OCULUS

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OCULUS BY SALLY WEN MAO

Sally Wen Mao has a gift for persona poems. In Oculus, she depicts figures such as Anna May Wong, a Chinese–American Hollywood star, and Afong Moy, the first female Chinese immigrant, in vivid, autonomous ways—contradictory to their blurry historical representations. While other poems pixelate or distort the world rendered—for purpose of criticizing the inability of white America to see, instead of display, others—these persona poems strike with conviction. Anna May Wong’s voice proclaims, “I’ve tried so hard to erase myself. / That iconography—”

Here Mao discusses the dehumanization of women of color by offering them protection: blurred images, new armor, grounds and oceans to bury and lose themselves in, “Because being seen has a different meaning to someone / with my face,” she writes. The poems in this collection can be stark and violent, where “blood sickles down,” and the speaker deforms herself, and hands are “cold like gauntlets,” but despite this and the ghosts that follow her, Mao carries through “an exhausting / hope” that makes Oculus a victorious and worthwhile read.

Graywolf Press.

— Review by Emma Jones