National Poetry Month Day 11: Sally Wen Mao





Nature Morte


Dead nature or still life, I don’t know what I am.
Let me be still and alive for a moment, on this table

with the mutant persimmon, the comb with missing
teeth, and seven white hairs from my scalp.

The Henri-Charles Guerard etching Les Cocottes de la mort
pairs five pieces of origami with a human skull.

If you stare hard into the sockets of that skull,
you may see the hibernating animal. It breathes a bit,

but faintly. The heart in its ribs knows it is hunted
not for medicine but profit. For greed. This season ahead,

I will try to hibernate. I will draw the same portrait
of a dead woman in graphite, gouache, ink. November,

I line her brows. December, I color her ears. I attempt
chiaroscuro to make her surfaces appear three-dimensional.

At many points in life, you will lose your will to keep
going. I will this woman into existence. I will her into life.

It is desperate as hell. Outside the studio, the kingdom falls
down. The ice sheets migrate. Another planet, they plead.

Another social order, I plead. In the dappled darkness,
I sip burnt coffee. Degraded, the soil goes from soft

to fibrous. Degraded, the water stops irrigating its land.
Degraded, the reef turns white with fear—it ghosts

the seafloor. It halts. Degraded, a woman is still a woman.
She might turn red, burn a bit. She’s already an undesirable

color. I try to correct. I paint over her face before she suffers
more. Now the portrait is a still life. All we see of her form

are her hands reaching toward the basket of bruised
pears. All they seek is fruit. All they find is darkness.


Photograph of Sally Wen Mao courtesy of Sally Wen Mao.

Sally Wen Mao is the author of the collection of poems OCULUS (Graywolf Press, 2019), as well as Mad Honey Symposium (Alice James Books, 2014). She has received fellowships from the New York Public Library Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, the George Washington University, Hedgebrook, The Bread Loaf Writers Conference, and Kundiman, among others. Her work has won a Pushcart Prize and been published in many publications including Harpers Bazaar, Poetry Magazine, Tin House, Best American Poetry, and Kenyon Review. More from this author →