In Sally Wen Mao’s “Oculus,” the Poem Becomes a Time Travel Machine

by Esther Sun

Opinion Editor

— but not just that. As a space travel machine, the poem navigates dimension and distance, glancing from one blistering evocation of mainland Chinese setting to another: factory, rural village, Wuhan train station. As a borrowed voicebox, the poem traverses identity.


Sally Wen Mao, a Pushcart Prize winner, has published two full-length poetry collections: Oculus in 2019 and Mad Honey Symposium in 2014.

The word “oculus” describes a circular window or opening at the top of a dome. In Latin, it directly translates to “eye.” Similarly, Sally Wen Mao welds the cold shiver of technology with a probing sense of vision, giving due justice to her 2019 poetry collection’s title Oculus, that pierces through skin and inspects our most hidden selves.

The first of Mao’s two title poems tells the story of a teenage girl in Shanghai who uploaded photos of her planned suicide to Instagram in 2014. In “The Diary of Afong Moy,” Mao depicts Moy’s sensationalism as disguised by honor but ultimately revealed as degradation, tokenism, “a slap.” Oculus partially resolves on a hopeful note with its closing poem, “Resurrection,” in which Mao emphasizes Anna May Wong’s legacy in America and the comfort it brings her.

Mao’s key intrigue in Oculus is unquestionably that of striking Asian and Asian-American historical figures: Anna May Wong, Afong Moy, and Ruan Lingyu. Through two series of poems written in the voice of Wong, the first Chinese-American movie star, Mao calls out discriminatory 20th century attitudes against Asian-Americans — a narrative that still resounds with clarity today. As Mao lends herself Wong’s first person narrative voice, we find the poet not only referring to Wong in her cool, crisp “I,” but to herself as well: “Even the muzzle over my mouth could not kill me, though I never slept soundly through the silence.”

In some poems, Mao’s voice is reminiscent of that of Frank O’Hara, who often used location to drive motion. 

“From the steps of the New York Public Library, we hailed a taxi uptown,” Mao writes in one of two poems titled “Oculus.” “Past the lions — past Patience, past Fortitude, to the Guggenheim, where we sat, lotus style, wearing head-to-toe white with a sea of others.” 

Also, like O’Hara’s love for New York City propelled much of his writing, Mao’s fascination with her Chinese homeland provides the backbone for many poems of worldbuilding (or world-imagining), notably the second section of “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles.” 

Marrying threads of electronic strangeness to a critique of the America that ignores people of color, Oculus’s force and beauty stuns us into silence: not the oppressive silence Wong combats in Hollywood or the eerie silence of China’s Guiyu Village, but the dazzled silence of gazing up at the Guggenheim’s Oculus dome, “through which all fears still burned and awed,” at once seeing and utterly seen.


One of Mao’s inspirations for her collection title, Oculus, is the Oculus dome at the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan.


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