Graywolf Press

OUT NOW January 15, 2019





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In Oculus, Sally Wen Mao explores exile not just as a matter of distance and displacement, but as a migration through time and a reckoning with technology. The title poem follows a girl in Shanghai who uploaded her suicide onto Instagram. Other poems cross into animated worlds, examine robot culture, and haunt a necropolis for electronic waste. A fascinating sequence speaks in the voice of international icon and first Chinese American movie star Anna May Wong, who travels through the history of cinema with a time machine, even past her death and into the future of film, where she finds she has no progeny. With a speculative imagination and a sharpened wit, Mao powerfully confronts the paradoxes of seeing and being seen, the intimacies made possible and ruined by the screen, and the many roles and representations that women of color are made to endure in order to survive a culture that seeks to consume them.

 Praise for Oculus

Stunning, expansive. . . . [Oculus] marks Sally Wen Mao as one of the most compelling, provocative poets working today. . . . Mao’s language beautifully encompasses both the natural and technological worlds, infusing both with humanity, and offering a crystal clear vision of the ways in which our culture corrupts and consumes those who don’t fit within it seamlessly.
— Nylon
Whether wayward spirit or nefarious satyr, Mao’s narrators and characters inhabit the sense of oculus as eye-opening, a transformative door ... Mao’s descriptions are precise and surreal, a next phase of evolution ... An expansive book, but each poem bears careful reading.
— The Millions
In her stunning second collection, Mao stages a searing ventriloquy act, inhabiting a very specific group of otherwise voiceless speakers: Asian and Asian American woman who have been stereotyped and reduced to cliché in films, photographs, and TV shows. These depictions speak and fight back against the white gaze that has framed them, reclaiming their humanity from the weathering and reductive eye of posterity, from a time when ‘There was no word/ for tokenism.’
In the fascinating collection Oculus (Graywolf), Sally Wen Mao considers exile as a result of time, distance — and modern technology. The title piece reflects on a girl in Shanghai who committed suicide online while “awaiting a hand to hold, / eyes to behold her as the lights clicked on / and she posed for her picture, long eyelashes / all wet, legs tapered, bright as thorns.” A series of poems about the first Chinese American movie star, Anna May Wong, shows her traveling through the past and then to the future of film in a time machine. By telling Wong’s story, and those of other women of color who have been defined by images in popular culture, the work explores the ramifications of being seen and objectified but never truly known.
— The Washington Post
Contemporary poetry is full of scrupulously researched, rather lifeless ‘project’ books; a lesser poet than Mao might have stuck to the historical Wong, out of some misplaced sense of fealty or respect. But Mao’s fabricated [Anna May] Wong is a wild creation … The real escape, Mao’s work suggests, is poetry, which tracks the mind as it moves through embodiments not transmittable by visual means. I thought of the sublime conclusion of Yeats’s ‘Among School Children’: ‘O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, / How can we know the dancer from the dance?’
— The New Yorker, "Sally Mao Writes Visionary Poems for a Blinkered World"
By giving voice to, composing odes for, or revising [Chinese] figures, Mao creates a poignant, albeit cautious, optimism ... Oculus is a deftly structured volume of hauntingly perceptive poems, peering backward through the 20th century while penetrating our contemporary moment. It’s an homage to pioneering Chinese Americans and an indictment of Asian representation in American culture, which never for a moment shies away from the difficult tasks of taking on race and history and technology all at once, but confidently looks them right in the eye, unblinking.
— Vulture
[Sally Wen Mao investigates] a technology-subjugated world in take-no-prisoners language. . . . Raw and impressive. . . . A strong second collection from a rising poet.
— Library Journal
Mao’s kaleidoscopic verse scrutinizes our obsession with onscreen spectacles—and includes a tour de force sequence that imagines silent-film actress Anna May Wong time-traveling.
— O, the Oprah Magazine
One of the most compelling complications in Mao’s examination of race and invisibility is that as she examines the hyper-visibility’s possible violences, she also generates a conversation about links between race, technology, and time.
— The Bind
The imagination in Sally Wen Mao’s second volume of poetry, Oculus, revels in cybernetic possibilities, especially for the women of color who inhabit its pages.
— Los Angeles Review of Books
Sally Wen Mao’s poetry is at once speculative, sharp, lush, and precise. . . . Oculus tackles distance and exile, technology and time––several poems are told through the filter of a time-traveling Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American film star, which is all I needed to hear to zoom through space and time wherever she asks me to.
— Literary Hub
[B]oth scalpel and flood, poems of brooded, subtle syntax that build and accrue toward inevitable and stifling ferocity. Mao’s work reclaims for itself an acidic possibility.
— Ocean Vuong
Reading Oculus is like being given the gift of sight. . . . the possibility of being restored to who we could be, and who we could be next.
— Alexander Chee
Oculus is a stunning and mesmerizing journey. . . . and it is brilliant. Mao’s is a consistently inspiring and exciting voice.
— Morgan Parker
A tour-de-force, a rousing ride.
— Marilyn Chin
I simply trust no other poet to confront and fracture notions of Empire more deftly—and with such élan—than Sally Wen Mao.
— Aimee Nezhukumatathil
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