Sally Wen Mao’s Oculus, a call for celebration
There are two title poems—poems entitled “Oculus”—in Sally Wen Mao’s second collection, Oculus: The first poem elegizes a “nineteen-year-old girl in Shanghai who uploaded her suicide onto Instagram”; the second reflects, ekphrastically, on a performance by Solange Knowles. The poems rhyme. That is, Mao’s obsession with internal sound repetitions—an obsession that carries over from her debut collection, Mad Honey Symposium (as in “smile? Simulacrum”)—turns from linguistic tic into structural device. Not only do these poems’ titles literally repeat, rhyming internally in the table of contents, they deal in resonating themes: the camera, the recording, and a woman of color as performer. Mao’s tricks of language reach for broader entangled dualities, namely the horrifying vs hopeful impulses generated by society’s entrancement with its screens.
Mao’s first “Oculus,” early in the collection, howls with its mournful song: “I can’t be held / or beheld here, in this barren warren.” The rabbit hole warren of the internet leaves barren pits for the lonely teenager to fall through, in this case, terrifyingly literally. Mao wonders: “How the dead girl fell, awaiting a hand to hold, / eyes to behold her.” Dan Chiasson in the New Yorker also notices the two “Oculus” poems as “opposite poles.” This poem as “elegy and investigation,” he says, “exposes Mao’s hunger, and ours” for digital “feed”; the girl is “both culpable and vulnerable: consumer at grave risk of being consumed.”
Much later, the second “Oculus” recounts “a cause for celebration,” where there are, surprisingly, no snapshots. At the Guggenheim Museum in New York, “the most photographed place on earth,” the entire audience is rendered cameraless and asked to check their devices “at the door.” Sans lenses, they watch Solange dance; and though “fears still burned,” Mao is “hopeful,” “awed” by uncontainable performance. The two poems’ rhymed differences develop what could be called the book’s major theme, this ocular paradox. In the collection’s masterful reckoning with racism, representation, and robots, Mao succeeds because she deftly renders modern vision’s duality: the lonely perils of the screen vs a celebration of its gilded dances.
Mao, who immigrated from China to the United States at the age of five, writes about representation from migrant’s perspective. In a long, haunting sequence from her first book, called “Migration Suite,” Mao begins with a poem called “I: Transatlantic Flight” and ends with “X: Transpacific Flight.” The latter is a glorious ode to the eerie “restive moment” of long plane rides that might resonate with anyone, migrant or traveler, who’s spent nighttime hours above an endless ocean: “Ladies and gentlemen, drink your passports, kiss your ginger ale— / You’re going home or faraway and this is magnificent.”
In another section of “Migration Suite,” “VII: Green Card: Diary of Flight,” Mao writes, presumably from her mother’s perspective, of “early years in Boston.” Mao told me they “lived in many neighborhoods,” “from Somerville to Newton to Brookline,” before moving to California later in her childhood. She went to the Amos A. Lawrence Brookline elementary school, where she acted in plays and “developed a love of reading.” The woman in “Green Card” learns words like “peonies,” and “crocodiles”; she shares attraction to language with elementary-school-aged Mao, who told me she checked out books like Goosebumps from her local library, then imitated them in writing. But transplantation isn’t all or always magnificent: “cold pendant drums her chest.” The woman makes her way through traffic’s “ smell of power,” and the “snow hid[ing] all her features.” This woman, cold and careful, “lives in a cave.”
Mao’s various transitory perspectives, both excited and wary, inform her poetry. When Mao writes her more polemical poems, like “Yellow Fever” in Mad Honey Symposium or “Mutant Odalisque” in Oculus, she articulates the relationship between Orientalist literary tropes and racist structures. “Occidentalism,” another of these more boldly political poems, also in Oculus, writes back against a man who “celebrates erstwhile conquests”; the man’s racist book, Mao writes, “defaces me,” so “I scribble, make Sharpie lines, deface its text.“ She ends, as if in a credo, with some of her collection’s more transparently vulnerable lines:
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—
In an online interview, Mao was asked what makes her angry. She linked to her own Goodreads review of one particular book she herself encountered at a library, The East, the West, and Sex: A History of Erotic Encounters. Mao gives the book one star: “once again someone is trying to justify racism, sexism, colonialism, and a very virulent type of Orientalism with an academic subject (history).” Racist representations, even, or perhaps especially, authoritative ones, do real harm. Mao would know. Only a few weeks after Trump’s election, Mao encountered the sort of racism that has risen since, when a man told her to “go back to Tokyo” in a Lower East Side diner. Today’s screens are yesterday’s tomes; Mao’s project of writing again and against aims “to protect” and validate the girl who may see commonplace racism on her digital library shelf.
