Poets

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Sally Wen Mao

Sally Wen Mao is the author of Mad Honey Symposium (Alice James Books, 2014) and Oculus (Graywolf Press, 2019). She has received fellowships from the Cullman Center at the New York Public Library and from George Washington University, among others. She lives in Washington, D.C.

By This Poet

5

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.

Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles

In Lijiang, the sign outside your hostel
           glares: Ride alone, ride alone, ride
alone – it taunts you for the mileage
           of your solitude, must be past

thousands, for you rode this plane
           alone, this train alone, you’ll ride
this bus alone well into the summer night,
           well into the next hamlet, town,

city, the next century, as the trees twitch
           and the clouds wane and the tides
quiver and the galaxies tilt and the sun
           spins us another lonely cycle, you’ll

wonder if this compass will ever change.
           The sun doesn’t need more heat,
so why should you? The trees don’t need
            to be close, so why should you?