Oculus: Poems (Paperback)
Sally Wen Mao’s Oculus is a masterfully pieced together book of poems. Language is at once precise, playful, sharp, and twisting like a knife. Mao turns her lens toward race, the past, the future, the super computer, the eye, and light. At times verging on the realm of science fiction, Mao’s poems hurtle the reader through time and space, particularly in one sequence involving Anna May Wong, the first Chinese-American movie star, and a time travel machine. These poems were a pleasure to read and I have found myself thinking of them often since finishing the book. Anyone who loved Tracy K Smith’s Life on Mars will enjoy these poems. Review by Katie Foster.— From Oculus by Sally Wen Mao
A brilliant second collection by Sally Wen Mao on the violence of the spectacle—starring the film legend Anna May Wong
In Oculus, Sally Wen Mao explores exile not just as a matter of distance and displacement but as a migration through time and a reckoning with technology. The title poem follows a nineteen-year-old girl in Shanghai who uploaded her suicide onto Instagram. Other poems cross into animated worlds, examine robot culture, and haunt a necropolis for electronic waste. A fascinating sequence spanning the collection speaks in the voice of the international icon and first Chinese American movie star Anna May Wong, who travels through the history of cinema with a time machine, even past her death and into the future of film, where she finds she has no progeny. With a speculative imagination and a sharpened wit, Mao powerfully confronts the paradoxes of seeing and being seen, the intimacies made possible and ruined by the screen, and the many roles and representations that women of color are made to endure in order to survive a culture that seeks to consume them.
About the Author
Sally Wen Mao is the author of a previous poetry collection, Mad Honey Symposium. Her work has won a Pushcart Prize and fellowships at Kundiman, George Washington University, and the New York Public Library Cullman Center.
“Reading Oculus is like being given the gift of sight, not once, but again and again and again. In these poems it feels almost as if Sally Wen Mao is making her very own Asian American futurism, but this work is deeply rooted in a present that we can’t acknowledge, and so her futures are built out of what we won’t admit and won’t look at. And yet in the poems, she gives us both that and the pleasure in that—the possibility of being restored to who we could be, and who we could be next.”—Alexander Chee
“Oculus is a stunning and mesmerizing journey, where each poem is a lesson—in listening, in power, in the music of words, in the side effects of erasure, in who we are to each other. Sally Wen Mao’s precise imagination is steeped in several histories, many of them painful: ‘The stories about our lives do not have faces.’ But she re-examines everything so sharply and playfully: ‘Rewrite this,’ she begs. Anna May Wong meets technological dystopia, and it is brilliant. Mao’s is a consistently inspiring and exciting voice, and in her world—full of horror, surprise, indignation, affirmation—all power is given to splendor, nature, and the people.”—Morgan Parker
“Sally Wen Mao’s Oculus is an embodied interrogation of the brutal and repressive architectures of patriarchal silencing. Mao’s poems, richly informed by science, history, the natural world, Anna May Wong, and the oft-forgotten facets of cultural and historic upheaval, drive their power from the fulcrum of alterity. Hers is a poetics of breaching—not to merely disrupt for the sake of novelty, but to recalibrate and suggest new hierarchies from which to live and feel by. They work as both scalpel and flood, poems of brooded, subtle syntax that build and accrue toward inevitable and stifling ferocity. They challenge our culture’s often too-calcified notions of love and romance, power and failure, and dismantle the belief that certainty is infallible strength. Mao’s work reclaims for itself an acidic possibility, corrosive to monuments of thought that never held the othered body the way her very poems do: how they erect themselves, like bones, according to a life’s desire to bend, stand, and, most importantly, dance on its own terms—both out of joy as well as to keep from falling.”—Ocean Vuong
“I simply trust no other poet to confront and fracture notions of Empire more deftly—and with such e´lan—than Sally Wen Mao. These eerie and exacting poems serve as light and lighthouse for a much-needed reckoning. Prepare yourself to search. Prepare yourself to be searched.”—Aimee Nezhukumatathil
“Oculus by Sally Wen Mao is a highly ambitious and well-researched book. Both film aficionados and Anna May Wong fans will find a treasure hunt here. A clash of personalities and histories collide with breakneck speed. A tour-de-force, a rousing ride.”—Marilyn Chin