Mao’s rewriting often takes a historical subject, as if from a scholarly shelf, and rewrites it, giving it future-focused spin. For example, two of the book’s five major sections speak from the perspective of Anna May Wong (1905-61), “Hollywood’s first Asian-American star.” The poems range from a muzzled, silenced anger in “Anna May Wong on Silent Films” to the sexy “flush flood” kissing in “Anna May Wong Goes Home With Bruce Lee.” Many, though they look to the future, offer ironic commentary on a film industry that wouldn’t give leading roles to Asian-Americans: from the ’60s just after Wong’s death (Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly is the “role I’d have died for”) to the tokenized characters of this century (in Kill Bill, The Last Samurai, Memoirs of a Geisha, etc.). When Mao has Wong imagine herself in the 1980s (“Anna May Wong Blows Out Sixteen Candles”), she demands, “it’s 1984”:
so cast me in a new role already. Cast me as a pothead,
an heiress, a gymnast, a queen. Cast me as a castaway in a city
without shores. Cast me as a girl who rivets center stage
or cast me away in the blue where my lips don’t touch
The tripling of “cast”—to be given a role, like in film; to be thrown, like dice; or to be a castaway, like an abandoned sailor—takes on ethical tones. Who casts whom? How should we feel about all this casting and casting off? Mao, through Wong, rewrites the lost potential: The Hays Code of Wong’s time prohibited an Asian-American woman from kissing a white man in yellowface, but Wong’s imagined time machine will transport her “where surely no one gives a fuck / who I kiss man, woman, or goldfish.” Hollywood’s decades of underrepresentation, a continuity that stretches across the poems, begs the question how much, really, have our screens changed from the ’30s to the ’80s? How much from the ’80s to now?
Though maybe representation hasn’t changed all that much, technology has. In “Teledildonics,” Mao recounts internet sex via “haptic,” or sensory, machines: “kinesthetic toes / kinesthetically fucked.” In “Live Feed,” a ghostly speaker intones: “After I am dead, I will hunt you”; this person apparently comes alive in their online posts: “share me, my shards / and my innards.” Or in “Electronic Necropolis,” workers farm and recycle electronic waste, “slicing open dead circuitboards, / I cultivate rebirth.” All of these present-futures appear via the undead quality of cyber life. The celluloid silver screen gives way to the “riven, rising: a bloodless organ,” the organic, yet immortal, digital age, where the mistakes live on in cyberspace. When recyclers say, “It is the defects that incandescence, that supply / us with food, music, harm,” Mao reiterates the double-edged shard: The boundless potential for creative incandescence doubles as the ever-multiplied harm brought by the timelessness of digital records.
In the last third of the book, the present transitions to the future, rendered under the guidance of other science fiction artists. Anna May Wong appears as a cyborg in Cloud Atlas, “the writhing galaxy” of Cowboy Bebop comes alive, and a long sequence reflects on the futuristic conceptual art of Nam June Paik. Mao takes from Paik’s video art “a kind of Asian American futurism”; Mao told me that she was interested in this “more contemporary form of Orientalism.” These poems write and rewrite the “stereotype,” as Mao says, that “Asians are all uniform, robotic, and conformist—and they all look the same.” Often the artists and icons Mao uses to explore these futuristic themes—from anime to pop songs—fly like satellites well over my head, though sometimes, as in the pixelated Pokemon landscape of “Lavender Town,” I am right there with my Gameboy. Despite, or because of, the wide variety of allusions, these final pages of “robot opera” may be the best part of an already entrancing collection.
As poets often do when they are writing about other poets, Mao’s ode to Li Po and Janelle Monae, inside the Paik sequence, becomes a reflection on Mao’s own verse: “My robot, my poet, ancient and erstwhile and now / and f—ever”. Is it forever, future-ever, fuck-ever, or what? The blank is that place where artist and audience come together: “we write this text together, rewrite history, rewrite his story / sneak past the auditorium of ruins.” Knowing Mao’s obsession with assonance allows us to untangle the rhymed riddle of the simple assonance “we write” with “rewrite.” Mao’s sounds recognize the radical act of collaborative revision.
Mao extends an invitation to, most directly, that “girl like me,” but also to any reader who would join her in rewriting the damaging narratives. One might say the same of Mao: “I wait for your poems, like baroque lasers.” 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.
OCULUS by Sally Wen Mao is published by Graywolf.
Max is a PhD student in English and American literature at BU. Previously, he worked at the NGO GiveDirectly, an organization that sends cash transfers, no strings attached, directly to extremely poor families. In 2014, he studied and wrote poetry in Wellington, NZ on a Fulbright scholarship.