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Oculus: Poems

4.20  ·  Rating details ·  442 ratings  ·  72 reviews
A brilliant second collection by Sally Wen Mao on the violence of the spectacle—starring the film legend Anna May Wong

In Oculus, Sally Wen Mao explores exile not just as a matter of distance and displacement but as a migration through time and a reckoning with technology. The title poem follows a nineteen-year-old girl in Shanghai who uploaded her suicide onto Instagram. O
Paperback, 119 pages
Published January 15th 2019 by Graywolf Press
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Jerrie (redwritinghood)
As the title implies, these poems focus on the voyeuristic tendencies of humans. Watching of girls and women, particularly Asian women, as entertainment. Many center around the 1930s actress Anna May Wong. Maybe this focus detracted from the structure of the collection as it started to seem repetitive. Mao is clearly a poet of great talent, but the overall collection left me without a strong impression of like or dislike.
David J
May 26, 2019 rated it it was amazing

Sally Wen Mao absolutely hits it out of the park with Oculus. It’s definitely my favorite collection of poetry I’ve read this year, even edging out American Primitive by my beloved Mary Oliver. Mao takes us on an odyssey from past to present to speculative sci-fi future and you’ll want to be there for the ride. Much like what Morgan Parker does with her experience as a black woman, Mao turns a looking glass onto her experience as an Asian American woman. Through various lenses--social media,
Sep 06, 2019 rated it really liked it
I've been waiting years for this book to come out. It's one of the most thematically cohesive poetry collections around: these are poems largely about voyeurism, about how our desire to look into other people's lives can veer into pretty morbid territory sometimes, especially when differences in gender and race tint the lens through which we gaze, and how this becomes especially complicated in our modern era with its advanced technology (webcams, etc.). The heart of the collection is a series of ...more
Apr 11, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This collection is so god damn smart and speculative, a well-researched commentary on technology and Asian futurism and identity and the portrayal and treatment of Asian women and Asian characters in film. I don't typically love a lot of notes in poetry books, but I was really excited to flip back and read the notes on each poem. Well thought out and put together thematically, and each poem is thought-provoking in the subject it deconstructs. Also, that cover is badass.
Andrea Blythe
Jun 12, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: poetry
In Oculus , Sally Wen Mao blends pop culture and technology to question viewpoints — how we reveal ourselves, how we see each other, and the power structures involved in who is telling the story and who doing the viewing. All the poems in this collection are fantastic, but I was particularly enamored with a series of poems written within the perspective of Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American movie star, who time travels her way through the history and future of cinema. Through the eyes of ...more
Sep 30, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to rosalind by: Niki
there are about a billion things to say about how great this book is but for now i’ll just say that there’s a poem after janelle monáe which is like. genius on genius right there!
Apr 09, 2019 rated it really liked it
I read Anne Cheng's Ornamentalism (well not the whole book but the essay where she introduces the idea) shortly before picking up Oculus. Cheng has an epigraph in the book, quoted from Second Skin. In Ornamentalism (in super rough terms), Cheng posits that the yellow woman experiences a particular type of objectification, objectification as ornament -- an aesthetic, synthetic object, as opposed to something fleshy, seductive, nurturing. The most exciting thing for me is that she says that this m ...more
Jan 19, 2020 rated it really liked it
I will admit, there was a lot here that went right over my head, but what I did get was amazing. Her use of fragmented imagery kept me on my toes and painted a surrealist dreamscape in my head filled with history, representation, and digital surveillance. These poems weren’t always the easiest for me to connect to, but Sally Wen Mao’s skill is evident.
Jun 16, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This was a random library find, and very good.

Many of these poems were interrogating Asian stereotypes in American media.
Jaclyn (sixminutesforme)

“I wrote this book for women of color. Without you, the world isn’t possible. Because of you, I keep going. I have learned this the hard way: you matter, and don’t let anyone or anything convince you otherwise.”
I wanted to share this quote from the acknowledgments because it serves a reminder of so many of the explorations within this collection that representation matters.
This is an incredibly moving and present collection, and I’d encourage you to read the author’s notes at the end of the co
Alex Johnson
Sep 26, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: to-buy, poetry-favs
This book took me out back and beat me up in an alley with its beauty and mystery and truth and then it kicked me out into the world, leaving me squinting and seeing things in a whole new perspective. Mao weaves themes of history, women of color's experiences, and technology throughout this book. Also, personally, I enjoyed the mix between poems that I "got" right away and ones that I had to puzzle over. Mao's way with language gives you glimpses into the future through the way of the present an ...more
Jan 26, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Sally Wen Mao’s poetry is both complex and relatable. It’s a collection of beautifully written, well researched, thought provoking poems. Social media, pop culture, voyeurism, race, history, technology, performance, Hollywood. Each poem is complete, many quite powerful, but taken together the collection reveals so much more.
Aug 18, 2020 rated it it was amazing
rip daul kim

need to give this another read-through. chilling, playful, intimate.
Jay Moran
How easy
it is, to shatter chinoiserie, like the Han

dynasty urn Ai Weiwei dropped in 1995.
If only recovering the silenced history

is as simple as smashing its container: book,
bowl, celadon spoon. Such objects cross

borders the way our bodies never could.
Instead, we’re left with history, its blonde

dust. That bowl is unbreakable. All its ghosts
still shudder through us like small breaths.

