Sally Wen Mao. Oculus. Graywolf Press, January 2019. $16.
The poems in Sally Wen Mao’s Oculus are about seeing and being seen. Mao shows us how identity—particularly ethnic and racial identity—influences how we are viewed by others, whether through the distortion of an old movie camera lens or through the façade of social media intimacy. Oculus is an ambitious collection. Attempting to create a list of its subjects seems, at first, overwhelming, but Mao skillfully weaves her concerns together in a way that feels natural and never jarring. These subjects—celebrity, identity, suicide, prejudice, technology, imperialism, time—belong together on the page. Oculus addresses Afong Moy, who in 1834 became the first Chinese woman to travel to the United States, just as readily as it references the controversy around Chinese bodies in the Bodies World Exhibitions, for instance. Oculus has no fixed time or place; it exists everywhere at once.
Mao divides the book into five main sections with a final poem, “Resurrection,” standing alone as the sixth. These sections are thematically and narratively linked, with two and four being the most obvious examples of this. Those focus on Anna May Wong, who is considered the first Chinese-American film star. Wong serves as one of the central characters throughout this collection, and her name appears in the titles of eleven of its poems. In “The Toll of the Sea,” we’re introduced to Wong as she stars in that 1922 version of Madame Butterfly, the “first successful two-color (red and green) Technicolor feature,” as the epigraph informs us. Quickly, Mao liberates Wong from her historical context and gives her a time machine. She jumps around through cinema history, exploring the legacy of Asian actors in film.
A good example of how Mao uses this conceit can be found in “Anna May Wong Blows Out Sixteen Candles,” where the speaker of the poem reflects on the use of racist imagery in John Hughes’s 1984 film Sixteen Candles: “Long / Duk Dong is the white girl’s houseguest. He dances, // drunk, agog with gong sounds,” the alliteration and assonance drawing even further attention to the character’s ludicrous, racist name and the film’s cartoonish use of sound. But soon after this, the poem shifts from the widely viewed and extremely popular film to an intimate and painful moment:
________When I was eight, the boy who sat behind me brought pins
________to class. “Do Asians feel pain the way we do?” he’d ask.
________He’d stick the needles to the back of my neck until I winced.
________I wore six wool coats so I wouldn’t feel the sting…
Then, seamlessly, the poem shifts away from this personal moment and returns to the cinema, this time focusing on the limited roles given to Asian actors and the possibilities that can exist outside of caricature and stereotype: “so cast me in a new role already. Cast me as a pothead, / an heiress, a gymnast, a queen. Cast me as a castaway in a city.”
In this exploration of film history, Mao highlights both the accomplishments and successes of Asian film actors as well as the racist and demeaning portrayals of Asian people that have appeared in movies through the years. In “Anna May Wong Has Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” Wong sees Mickey Rooney playing Mr. Yunioshi, an offensive caricature of a Japanese man, and “yawn[s] / at another generation of white men in yellowface.”
Oculus also reminds us that moments like these are not solely relics of the past. The book addresses scenes of more modern controversy as well, like the casting of Scarlett Johansson in the 2017 film adaptation of the Japanese manga series Ghost in the Shell. “I wake up with a different face. // Who am I?” Mao writes as we witness this act of whitewashing. She carefully uses the themes of ambiguous and shifting identities found in the source material to address the film adaptation’s problematic casting:
________someone has implanted Scarlett Johansson’s
____________face onto mine, hacked my ghost, installed
________an imposter’s memories, reprogrammed
________my optic nerves, diluted my brain into a white
Oculus is filled with film stars and famous roles. It’s filled with exploitation and oppression. It’s also filled with loss and alienation. The first of two title poems deals with a nineteen-year-old girl who uploads photos to Instagram leading up to her 2014 suicide. “Days ago, she uploaded // her confessions: I can’t bear the sorrow,” the speaker remembers. People liked the photos and some commented, but no one intervened. Sometimes a person craves a connection or, at the very least, an audience. For others, like Afong Moy—paraded as a curiosity in front of white men who wanted to see her bound feet uncovered and “loved how [she] / flinched, [her] cheeks burning like copper”—identity has forced an audience upon them. Oculus fixates on this idea of visibility. Some want to be seen; others have no choice in the matter.