The Kingdom of Surfaces: Poems
“The Kingdom of Surfaces is mesmerizing, gorgeous for its attention to language and image, and equally horrifying for what it holds before our gaze and how it challenges that gaze.”
In Sally Wen Mao's third book, The Kingdom of Surfaces, the poet engages with identity and self-worth, memory (cultural and personal), decay (environmental, cultural, personal), sexual relationships, objectification, and othering. The collection's opening poem, "Loquats," meditates on all of these themes, revealing from the outset how these concerns are at once personal, politically charged, urgent, and also timeless:
Whenever I got sick, my mother
used to skin yellow loquats, but they tasted
better with the skin on. This season, my cough
grows and grows. There is a tree or a fungus
in my chest. I once kissed a man in the hollow,
a tattoo of a tree stump on his chest. I counted
the rings to a hundred. His memory broke
against my cracked phone screen like waves
against the Sutro Baths.
Later in the poem: "The tree inside me isn't loquat / but strangler fig. A tree so pretty and snakelike / it renders you breathless, then worthless, all at once."
This prologue-by-way-of-poem is a fantastic display of Mao's talent for mirroring diction and syntax between lines and stanzas, demonstrating the nuances and subtlety of language through her musical, purposeful repetition. This pairs so nicely with the fierce and inviolable tone that Mao hones through her book. The voice of these poems is clear, strong, unforgiving at times, and above all, unfaltering—particularly when faced with the gaze of those who would objectify or other her. She challenges the reader to own the moments when they hold that othering gaze; and she dares them also to look away.
This is particularly apparent through a series of concrete poems, each titled "On Porcelain," that Mao uses to open sections within the collection. The image-based form—wrought here into shapes of Chinese Ming vases—demands we hold these poems in our gaze, no matter how uncomfortable they make us.
The first of these begins with the dexterous line, "White fragility is priceless to the Empire"—calling out sensitive and defensive powerholders of the 21st century. More overtly, the line and the poem speak to the Western world's desire throughout history to replicate the beauty and marvels they found on Eastern shores—and when they couldn't, their propensity to steal and rename, seizing both object and language in an attempt to own or erase both: "Plunder is in the language of naming."
The poem continues with syntactical segments that echo the acute wryness of Twitter(X) posts, demonstrating how we've moved from colonialist erasure of other cultures to erasure's progeny, indignation, and denial. These appraisals and condemnations of white culture, and in particular white women, are sharp and accurate, whether direct or metaphorical: for instance, "the value and delicacy of white / women is priceless" follows a description of porcelain dolls from Mao's childhood collection, none of which resembled her. But with these lines Mao builds and builds, or rather, "[spins] / in whorls" heartbreaking, violent examples of how, throughout history, when "a white woman cries, / Every tear reaps the sentence," and too often, the sentence is not only unwarranted, but fatal.
And these are only the first two poems of the collection. The ones that follow continue to demonstrate Mao's mastery of the line break, as well as her ability to make leaps and associations that are startling and yet feel startlingly natural, ubiquitous, once brought into focus.
In the long poem, "On Silk," which takes sharp turns between the historical past and the speaker's past, we see:
Everywhere in Shanghai, I saw the painted
Shanghai ladies. In 1930s advertisements, they
smiled compulsively, dressed in qipao and furs, as
if they weren't living through a civil war, an
occupation, the threat of war, an invasion.
Everything crackling, everything burning, but
these glamorous women kept smiling in these
paintings, even after time ran out, their smiles
so charming they sell osmanthus perfume oil,
which I bought at a cosmetics shop in Yuyuan
Garden, and wear on my neck to this very day.
This past of Western invasion and influence, Mao shows her reader, is convincing, and casts a spell on us all. Her language throughout this poem, in particular the music of "a civil war, an / occupation, the threat of war, an invasion," is hypnotic. Even those who recognize the shadow and influence of the colonizer can be guilty of falling to its seduction, the poet demonstrates. And yet, she remains aware (and reminds us) of the cost:
How the splendor and squalor of our collective
past could transform overnight. A worm spitting
and spinning itself into a new luxury, a sensation,
finally, yes, a thing of value.
The collection continues to examine social-political constructs through a lens of art, as in "On Majolica," a poem that explores Queen Victoria's British Empire and how her love of cultural trophies transformed the aesthetic desires of her (white) subjects, "To conquer / is to popularize the image–and testify / that an animal begs for its own conquest," and ultimately led to the illness and death of her (Chinese) subjects:
The rich man
slurped a real Chesapeake oyster
from its decoy twin, carved in pink,
as the girl who painted its vulnerable
blush died in her sleep of lead poisoning
before she tasted the figs she colored
In the title poem of Kingdom of Surfaces, Mao shows us how, a full century after Aestheticism and the fall of the British Empire, Western culture is still caught up in its thrall, using Lewis Carroll's novel Through the Looking Glass as a structural framework just as the Metropolitan Museum of Art used it in their 2015 exhibition titled, China: Through the Looking Glass.
In this long, multi-part poem, Mao moves through the exhibit as Alice would move through the Looking Glass world, albeit with more awareness of the nightmares that exist in this other place: "To love a pretty object as time colludes with its disappearance," Mao writes. "To disappear into enchantment." Mao is as in awe of the exhibition as she is horrified by its cost: "Inside the kiln of history, a porcelain chest drum burns, beats, breaks."
At the heart of this collection, it becomes evident that so much of the Western world's wealth-building at the expense of Eastern culture was a direct result of the manipulation, subjugation, and abuse of Asian women. "I'm sick of speaking for women who've died," Mao begins in "Aubade with Gravel and Gold," "Their stories and their disappearances / bludgeon me in my sleep."
The last section of the book especially makes evident the emotional and psychological damage that results when the past is examined honestly and without filters, and also from the legacy of violence that Asian women have had to bear (particularly in the 21st century).
"My friend confesses / that most intimacy in her life she has never / fully consented to," she writes in "The Peony Pavilion," which juxtaposes the stories of romances and operas with the reality of contemporary dating. And in "Romance of the Castle-Toppler" Mao presents the archetype of "a kingdom-destroying concubine" as a metaphor for how a contemporary woman, objectified and othered and accused and blamed by history, by popular culture, comes to fear intimacy and fights to maintain her identity and autonomy: "There are so many stories she could put an end to," she writes. "Because the text, like skin, also ends."
The Kingdom of Surfaces is mesmerizing, gorgeous for its attention to language and image, and equally horrifying for what it holds before our gaze and how it challenges that gaze. Mao's poems urge the reader to ask: to what extent are we all culpable for the "human piece of driftwood" she evokes in the titular poem, "floating in an intolerable river?"