“if this doesn’t comfort you”

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These notes are part of my “read 100 poetry books in 12-ish months” effort. Far from an official review, they represent first impressions and provide some context for what I brought to the reading of the text.

30 of 100: Oculus by Sally Wen Mao (2019, Graywolf Press)

Quick, personal thoughts:

  • I started reading this book in mid-January and created the bones for these reading notes at that same time. I didn’t get very far. The anxious mood I’d been combating proved to be more formidable than I’d hoped, and so I walked away from my reading/writing goals without even realizing I’d done so. I was fortunate to get back into therapy, which has been a great comfort, but the descent into lock down/quarantine (#socialdistancing to fight the pandemic) happened at roughly the same time. I’ve been lucky enough to continue to work from the safety of my home and be paid, but it’s been difficult in its own way. All of that is a story for another post, and I do hope to explore it at some point, but I return to this book in the context of all of that. Deep into all of that. Weeks and weeks deep. Layers and layers deep.
  • Oculus starts with these three lines: “Forgive me if the wind stole / the howl from my mouth and whipped / it against your windowpanes.” This COVID-19 quarantine seems to be making everything hurt just a little — or even a lot — more. My initial notes about “Ghost Story,” the collection’s opening poem, captured only these lines: “We relied on our plasma television / to pull us back to the world again.” In light of the pandemic, I seem to be reading much more into it now. For example, “the curtains parted, exposing / us to the wolves above.” And “we built new barricades / between ourselves.” And “that was the last time I trusted a body that touched me.” And “a heart broken / joins another chorus. Can you hear / the chorus speak? Can you bear / it?” Has the pandemic changed all the meanings? I don’t want to imply that the poem is now “about” the global crisis. It isn’t. It’s still about the loneliness that exists inside a relationship when it isn’t working. However, what I am wondering is whether or not being gutted by what’s going on in the world has heightened our senses. Are we more attuned to the pain of others? Are we any more likely to feel the suffering of others in our own bodies? As poets, we’ve been like this all along to a degree. It’s our superpower (and our struggle). But I do believe there’s something incredibly powerful emerging from the collective compassion and unrest.
  • Another way to look at all that is just to say that poetry meets us where we are. It’s as much what we bring to it as it is what the poet painstakingly sculpts. As a poet that’s freeing. It’s exhilarating. It’s also god damned infuriating.
  • I have a project (still in its infancy) for which I want to explore the intersection of pleasure/pain and machinery and what substitutes for intimacy. I’m deeply interested in the blurring of boundaries between body (flesh/presence) and factory (what’s manufactured). Oculus has been a gift to me in that regard; Sally Wen Mao skillfully teases out how technology infiltrates our world/physical beings and what it means to be alive in that confused (conflicted? commandeered?) space. For example, “We unsolder our duress / with wire splinters, all lodged in our flesh / as if powering us. By noon, the megalomaniac / sun smiles down at the skinned machines. / It is the defects that incandesce, the supply / us with food, music, harm.” And this: “do I dare proclaim, / with a cyborg body, this humanity is my own? … You can bedevil me with fabrication, but I / transmit the truth. It’s in the data, the stars, / my blood, my spit, my wires, my parts.”
  • In the poems that imagine/reimagine the career of Anna May Wong, a Chinese American movie star born in LA in 1905, Oculus captures the stereotyping and erasure rampant in Hollywood (and in history). It provides an important view into what’s at stake and what’s lost when exploitative practices persist. And they do persist: “There are claws. There is gore. / In the end, the showdown is cut / to make room for Gwen’s cheerleading routine.”
  • Ominous. The human as ghost. Humans as subjects of the machine. As dispensable. As terminal. But the _______ will go on without us. As I near the end of the collection, I can almost sense the book’s warnings wriggling through my body. And I am certain I’m meant to question if this feeling in my gut is any different from previous things I’ve known and failed to act upon. The cost of mindlessness. Autopilot. Consumption. The 9-to-5 of purpose. The politics of bodies. Of exclusion.

Lines I want to remember:

  • “we’re left with history, its blonde / dust”
  • “Lately, I can’t go underground without shielding / my body with my hands. The train whines / and goes. The stories about our lives do not have faces.”
  • “Take it all off / for us to see: first the clothes, // then the epidermis, then your mouth, / your country, your context. Provenance: / a chronology of ownership– “
  • “America cannot orient / itself without an opposite.”
  • “the sorries / buried underneath / couldn’t sprout.”
  • “I’m in the live audience / where they feed us live girls for supper.”
  • “The future is as sterile as a robot’s loincloth. / I drown my hands in sanitizer until they pucker.”
  • “Flesh precedes computers, sweat precedes data. / Before everything was stolen, our lives were ours.”
  • “if this doesn’t comfort you, whitney, michael, and prince / will sing in your ear. you will weep together. you will not be alone.”
  • “Down on earth, we saw the tragedy– / the machine cracked under slow wheels.”
  • “None of our names / were there. But our bodies. There they were. / The most photographed place on earth / … “

What others have said:

  • from The Georgia Review: “Oculus, Sally Wen Mao’s second collection, travels swiftly and deftly through time and urban landscapes across continents. Unbounded by death and transcending history, these poems interrogate the relationship between technology and the body and confront the symbolic violence of the camera’s gaze.”
  • from Diode: “The word Oculus, the title of Sally Wen Mao’s second poetry collection, generally denotes an eye-like opening or window. It is both a divide between spaces and a means to see between them—a transparent and porous liminality, a threshold that can be crossed by a gaze or a voice. To title her book as such, Mao identifies the work of her poetry (if not poetry in general) as that of an oculus; it offers an opening, a glimpse, or else a context into a place, a culture, or life through the frame of ornamental architecture, i.e., a poem. In particular, Mao’s collection functions as an ‘eye-like opening’ between Chinese and American cultures, between past and present racisms, and between the real and the imagined real…”
  • from Columbia Journal: “Sally Wen Mao’s stunning second collection, Oculus, focuses not just on sight but on the politics of seeing—its intimacies, failures, elusions, evasions. Oculus in Latin means eye, but it is also a circular opening in the center of a dome or wall. In French, this translates to œil de boeuf, or bull’s eye. This triad of meaning is one that is explored in Oculus, its tensions fleshed out in searing detail. How does the eye as an organ process our lived experience? How does seeing connect us to the outside world or frame or limit our perceptions of it, like a window? How does seeing make a target out of its beholder or beheld?”
  • from The New Yorker: “The poems in ‘Oculus’ are rangy, protean, contradictory. They offer an alternative to the selfie, that static reduction of a person to her most photogenic poses.”
  • from Aimee Nezhukumatathil on the book’s back cover: “I simply trust no other poet to confront and facture notions of Empire more deftly than Sally Wen Mao. These eerie and exacting poems serve as a light and lighthouse for a much-needed reckoning. Prepare yourself to search. Prepare yourself to be searched.”

Where some of the poems from this collection live online:

Have you read this collection? If so, let me know your thoughts in the comments!

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