Sally Wen Mao's Oculus (Graywolf Press, 2019)

Visibility in Sally Wen Mao’s Oculus

 by Madeleine Wattenberg


In her open letter included in The Racial Imaginary, Sandra Lim writes: “So: hyper-visibility or invisibility. There are so many ways to be unseen and misseen.” Sally Wen Mao’s new poetry collection Oculus engages with these many ways of being unseen and misseen. The word “oculus” foregrounds visibility and invisibility, but Mao’s poems especially illustrate Lim’s insight that unseeing and mis-seeing occur through a multiplicity of imperially-powered technologies. Mao traces and troubles the racialized (in)visibilities of Asian American women into the circuits of our current time-space, where the shores of our digital lives erode and reform embodied existences. “Ghost Story,” the opening poem, offers a list of the ways that a subject shifts between viewed and viewer: “When I lived, / I wanted to be seen. / I built a mansion of windows.” Later in the poem, a new sort of window appears: “We relied on our plasma television / to pull us back to the world again” and “Soon / a technicolor wilderness surrounded / us.” Here, we have two forms of visibility; first, the window that allows the viewed to also view, and, second, the television screen, which offer its audience a seemingly one-way technicolor image of other (and Othered) worlds. In Oculus, Mao demonstrates how the hyper-visibility produced by and through technology is often as effective a force for the Imperial gaze to “unsee” or “missee” non-white bodies as ignoring them altogether.  

The desire to be viewed also appears in the first of the collection’s two title poems. In this poem, Mao takes as a central subject a young woman in Shanghai who allegedly committed suicide after posting live updates on Instagram: “Before I wake, I peruse the dead girl’s live / photo feed. Days ago, she uploaded / her confessions.” One of the most compelling complications in Mao’s examination of race and invisibility is that as she examines the hyper-visibility’s possible violences, she also generates a conversation about links between race, technology, and time. Here, for example, the lead-up to a woman’s suicide may be viewed on repeat, the action looped, readily available to every Instagrammer who knows her username. In one photo, her ex’s left items continuously burn. In another, her legs dangle over a high-rise parking lot as she apparently sits on her windowsill. In this digital landscape, she remains a dead girl on a “live” feed, and no embodied life moves to refute the digital image.

However, I think it would be a mistake to simplify these poems to mere critique of social media’s exploitative voyeurism. The online image also persists as a temporal disruption, a digital ghost of refusal, that continuously haunts the present so long as the servers last. This means that while the violence of the voyeuristic gaze may be repeated with each visit, it also makes it harder to forget. The poem “Live Feed” reads as a continuation of this conversation as Mao draws on one of the woman’s Instagram captions for the opening line: “After I am dead, I will hunt you day and night.” In shifting the original language from “haunt” to “hunt,” she heightens the ghost’s potential to re-enter and disrupt the material world. As Mao literalizes the dead metaphors of our digital language, she draws renewed attention to the way a viewer “feeds” on the viewed and destabilizes the binary between digital and embodied experience: “share me, my shards / and my innards—/ reduce me to a watering hole / / for your thirst.” Through the second-person address, this speaker undoes herself before the viewer in order to turn the viewer back toward themselves as they devour her digital body. In this way, Mao allows her speakers to exist in paradox. The images convey tragedy and horror as they are sadistically viewed and exploited. Yet by recording death in this way, by rendering it hyper-visible and aestheticized, the woman leaves behind an ongoing performance of her own absence. No viewer may step in to save her—as Mao’s speaker commands, we can only “undo” ourselves as we witness her undoing.

The poem “Ghost in the Shell” also engages the cyber ghost. It takes as its source material both the Japanese manga Ghost in the Shell and the subsequent film adaptation in which Scarlett Johansson was cast in the lead role. Mao uses the manga’s original concept—that a woman’s cyborg-body is vulnerable to hacking—to critique the whitewashing of this casting choice. The “hack” becomes the replacement and erasure of Asian bodies and the lived experiences of these bodies: “someone has implanted Scarlett Johansson’s / face onto mine, hacked my ghost.” Mao also debunks the assumption that the cyborg-body will be post-racial (“We’re not in Polanski’s / Chinatown anymore. Yet we still have the same bowl // haircuts,” she writes in “Anna May Wong Stars as Cyborg #86”). Yet here, too, the ghost hunts in the innerworkings, and Mao’s speaker promises that “this brutish reign of cinematography / is about to end—history flensed, data wiped.”

Mao further complicates the relationship between performance, race, and time as she stages various anachronisms. In a suite of persona poems, a time-traveling Anna May Wong appears at a number of cinematic moments that stereotype, appropriate, or whitewash Asian characters. Born in California in 1905 (side note: if you’re looking for a starting point to learn more, Mao has a great twitter thread on her here), Wong is considered the first Chinese American Hollywood actress. In “The Toll of the Sea,” a poem which takes its title from one of Wong’s first films, Mao writes: “In every story, there is a chance to restore the color / If we recover the flotsam, can we rewrite the script?” The persona poems lean into this question as Mao’s Wong declares, “Today I fly / the hell out in my Chrono-jet. //  To the future, where I’m forgotten.” In subsequent poems, Wong appears next to Bruce Lee in The Orphan, where she shares with Lee the concern that her own visibility casts a shadow across a “million invisible faces” in the way Orientalist constructions perpetuated by her roles might erase other individual lives, the way a bright light deepens the shadows elsewhere. She appears in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, where she “yawn[s] at another generation of white men in yellowface,” then leaves to “travel through all time searching” for the girls “who inherit my warnings, victories / and failures too.” In Sixteen Candles, she craves to be cast as a stereotype other than those enforced upon her.

These various anachronisms reveal that, despite its reliance on progression and linear time to tout its exceptionalism, Western Imperialism is as frozen as the stereotyped images it continues to produce. The juxtaposition of the stereotypical tropes present in early twentieth century film against subsequent depictions of Asian women in cinema creates a disjunction precisely because it emphasizes the similarities that exist where contrast should be drawn. The anachronism thus creates a tiny rift in what intends to operate as a seamless vision of progress toward the post-racial. In “Anna May Wong Stars as Cyborg #86,” she rhetorically queries, “Am I surprised—/ Hollywood stills assumes we are all the bastard / / children of the same evil dictator?” and subsequently turns her address to other women of color: “Let’s hijack the narrative, steer // the story ourselves. There’d be a heist, a battle. / Audre Lorde would write the script.” In addition to its critical visions, much of the heart of this collection lies here, in gestures of solidarity through shadow, in the possibility that women of color can defy time and script  to write to and for each other.

Madeleine Wattenberg's lifelong dream of writing a review entirely in emojis feels closer than ever. Her poems have recently appeared in journals such as Best New Poets 2017, cream city review, The Seattle Review, DIAGRAM, Fairy Tale Review, Ninth Letter, and Mid-American Review. She is currently a PhD student in poetry at the University of Cincinnati.