Oculus by Sally Wen Mao
Graywolf Press, 2019; 136 pages
Reviewed by Luisa A. Igloria
Dismantling the Voracious Eye
In every great city, there is always at least one grand structure which was built specifically to serve as point of observation, a place from which viewers can look out to survey the vastness surrounding it. There is the Eiffel in Paris, the Petronas Towers in Malaysia, the Canton Tower in Guangzhou. There is the Navy Pier Ferris Wheel in Chicago, the Space Needle in Seattle, and the London Eye. Many of such structures can trace their origins to an earlier time when countries were competing for the status of Empire— when expeditions were sent out into uncharted waters with the express purpose of colonizing new territories, bringing back slaves, spices, and other goods. The heightened interest in “white cities” with sweeping promenades and majestic architecture naturally fed into these imperial fantasies.
In the 19th century, the philosopher Jeremy Bentham (who directed in his will that his body be preserved after death and put on public display) dedicated much of his work to ideas of surveillance embodied in his Panopticon. The design was for a prison with a central tower, from which a watchman could at all times observe the prisoners in cells ranged about him in a circle or semicircle without them being able see who was looking at them. These ideas went on to influence other generations of thinkers interested in the intersections of power and visuality (including practices by which states identify, classify, and ascribe—or don’t ascribe— attributes to their citizen-subjects).
Sally Wen Mao’s recently released and highly anticipated Oculus represents an ambitious poetic project which explores and exposes the different ways in which colonized, im/migrant, displaced and otherwise marginal bodies have figured in various technics of seeing, winding up in our age of digital media and the internet.
“A man celebrates erstwhile conquests,
his book locked in a silo, still in print.
An East India Company, an opium trade,
a war, a treaty, a concession, an occupation,
a man parting the veil covering a woman’s
face, his nails prying her lips open.”
~ “Occidentalism,” page 9
In her book, the oculus— any opening through which acts of seeing are performed and manipulated— takes many voracious forms throughout history. The book has a stunning sequence of poems in the voice of Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American actress to break into Hollywood in the ‘20s and ‘30s but was turned down by Metro-Goldwyn Mayer in favor of a white actress for the leading role of O-Lan in the movie version of The Good Earth in 1935. Other poems present commentary on the similar whitewashed casting of Scarlett Johansson for the title role in a 2017 remake of Ghost in the Shell; on the young people employed at computer parts companies in China who constantly attempt suicide because of desperate work conditions that nets have been constructed around the periphery of their dormitories. Then there is the unnerving story of jojostai1012, a young woman in Shanghai, who documented her apparent suicide on Instagram five years ago:
“…I can’t be held
or beheld here, in this barren warren,
this din of ruined objects, peepholes into boring
…She wiped her lens
before she died. The smudge still lives.”
~ “Oculus,” page 7
Sally Wen Mao’s heartbreaking and unforgettable poems limn the tragic consequences especially for women of color attempting to overcome the consumptive and obliterating gaze of western consumerist culture: Korean supermodel Daul Kim who killed herself in 2009 is one of them, but also I think of the many Asian mail order brides whose images are on countless websites advertising sex tourism mostly to white male clients. In Oculus, they flit like ghosts looking for another aperture (the poem) through which they might escape oblivion and abjection:
“When I lived, I wanted to be seen.
… we were apparitions of splendor.
… All a ghost wants is to be chained
to a place, to someone who can’t forget.”
~ “Ghost Story,” page 5
Hegemony lives on, Sally Wen Mao warns. On neon billboards outside our high rises and condos as well as from every mobile device we own, it continues to flash seductive promises that everyone can supposedly have greater access to utopian worlds through technology. In this regard, Oculus is a short but intensive course on the different and necessary technologies of dismantling the omnivorous eye:
“WHITE the color of the master narrative
In every story, there is a chance to restore the color.”
~ “The Toll of the Sea,” page 27
“Darlings, let’s rewrite the script,” she croons through Anna May Wong. “Let’s hijack the narrative, steer / the story ourselves. There’d be a heist, a battle. / Audre Lorde would write the script.”
Luisa A. Igloria is the winner of the 2015 Resurgence Prize (UK), the world's first major award for ecopoetry, selected by former UK poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion, Alice Oswald, and Jo Shapcott. Natasha Trethewey selected her manuscript What is Left of Wings, I Ask, as the recipient of the 2018 Center for the Book Arts Letterpress Poetry Prize. She is the author of the full length works The Buddha Wonders if She is Having a Mid-Life Crisis (Phoenicia Publishing, Montreal, 2018), Ode to the Heart Smaller than a Pencil Eraser (selected by Mark Doty for the 2014 May Swenson Prize, Utah State University Press), Night Willow (Phoenicia Publishing, Montreal, 2014), The Saints of Streets (University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 2013), Juan Luna’s Revolver (2009 Ernest Sandeen Prize, University of Notre Dame Press), and nine other books. She teaches on the faculty of the MFA Creative Writing Program at Old Dominion University, which she directed from 2009-2015. www.luisaigloria.com