Sally Wen Mao’s second poetry collection, “Oculus,” looks like an Instagram post. The cover of Mao’s new book features a mysterious woman hiding behind a Nikon and a conveniently in-the-way bunch of lilies, a DSLR mirror selfie covered by one of those white, centered, all-caps sans-serif titles that apparently aren’t out yet.
At first glance, it’s a too-cool-for-chroma feat of millennial eye candy. If you find enough interest to linger on the image, however, it grows ominous. The lens of the camera is nearly indistinguishable from its body, swallowing up the face of its owner and creating a gaping black hole in the focal point of the piece. The photographer is distanced from us by the black hole of the Nikon, the flowers, the title and the supposed mirror, which we can’t even see. The disproportional, gaping expanse of gray-blue above her head practically yawns “absence.” There’s a woman in this image, but it’s hardly a portrait.
The poetry in “Oculus” operates like the collection’s smart cover design. Mao’s poems are front-loaded with detail, flashing handfuls of hot topics, aesthetic trends and buzzwords that capture the attention of a particular audience (millennials and their apologists) just enough to create some interpretive distance between the reader and the more sinister forces at work underneath their poetic Instagram filter. In “Mall of the Electronic Superhighway,” the “makeup made of mica” and holographic guest-star appearances by James Baldwin, Whitney and Prince act as a sort of techno-sensational gloss for what’s actually unfolding throughout the poem: The electronic mall is “curat[ing] an apocalypse / into a beautiful, fashionable memory the texture of the silk / you can’t afford.” In another poem, the whitewashing of Asian roles in cinema is encoded in a “cyberpunk heaven” where an “investigator cyborg” reports a crime:
“someone has implanted Scarlett Johansson’s
face onto mine; hacked my ghost, installed
an imposter’s memories, reprogrammed
my optic nerves, diluted my brain into a white
Mao is lifting contemporary tech-jargon keywords out of their comfortable Silicon Valley context and manipulating their excitable aura to illustrate high-gravity social concerns for an audience susceptible to the technical. The difficult distance between language and theme is intentional. Its unsettling affect, Mao seems to say, is the consequence of prioritizing, entertaining and investing in such flashy gadgetry — the consequence of spectacle.
Spectacle, it seems, is the unifying theme throughout “Oculus,” and one that Mao traces back from the Instagrammable cover and glittering technical jargon to cinema; specifically, early 20th century Hollywood and Anna May Wong, the first Chinese-American movie star. Wong appears throughout “Oculus,” travelling through time and space to reckon with her career. Particularly, her work in the ’20s and ’30s is cast again and again as “the strumpet, the starved one” in “nacre and chignon,” always fated for “deception, despair, death,” roles objectifying and typecasting the Asian woman as a sexy cinematic disposable in the American imagination.
In “Oculus,” Wong is free. In a Vonnegutian feat of imagination, Anna May Wong is unstuck in time: She “fl(ies) the hell out in (her) Chrono-jet,” makes out with Bruce Lee at a space bar and talks shit with Josephine Baker in Paris, a place to where both movie stars fled to escape Hollywood racism.
Almost a third of Mao’s collection is devoted to freeing the memory of Anna May Wong. Her liberation, however, is necessarily bittersweet. While travelling through time, throwing back space shots and attending Fashion Week, Wong meditates on the portrayal of East Asians in the American spectacle of her wake, from Long Duk Dong in “Sixteen Candles” to Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku Girls.
Through Wong, Mao traces the development of the spectacle and its nefarious encryption of stereotype from the the big screen to the little, merging effortlessly with the collection’s simultaneous preoccupation with gadgetry. The passive-oppressive power of spectacle is now in the hands and pockets of billions, across the globe, all the time. It’s exponential.
“Oculus” is brimming with information. Beyond her lyric biography of Anna May Wong, Mao conscientiously works modern-day media and current events into nearly all her poems, enough research to necessitate a section of explanatory notes at the end of the book, akin to an Oxford World Classic. Few volumes of poetry boast such backmatter — flipping back and forth between text and notes is a style of reading I figured highly academic and contained to, say, John Whittier-Ferguson’s Joyce class.
But this slim volume of contemporary poetry warrants it, too. Prior to discovering the notes (my first mistake was assuming they weren’t there), I went around telling too many people that Mao’s poems had the contemporary tendency to come off as handfuls of tasty language stylishly cast upon a page, free-verse style boo-rah. What I had initially written off as ornament, though, is actually far more calculated. Entire lines in “The Toll of the Sea” are lifted from 1922 silent film of the same name, the first Technicolor film ever made, and the self-titled “Oculus” is based on the story of a young woman in Shanghai who documented her suicide on Instagram in 2014. My favorite poem in the collection, “Lavender Town,” is named after the town in “Pokémon Red and Blue” where all the dead Pokémon are buried. I was deeply affected by it, even as someone who didn’t completely understand the reference having not played the games, which suddenly cast the poem in a more complex, melancholy light.
In this manner, the poems in Mao’s collection execute a deft two-punch maneuver. They first generate internal spectacle on the line, distracting from their local plot with flashy words and glittering gadgetry. Then, with this in mind, “Oculus” as a whole starts to look like spectacle, unveiling the artistic distance between the poetry and the very real, very serious topics and themes it comments on (the text and the notes, if you will). Mao’s poems don’t just comment on spectacle — they literally perform it, unveiling its subtle machinery and complicated network of repercussions right there, right on the page.