Sally Wen Mao | Oculus | Graywolf Press: $16.00

There’s a driven intensity to many of the poems Sally Wen Mao’s new volume. And this intensity is true even as she moves through a range of figures from popular culture from Anna May Wong to Janelle Monáe and Solange. In particular, Anna May Wong, who was a Chinese-American actress whose beauty and acting ability was lauded, but who was refused parts which were anything other than ‘exotic atmosphere’. In addition, and with supreme irony, she was refused leading roles even when they were Asian. In particular, she was refused the leading role in the film of Pearl S. Buck’s novel about China, The Good Earth.

The Anna May Wong poems occupy two of the five sections of the book. And, for Sally Wen Mao, Anna May Wong crystalizes, focuses even the kinds of prejudice to which such women are subjected. Sally Wen Mao shows, decisively, how the playing of ‘yellowface’ by white actors is a kind of metaphor for discrimination which manifests itself in all areas of life; the ultimate example of which is Mickey Rooney’s ludicrous portrayal of the photographer, I.Y. Yunioshi, in Blake Edwards’ Breakfast at Tiffany’s. One of the main restrictions on Anna May Wong was that, because of American miscegenation laws of the time, she was not allowed to kiss anyone of another race. Since there was only one other male Asian actor who took lead roles in the silent era, Sessue Hayakawa, Anna May Wong couldn’t play lead roles. As much as anything, that was because two Asian actors would not be considered as dual leads. As the persona of Anna May Wong puts it with suitable bitterness, ‘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: ringleted women / with sloping eyelids played the Chinese // cynosure, every time.’ What is so good about Sally Wen Mao’s technique here is the way she will leave an adjective at the end of a line. And in so doing she creates an emphasis on those adjectives, such as, ‘golden’ and ‘Chinese’. And that emphasis redoubles the bitterness of the irony; let alone the ‘fuck’ at the end of its line. Sally Wen Mao sums this up in lines from the first Anna May Wong poem, ‘Anna May Wong on Silent Films’, ‘to be first lady on 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 own good luck.’

The opening lines of the first three poems in the collection are as follows:

Forgive me if the wind stole
the howl from my mouth and whipped
it against your windowpanes. ‘Ghost Story’

Before I wake, I peruse the dead girl’s live
            photo feed. ‘Oculus’

A man celebrates erstwhile conquests,
his book locked in a silo, still in print. ‘Occidentalism’

These three openings contain a spirit of chafing against confinement, which mimics Anna May Wong’s, particularly the opening to the first poem in the book; but also in the sense that the dead girl, in ‘Oculus’ has an ironically live feed which opens her life against the confinement of death. In ‘Occidentalism’, with it’s play against Edward Said’s famous Orientalism, the man’s book is locked in a silo, but, mysteriously, is still in print. Sally Wen Mao cannot even escape that kind of confinement when she travels back to her native Wuhan, with the ‘ticket, / stamped, ready, an apology/ for my foreign pelt.’ As she leaves Wuhan, she knows that she is leaving ‘a city // full of sensors. They detect / the shapes of hips and mouths.’ So even a return to birthplace is a return to a kind of closed world.

An alternative to this sense of the past is posited in ‘Li Tai Po’, in which Sally Wen Mao plays off the work of the famous seventh century CE poet, Li Po against Janelle Monáe’s world of the female ‘archandroid’ – Mao quotes lyrics from Monáe’s The Electric Lady album. These two figures offer a vision of a kind of electric future, ‘There is no end of things in the heart. // My robot, my poet, ancient and erstwhile and now / and f-ever, / the best mischief: to be stranded in this electricity with you.’ Like Monáe, for Sally Wen Mao being stranded in this electricity with you, offers ways of exploring freedom, which although never unironised, seem in their own way, ‘real’. Sally Wen Mao’s take on identity politics, focussing, but not solely, as it does on Anna May Wong, compliments Monáe’s, who commented in a Rolling Stone interview, that her work was an attempt to tell those who are ‘dealing with feeling ostracized or bullied for just being their unique selves, to know that I see you.’

Ian Pople

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