Poets

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Sally Wen Mao

Sally Wen Mao is the author of Mad Honey Symposium (Alice James Books, 2014) and Oculus, forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 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

4

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?
 

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.