the approximate center of the book, Mao considers an experience from her own life, a trip she took to Lijiang, China, in 2012. She uses second-person you, so despite the sign that the speaker reads—Ride alone, ride alone, ride alone—we keep each other company across miles crossed by plane, train, and bus to a quiet, lonely beauty the poet renders with restrained lyricism: “strangers singing / into the strange night, and it’s like home to you, / this cocktail of ashes dusting your knees.” Later, we hear of an intimate encounter with a stranger:
His family grows a peach orchard, and the fattest
peaches ripen in September. Where can I mail
you a peach? he asks. Tell him you’re flying
to Indonesia. He asks why you’re going
somewhere so far away. Say: in Manhattan,
there are thousands of gargoyles
that travel around the world
as everyone sleeps.
Say: in Brooklyn, there is a chance
to rebuild a life from trash—
long-stemmed roses blooming
in the dumpsters, bodegas spilling purple
dragonfruit still good to eat.
Here and elsewhere, Mao gives language to the longing that may characterize solo travel, but also may describe the experience of being alienated in one’s own land. In the poet’s unerring and graceful motion from one location to another, she pauses only long enough to give us the tenderness of certain images: a ripe peach traveling through the mail, gargoyles prowling the night while the rest of the world sleeps, lives composed from discarded overripe fruit.
In the end, what exhilarates most about Oculus is the capaciousness of the company it keeps. There is room in Sally Wen Mao’s generous imagination for Anna May Wong, Janelle Monae, Josephine Baker, Ruan Lingyu, and all the other women, named and unnamed, Mao may be including in the book’s dedication: “For all my sisters.” These figures past and present are gathered to name past injustices and write a more expansive, more just future into being.
Oculus. By Sally Wen Mao. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2019. 136 pp. $15.00, paper.