From the poem Occidentalism

This is one of the best poetry collections I've ever read. Intelligent and hard-hitting
Aug 23, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: poetry
Not only were these poems beautifully and carefully constructed, I learned much from them as well. I found myself googling the full stories of so many referenced historical figures and walked away with a greater understanding of colonial mistreatment of Asian and African citizens.
Katherine Cowley
Jul 06, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, art, poetry
A stunning new collection of poetry from Sally Wen Mao. In "Ghost Story" Mao writes:

When I lived, I wanted to be seen
I built this mansion of windows
for my prince and me.....

a Technicolor wilderness surrounded
us. Turquoise stags watched us shave
with electric razors. We built new barricades
between ourselves.

Ultimately, Mao's poems are about technology, about the way in which the lens changes us, frames us, distorts us, destroys us. Many of Mao's poems deal with specific events, people, and places
Aug 23, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Diaspora, racism, xenophobia. A unique experience by Chinese women and Chinese American women, a suffering of stereotypes, misogyny, and a history of prejudice and oppression. A heart wrenching and illuminating collection that shares an experience non-Chinese/Chinese Americans and non-Asian Americans could not truly understand. As a Jew, I've been well aware of my own experiences with stereotypes in media, how Jews in history were treated. I was able to sympathize and with some of these poems bu ...more
This was an interesting collection to read, particularly addressing racism and identity as an Asian American. It’s the gaze that Asian American women face: fetishized, objectified, and tossed aside in the white-centered United States. I was especially taken to Mao’s approach to temporality and technology in her collection that tied together social, cultural, and political moments across history and their impact on the Asian American community. There was a ghostly effect to show how it lingers. A ...more
Chris Roberts
Jan 08, 2019 rated it did not like it
Verse flourishes in the air,
it surround sounds us,
the poet is mere a collector of words,
a transcriber, nothing more.


Chris Roberts, Lord God
Aug 20, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: bipoc-author, poetry, 2019
This was a really interesting and accessible collection.
Eric Riggs
Jan 20, 2020 rated it really liked it
Powerful voice and elements of science fiction mix elegantly with Sally's world view.
Caroline Mao
(tl:dr; sally wen mao continues to destroy me)

Sally Wen Mao, the author of Mad Honey Symposium, takes us on a journey through landscape, history, technology, and haunting in her 2019 poetry collection Oculus. Her unique voice explores everything from American pop culture to Chinese film history in this stunning collection, which I swept through in a single evening despite how badly I didn’t want it to end.

Mao has an astonishing ability to make the smallest bundle of words leave you struggling fo
Jul 01, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: pl-poetry
I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the art being created in this book of poems. For me, the poems hit close to home in two ways: 1) having similar cultural ties & 2) seeing my own writing growing to have a similar style to Mao’s

I absolutely loved the juxtaposition of poems together stylistically as well as stand alone pieces. I borrowed this book from my public library but I’m excited to purchase my own copy.

*will edit to add some of my favorite lines*
Holly Allen
Aug 07, 2020 rated it liked it
An interesting read but the poems were less effective for me personally than those in her first book
Jan 29, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Stunning! There are time travel poems I’ll come back to again and again.
George Duran
Jul 25, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: poetry, favorites, to-buy
I can see again after reading this book.
Jan 21, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: poetry
Read poetry about what it's like being the other in America, even when you shouldn't be.
Mar 28, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I’m very glad I read this collection of poems. The poet makes me hungry to read more of her poems. Her facility with language, with words, that luxuriously play with one another and yet carry a big stick, moves me. From the first poem to the last there is power. Power. Her words draw me in as much or more than any others I have read. Her poems weave a story, a history, of culture that speaks to our present moment a hundred different ways. I loved these.
Lili Kim
Feb 04, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I’m so glad I got to meet Sally Wen Mao in person, as she explained so much of her poetry and need to have Asian women’s voices be heard. I had no idea about Afong Moy, the first Chinese woman who was caged and prodded as she was brought to the US. Nor did I know about Anna May Wong, who had to play the stereotypical Asian role and who had to die a thousand violent deaths on the big screen. I also appreciate how she talked about Ki Suk Han, who was pushed onto the NYC subway tracks and whose dea ...more
Diana Marie Denza
Apr 17, 2019 rated it it was amazing
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Sally Wen Mao is the author of Mad Honey Symposium (Alice James Books, 2014), the winner of the 2012 Kinereth Gensler Award. Her work has been anthologized in The Best American Poetry 2013 and the Pushcart Prize Anthology. She has a forthcoming book, Oculus, out from Graywolf Press in 2019.

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“Every day I try to fight my own
brokenness. But once you are forgotten,
it's not so bad: a heart broken
joins another chorus.”
“And other times, you're astonished
at your own breath—”
More quotes…