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Envy these female hammerheads:

how they swim in purified

fields, pregnant by salt or ocean

without contact with males. Link and lock

that warmth. No tepid waters.

No freeze. Immaculate.

I am fertile as loam and no one braves

me – oh, flesh of flesh of bone

of blood

and someone was inside me but I remain


I remain empty.

The roots of parthenogenesis are “virgin”

and “creation” – spiders, snails,

scorpions love

themselves, love their bodies,

rapture, rupture—life takes flight.

Progeny in your nests, twigs, and tanks.

Web me the mouth that fields

my questions. Ransom: fatherless children

who will never wonder except

in wonder – the miracle of their mother’s

bright bodies: blue hammers, blue tails.


Magic Whitening Princess

In the Ao Nang 7-11, I buy the cheapest sunscreen: SPF 50 PA+++

Magic Whitening Princess Sunscreen by Cathy Doll. On the box,

a sad tan cartoon girl languishes under an umbrella. In front of her,

her pale counterpart winks, smiling, brazen & sunless. MAGIC,

the label reads. JOY, it promises. WHITER SKIN, it proclaims,

backs that up with ingredients: “titanium dioxide”, “L-Glutathione”;

Fright is the color of my half-experiment, half-joke. I lather it on,

the ersatz glow—blend it into my skin. My arm hairs turn white.

Chalky, pale umbra, slivers of silver. Now my legs are bright fissures

in a skinned desert. White Lady is the name of a skin emulsion,

a serum to correct dry yellow faces. On the subject of a white lady,

Louise Brooks, Hilton Als once wrote: “We are all the product

of someone else’s dream.” That dream, to cast a radiant light,

alchemize a new skin, find a formula that alters the kind of sight

we are. My dream, to court the sun, extend its fingers. To suck

its gold egg & gag. My chalky skin doesn’t hide me from myself,

sallow girl in the sand, her spilled drink & shrunken parasol.

The melanin in her face a testament to what? Broad daylight

makes us crave invisibility. Legend has it, a woman once surfaced

on these sands, half-drowned. A sun god spotted her & cast a spell

so she turned brighter. But she turned so white-hot she scorched

the earth—her own bones, ruined. You can’t seek protection from

this primeval sun. She lives inside a cave, skin milky as moonstone.

Wanting light, she collects fragments of glass to catch the sun’s

reflection, but it never answers. Now a million women want to be

as ashen as she. A million girls spelunk in lightless caves.

O, lovely girls, with your sarongs & sashes, your lashes so black

behind sunglasses, your parasols sheltering you like floating gazebos,

your sun hats woven with your gods & ancestors—O lovely girls,

do not be afraid. The light is not your enemy. Come stand in the sun.


The Guadalupe Slough

In the baylands, near the trails—

is where they found the girl

half-floating, hair fanned,

clothes and glasses


No foul play, the police say.

It was most likely an unattended

death. But surely someone fouled,


Surely someone undressed

her. Unattended death, n: a person dies

and is not found in days, weeks,

months. Like the woman in her London

flat, her TV wailing into the night.

This is what we’re all afraid of—

floating in our own dead skin,

all the traces of our vulnerability

still intact.

Today I walk across the bayland grove

in this cold California

winter, where she was found.

On this side of the trail,

there is no water. The wetlands,

parched with pale salt

across the Guadalupe slough.

Across the state, infernos alight,

breathless & golden.

My aunt’s house in the hills

waiting to catch fire. Broken grass whistling

in the fields. Inside their house, my cousins

play video games, surrender this burning world

to the next.

How can I trust this world

will get better? I keep returning

to the woman in the baylands—

her ankles tangled in coyote bush,

draped with a sheet on the coroner’s table.

Picture this: it’s sunset. Sky, leaves, red streaks

across the creek I’ve crossed

many times on the way to school.

A pine tree catches fire, a man holds

a throat and whispers. Leaves red streaks across

a cheek. As a girl, I waited patiently to catch fire,

as if it were something worth wanting.

Halo. Halogen. Then I did, and I wanted to be put

out. But no one knew how, so the whole house

burned to the ground.


Photo: Dennie Eagleson

Sally Wen Mao is the author of Oculus (Graywolf Press, 2019) and Mad Honey Symposium (Alice James Books, 2014). She is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize and fellowships from Kundiman and The New York Public Library Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers.

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