A Different Lens: On Sally Wen Mao’s “Oculus”

By Rachel CarrollFebruary 28, 2019

A Different Lens: On Sally Wen Mao’s “Oculus”

Oculus by Sally Wen Mao

THE IMAGINATION IN SALLY Wen Mao’s second volume of poetry, Oculus, revels in cybernetic possibilities, especially for the women of color who inhabit its pages. “Dear robot, dear poet,” she writes in an ode to Janelle Monáe, pop queen of the paranoid androids, “I long to meet you in a new world / where we can live our midsummer’s cyberpunk dream.” Oculus dreams in the luminous glow of the screen, it lusts after modern reflective surfaces, and it grazes the slick, desirable textures of late capitalism. But, while Oculus may linger on the gleaming promises of a sci-fi future, it is also haunted by the violence of our past and — present.

Oculus conjures up ghosts that inhabit modernity’s omnipresent machines — spirits who haunt everything from the cinematic gaze to the Instagram feed. Often, the ghost’s unfinished business includes revenge. As Mao writes in the poem “Ghost in the Shell,”

[God] as my witness, I, Motoko, will self-destruct
            this celluloid screen. So watch out, Scarlett
O’Hara, this brutish reign of cinematography
           is about to end — history flensed, data wiped.

Ghost in the Shell is a popular Japanese manga series that first ran in 1989 and was the source text for the classic 1995 anime film of the same title, directed by the renowned filmmaker Mamoru Oshii. In the techno-dystopia of 2029, a human body can be fully replaced with cybernetic parts, a “shell” waiting to be animated by human consciousness, a “ghost.” Ghosts can be uploaded into cybernetic bodies like any other form of data. Motoko Kusanagi is one such character who investigates the cyber-crimes, which inevitably ensue in a world where your body can be hacked by ghosts.

In 2017, the live-action Hollywood reboot of Ghost in the Shell became the focus of white-washing critiques when Scarlett Johansson was cast as the character based on Kusanagi (the complex racial politics of which were thoughtfully unpacked by Emily Yoshida). A different kind of hack had taken place. In the poem, Mao uncovers the wiring that connects the two cinematic Scarletts. The blood-soaked sunsets of Scarlett O’Hara’s plantation romance are a universe away from Scarlett Johansson as she leaps from flickering black skyscrapers in a silicon-colored bodysuit, yet Mao draws an important through-line in this slippage between Scarletts. Motoko is hacking into Hollywood’s system of white desirability.

Throughout Oculus, where there is a camera, a ghost is not far behind. Mao asks how the camera works as a witness of Orientalist consumption and abjection. Such is the case in the first title poem “Oculus” (there are two “Oculus” poems in this book), which meditates upon the 2014 death of a young woman in Shanghai who documented her suicide on Instagram. “Dirge with Cutlery and Furs” mourns the brilliantly quirky Korean supermodel Daul Kim, who likewise publicly expressed her intention to kill herself on her popular blog before committing suicide in 2009. The poem “No Resolution” is dedicated to Ashley Han, whose father Ki Suk Han was pushed onto the subway tracks as a train approached. None of the several bystanders on the platform attempted to save him, though a New York Post photographer took the time to capture horrifying images of Han trying to escape the tracks as the train neared. Each of these poems addresses the camera and the photographic image, which record the preventable death of an Asian or Asian-American person. As the speaker observes in “Oculus,” “I peruse the dead girl’s live / photo feed.” While the person has died, the image lives on as a digital ghost. These readily consumed images prompt us to consider how commodified images of Asian bodies affect the cultural valuation of Asian lives.

But Oculus does not only catalog the horrors of exploitation and consumption. At her most oneiric, Mao crafts fantastic dreams of a technophilic screen. As she reflects in a poem dedicated to Nam June Paik, the father of video art,

love is the refraction, pellucid as bone. if I can locate the gleam on the other side of
the planet. the one who sees me whole. the one who honors my narrative,
does not bend it, thresh it, obstruct or smash it. this I yearn. if I could plug my
senses into that socket. let there be light.

