The Belladonna of Sadness

Spring in Hell and everything’s blooming.

I dreamt the worst was over but it wasn’t.

Suppose my punishment was fields of lilies sharper than razors, cutting up fields of lies.

Suppose my punishment was purity, mined and blanched.

They shunned me only because I knew I was stunning.

Then the white plague came, and their pleas were like a river.

Summer was orgiastic healing, snails snaking around wrists.

In heat, garbage festooned the sidewalks.

Old men leered at bodies they couldn’t touch

until they did. I shouldn’t have laughed but I laughed

at their flesh dozing into their spines, their bones crunching like snow.

Once I was swollen and snowblind with grief, left for dead

at the castle door. Then I robbed the castle and kissed my captor,

my sadness, learned she was not a villain. To wake up in this verdant field,

to watch the lilies flay the lambs. To enter paradise,

a woman drinks a vial of amnesia. Found in only the palest

flowers, the ones that smell like rotten meat. To summon the stinky

flower and access its truest aroma, you have to let its stigma show.

You have to let the pollen sting your eyes until you close them.

 

More by Sally Wen Mao

Resurrection

In the autumn I moved to New York,
I recognized her face all over the subway
stations—pearls around her throat, she poses
for her immigration papers. In 1924, the only
Americans required to carry identity cards
were ethnically Chinese—the first photo IDs,
red targets on the head of every man, woman,
child, infant, movie star. Like pallbearers,
they lined up to get their pictures taken: full-face
view, direct camera gaze, no smiles, ears showing,
in silver gelatin. A rogue’s gallery of Chinese
exclusion. The subway poster doesn’t name
her—though it does mention her ethnicity,
and the name of the New York Historical
Society exhibition: Exclusion/Inclusion.
Soon, when I felt alone in this city, her face
would peer at me from behind seats, turnstiles,
heads, and headphones, and I swear she wore
a smile only I could see. Sometimes my face
aligned with hers, and we would rush past
the bewildered lives before us—hers, gone
the year my mother was born, and mine,
a belt of ghosts trailing after my scent.
In the same aboveground train, in the same
city where slain umbrellas travel across
the Hudson River, we live and live.
I’ve left my landline so ghosts can’t dial me
at midnight with the hunger of hunters
anymore. I’m so hungry I gnaw at light.
It tunnels from the shadows, an exhausting
hope. I know this hunger tormented her too.
It haunted her through her years in L.A., Paris,
and New York, the parties she went to, people
she met—Paul Robeson, Zora Neale Hurston,
Langston Hughes, Gertrude Stein. It haunts
her expression still, on the 6 train, Grand
Central station, an echo chamber behind
her eyes. But dear universe: if I can recognize
her face under this tunnel of endless shadows
against the luminance of all that is extinct
and oncoming, then I am not a stranger here.

Anna May Wong on Silent Films

It is natural to live in an era
            when no one uttered—
and silence was glamour

so I could cast one glance westward
            and you’d know what I was
going to kill. Murder in my gaze,

treachery in my movements:
            if I bared the grooves
in my spine, made my lust known,

the reel would remind me
            that someone with my face
could never be loved.

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

The narrative was enchanting
            enough to make me believe
I, too, could live in a white

palace, smell the odorless gardens,
            relieve myself on their white
petals. To be a star in Sun City—

to be first lady on the 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 good luck.

Even the muzzle over my mouth
            could not kill me, though I
never slept soundly through the silence.

Anna May Wong Rates the Runway

Even the white models
all wear their hair in straight bangs.
The Asian models, too—like clones

they glide out, lush throats
throttled by nephrite. The editors
call the pieces “1920s chinoiserie.”

I call them glorified dog collars.
One by one they strut, chameleons,
fishnetted darlings with red lips

that imply: diablerie. These women
slip into the diabolical roles
I’ve played but don’t pay for it.

Now I am someone’s muse.
Good. It’s February, Fashion Week.
The coldest winter since weather

went live. Everywhere still—pale
legs exposed to infernal snow.
I want to trust the mohair

to keep me warm—I want to trust
the cloth that holds me close.
But in this room, the spotlight flatters

every flaw. When the show is over,
the applause is meant for stars
but my ovation is for the shadows.

Related Poems

Poem for One Little Girl Blue

She hangs onto sadness
the way somebody else treads water
waiting for the world
to see how much she hurts from family
madness pierced her rib cage
twenty years ago

And she’ll continue to compete as Victim
Absolute
until she finally receives a gold
medallion for her suffering
or a truly purple heart complete
with ribbons
so that she can hang that up

and then
move right along
perhaps/at last
to someplace

really new

Elegy with Sympathy

For the bulldozed house. For the ripped-out yard. For the mourning doves that won’t come back to the swamp, not this time. For the trees planted in the yard when the children are born, for how tall they grow—the trees—even after you’ve died so young. Can any loved field be a churchyard is the start of a letter I’m writing. Postmark no date. I can’t bring myself to open the mail. It’s hard for us to understand God’s plan is the message, but I learned early that the flood was a sentence. An earned blight. There isn’t going to be a eulogy for this. No hymn songs. No innocent dirt. For all the changeling girls who couldn’t pull the splinters out, whose wings did not form. Is it a system—if the water wants to drown us—is it? If I say it’s the water’s fault? Behind me in the dirt there are only wet prints leading back to your grave. I don’t want to take back all my trying. In the beginning there was a word for this. I carry it now like a bit in my mouth.

Seer

Last night
you look

at me hard
then soft

like you see
something

old and sad
in me.