Why I Chose Sally Wen Mao’s Oculus for the Rumpus Poetry Book Club

By

In the poem “Ghost in the Shell,” which opens the penultimate section of Sally Wen Mao’s Oculus, is the line “Before everything was stolen, our lives were ours.” As the note for the poem explains, “Ghost in the Shell” was first a manga, then an anime, and finally a film wherein Scarlett Johansson was cast as a Japanese character to great public outcry and pushback. I don’t want to put too much emphasis on a single line in a collection, but many of these poems deal with theft in some way—theft of a future, of a career, of the right to be portrayed by someone of your own ethnicity and culture, of the ability to be seen as a human rather than as a stereotype and more—and with exile that I found the line especially illuminating.

Before I tell you more, a quick reminder that in order to receive your early copy of Oculus, read along with the Poetry Book Club, and participate in our exclusive chat with Sally Wen Mao, you’ll need to subscribe by November 20!

The largest sequence of poems in the collection are in the voice of Anna May Wong, an international icon and the first Chinese-American movie star, as she travels through the history of cinema (even into her own future), possibly looking for a time where yellowface isn’t a thing anymore and where she or her artistic progeny might have a place as more than a sidekick or nemesis. The poem “Anna May Wong Makes Cameos” runs the reader through five films made between 2000 and 2005 wherein her characters are edited out twice and killed three times, almost always in service of a white character.

And then there’s just the pure sonic pleasure that comes from reading these poems. I actually stopped and read these lines from “Mutant Odalisque” aloud a handful of times just to feel the consonants and vowels bounce off my teeth:

Vernal equinox:
______a hare harries the chicks, hurries

behind wet haystacks. Livestock.
_______Gnats. The glue-traps are gone.

March, ladies. March for your dignity.
_______March for your happiness. March, a muss

of lidless eyes. In the forest, a handsome man pisses,
_______puissant, luminary’s ink leaking on trees.

If you can’t get excited about language that does so much in such a tight space, I don’t know what I can do to convince you to check out this collection. I’m looking forward to talking with our members and with Sally Wen Mao about this intriguing collection. Please join me in December as we read and discuss Oculus, first together and then with Sally Wen Mao in our exclusive online chat. Subscribe to the Rumpus Poetry Book Club by November 20 to make sure you don’t miss out!


Brian Spears's first collection of poetry, A Witness in Exile, is now available through Louisiana Literature Press, and at his personal website. He is Senior Poetry Editor at The Rumpus. More from this author →