In these poems, Mao imagines a screen that lights up at the human touch, a screen where difference wriggles lively and ecstatic rather than going through the well-known motions of old stereotypes: Cio-Cio San’s suicide playing out again and again. In the miraculously titled “Teledildonics,”

a pornography live
           through open
touch your internet through your clothes

Circuitous enjambment delivers the line’s jolt — underneath clothes we find not flesh, but a millennial nudity. Don’t be fooled. This isn’t a case of a catfishing with a happy ending — the “real” self stripped of its digital persona. Rather, the poem imagines how technology might expand the ways it is possible to be with others — our internets, ourselves. Oculus doesn’t attempt to wipe histories of violence from its electronic erotics. Yet, despite this history of hurt, the poems still yearn for technology’s egalitarian promise, the internet that was meant to wire us into utopia, not entrap us in social media bubbles: “where all touch gives pleasure / all touch is welcome / and nothing will hurt / and nothing will bruise.”

This is Mao’s speculative poetics of revolution, pleasure, and utopia. The early 20th-century Chinese-American film star Anna May Wong plays the heroine in many of these poems, which are reminiscent of the sci-fi dramas they critique. Wong made her entrée into film during the era of Chinese Exclusion, Yellow Peril, and intense anti-Chinese sentiment in the United States. Over the course of her career, Wong found it exceedingly difficult to break into leading romantic roles and was consistently cast as racist stereotypes. Tired of playing Dragon Ladies and Madame Butterflies, Mao’s fictional Wong builds a time machine in search of a better future. She dances the Charleston with Josephine Baker, has a romance with Bruce Lee, and makes a series of cameos in popular flicks like Kill Bill, Memoirs of a Geisha, and Cloud Atlas. In these films, she finds that little has changed since the 1920s and 1930s. She plays the “sassy friend,” the conniving toady of a mature geisha, and a cyborg in distress (and couture) waiting to be rescued by a white actor in yellow face. Like the historical Wong, Mao’s fictional Wong grows sick of these repetitious stereotypes. She continues to dream of a different kind of future. A future that isn’t envisioned by the Wachowskis. “Darlings, let’s rewrite the script,” Wong croons. “Let’s hijack the narrative, steer / the story ourselves. There’d be a heist, a battle. / Audre Lorde would write the script.”

The poems in Oculus attempt to visualize a world that the Orientalist imagination, in spite of its lavish excesses, is incapable of inventing. This requires new structures of seeing, which Mao improvises from the refuse of Orientalism’s colonial fabrications. Nowhere does this speculative world feel more present than in the second “Oculus” poem, which was written after Solange’s An Ode To that she performed at the Guggenheim Museum in 2017. “Oculus” formally mimics the building’s famous nautilus shape in its lineation. As the Guggenheim’s interior gently, but firmly, guides the visitor through a particular vision of modernist and contemporary art, Mao’s “Oculus” offers an alternative art historical whorl, creating her own procession of cross-racial solidarity and beauty:

It was spring. I was still hopeful. In my chest, what beat
                      was cracked but still salvageable. Cherry petals
                                  strewing my shoulders, a whir. Cranes
                      in the sky, cranes threaded on my dress.
                      Golden tubas warbled
        as she danced. We looked up, and there was

        a skylight, a dome — the oculus
at the center, through which all fears still burned
        and awed.

The Guggenheim is a temple to a familiar kind of narrative about art, but people of color, especially womxn, are rarely protagonists in these stories. Mao records Solange’s performance as a vision, interrupting the smooth continuity of white spaces, providing the reader with a different lens.

In architecture, an oculus is a round opening in a structure, such as the Guggenheim’s iconic skylight. Etymologically, oculus comes from the Latin for “eye.” In Mao’s poems, the oculus becomes a metaphor for how sight is structured. The skylight is an aperture ­— like the camera, like the human eye — that lets light in and enables vision. Poems are often openings too, a puncture in the cohesive surface of language, a device that alters perspective. Mao’s poems in Oculus ask what technologies already shape our vision of the world and how they might be disassembled in order for new lives to be forged from their parts.


Rachel Carroll is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Oberlin College. She is currently working on a book on race and experimentalism in American literature and visual culture.

LARB Contributor

Rachel Carroll is the author of For Pleasure: Race, Experimentalism, and Aesthetics (2023) and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.


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