A Review of Oculus by Sally Wen Mao

by Sally Wen Mao
Graywolf Press, 2019

Reviewed by Emilia Phillips

The word Oculus, the title of Sally Wen Mao’s second poetry collection, generally denotes an eye-like opening or window. It is both a divide between spaces and a means to see between them—a transparent and porous liminality, a threshold that can be crossed by a gaze or a voice. To title her book as such, Mao identifies the work of her poetry (if not poetry in general) as that of an oculus; it offers an opening, a glimpse, or else a context into a place, a culture, or life through the frame of ornamental architecture, i.e., a poem. In particular, Mao’s collection functions as an “eye-like opening” between Chinese and American cultures, between past and present racisms, and between the real and the imagined real, deftly constructing what Alexander Chee, in one of the book’s blurbs, describes as the poet’s “very own Asian American futurism.” What’s so compelling about Mao’s Asian American futurism is that it employs figures of the past like Afong Moy, the first Chinese woman to travel to the United States, and Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American film actress, to deliver anachronistic dramatic monologues that speak to their time, ours, and the future.

The twelve Anna May Wong poems, of which eleven are in her persona, provide the most consistent voice in the collection. Upon the arrival of Wong’s voice in the second section, it seems that she will merely comment upon her biographical experiences, after the fact. “Anna May Wong on Silent Films” bitterly recalls some of the racist roles into which she was cast:

          How did you expect my characters
                    to react? In so many shoots,
          I was brandishing a dagger. [30]

The following poem echoes these concerns:

          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. [32]

While all of Mao’s Anna May Wong poems retain this indignation at the ways in which the actress’s humanity and complexity were eschewed for stereotypes, Mao offers Wong a time machine with which to travel to “the future, where”—Wong says she hopes—“I’m forgotten.” Poets, in writing historical persona, so often forget that poetry has space for invention, even fabulism. While Anna May Wong’s life was certainly interesting, Mao leaves much of this narrative to the biographers, preferring instead to liberate Wong from her era so that she can commune with (and even date) other celebrities of color, like Bruce Lee and Josephine Baker, and better understand her time.

“I’ve tried so hard to erase myself,” she says in “Anna May Wong Fans Her Time Machine.” Rather than her own self-effacement, however, it’s clear that Wong wants to erase the stereotypes projected onto her by the American entertainment industry and the white American audiences for whom these films were made. “Being seen has a different meaning to someone // with my face,” [36] she says in a later poem. This is the proverbial double-edged sword, as she couldn’t escape typecasting but her stardom is also popularly believed to have helped humanize Chinese Americans to white Americans. Of course, the importance of her visibility as an Asian-American person cast in the roles of Asian and Asian-American people is incalculable, especially in a time in which many of these characters were played by white actors in yellowface, and Wong’s legacy is best understood from the vantage of the present.

Still, the time traveling Wong doesn’t locate a utopic era in which racism doesn’t exist. In the future of our now, “Anna May Wong Rates the Runway,” where fashion editors “call the pieces ‘1920s chinoserie’” but Wong says they are just “glorified dog collars.” [74] Here, “[e]ven the white models / all wear their hair in straight bangs.” Embittered by the appropriation, Wong says, “These women / slip into the diabolical roles / I’ve played but don’t pay for it.” Elsewhere in the collection, Mao shows another instance of identity appropriation through a poem in the persona of the character Major from Ghost in the Shell, a 1989 manga adapted into a 2017 live-action movie starring the white actress Scarlett Johannson as the Japanese main character. The poem begins:

          In late summer’s cyberpunk heaven,
                    I wake up with a different face.

          Who am I?

Of note is that the persona is not Scarlett Johansson as the cyborg character Major but rather Major who is aware that her racial identity has been replaced in this portrayal:

          someone has implanted Scarlett Johansson’s
                    face onto mine, hacked my ghost, installed
          an imposter’s memories, reprogrammed

          my optic nerves, diluted my brain into white
                    projection. [83]

Take a look at that line break between “white” and “projection.” As a unit, “white projection” refers to the way in which racial whiteness have been projected onto the character’s body. There’s also a hint of an image: a blank white projector light flooding the cyborg’s brain toward racial aphasia. The break between the words, however, allows for a little nuance. White(ness) becomes a near-insurmountable monolith at the end of the line, something upon which the reader pauses. The phrase “diluted my brain into white” makes a certain level of sense to the reader and, as such, one has a desire for syntactical closure at the end of the line,to end on “white”(ness), thus privileging it. In order to keep reading the poem, however, the reader must force themself to push past “white”(ness), perhaps modeling a way of living for white readers and those who have internalized the ideals of white American culture. This is only one instance of the way Mao’s use of line breaks charges her poems with a scathingly interrogative subtext.

Mao’s pop culture persona poems are accompanied by defamiliarizing, if not near-apocalyptic, visions of modernity, like that found in the “Electronic Necropolis” of China’s Guiyu Village, whose main industry is the mining of electronic waste. The unidentified speaker, presumed to be a resident-worker or chorus of resident-workers, provides a self-portraiture through labor:

          By slicing open dead circuitboards,
          I cultivate rebirth. I douse
          the hardware in pyetuc acids
          before it scrapes me, enters me, lather of data
          against my organs

The detritus of our technology seems to outlast the humans who use that technology, who are used by that technology. In the first of two poems titled “Oculus,” an unidentified speaker wrestles with the livestreamed suicide of a nineteen-year-old girl in Shanghai, saying that she peruses “the dead girl’s live / photo feed.” Again, Mao’s use of the line break needles our sense of reality: the dead girl’s live photo feed. The girl’s photo feed lives whereas the girl dies. Here, we don’t see a dystopic vision of the future; we have a dystopic vision of the present, one in which we are at risk of seeing but not witnessing the horrors of racism, capitalism, and other institutional disenfranchisement because our realities are mediated by technology. This feels like a dire warning to readers, especially those among us who benefit from certain privileges extended us by our race, citizenship, and socioeconomic status.

But Mao doesn’t abandon readers there. “Darlings,” Anna May Wong says in “Anna May Wong Stars as Cyborg #86,” “let’s rewrite / the script. Let’s hijack the narrative, steer // the story ourselves.” [77] By embracing futurism, by writing it, Mao suggests that things can be changed so that each of her speakers recognizes herself in the narrative, so that they can all proclaim, as the speaker in Oculus’s final poem does, “I am not a stranger here.” [110]



Sally Wen Mao is the author of Mad Honey Symposium (Alice James Books, 2014) and Oculus (Graywolf Press, 2019). Her work has appeared in Poetry magazine, Black Warrior Review, Guernica, the Missouri Review, and Washington Square, and as well as in the anthology The Best American Poetry 2013. She earned an MFA from Cornell University and has received fellowships from Kundiman, Hedgebrook, and Saltonstall Foundation. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York, and teaches in the Asian American Studies department at Hunter College.

Emilia Phillips is the author of three poetry collections from the University of Akron Press, most recently Empty Clip (2018), and three chapbooks, including Hemlock (Diode Editions, 2019) and Beneath the Ice Fish Like Souls Alike (Bull City Press, 2015). Her poems and lyric essays appear widely in literary publications including Agni, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, The Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, Poetry, and elsewhere. She’s an Assistant Professor in the MFA Writing Program and the Department of English at the UNC Greensboro.