cover image The Kingdom of Surfaces

The Kingdom of Surfaces

Sally Wen Mao. Graywolf, $16 trade paper (112p) ISBN 978-1-64445-237-0

By turns “maker, muse and beholder,” Mao (Oculus) explores in her ruminative third collection the politics of beauty and the ironies inherent in culture and civilization under the sign of empire. Born in Wuhan, China, and living in New York City, the poet trains her mythopoetic gaze on the arts of China—especially silk and porcelain—from the techniques of production to the fraught histories of acquisition: “How language like history// neuters, neutralizes./ Looty, a dog, | Acquires/ a word forged in amnesia, shrouding provenance.” The speaker’s self-appointed task is to pull back this shroud, opening herself to ghosts: “Last night a woman from another century/ entered me, and her male phantoms possessed/ me, all night I was warm,/ cold and savage with their touch.” Metaphors for the making of poetry abound: the nacreous formation of a pearl, pottery fired in “the kiln of history,” “the looms, the threads, the hands, the cocoons.” Capsule histories of the 19th-century craze for Chinese porcelain and violent anti-Chinese practices thread throughout, while postcolonial critique meets VR fantasy in the book’s centerpiece: an extended, rapturous encounter with the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2015 exhibit, China: Through the Looking Glass. Emerging from epic battles and “wreckage,/ wrack of flesh and blood tide,” Mao brandishes her own tenacious imagination: “It’s a miracle that I am wild.” (Aug.)