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Sally Wen Mao

Mutant Odalisque

This is not an ode. February’s ice razor scalps
the gingko trees, their hair pulled skyward
like the ombre roots

of young women. March harrows
us mottled girls. Vernal equinox:
a hare harries the chicks, hurries

behind wet haystacks. Livestock.
Gnats. The glue-traps are gone.

March, ladies. March for your dignity.
March for your happiness. March, a muss
of lidless eyes. In the forest, a handsome man pisses,
puissant, luminary’s ink leaking on trees.

Penury I furl into the craven lens, in its mirror, a pulse:
webcam where I kiss my witnesses.

They watch and watch and watch the butcher
cut, the surgeon mend, they watch the glade
of crushed femora, they watch my dorsal fin,

they watch my scales dart across the cutting
board. They watch the way I open, flinch, bent

against the wind that beheads the nimbuses.
Or April’s turning toward ecstatic sob—departure.

Networks freeze, all sloe, all ice. Transmitters
falter. The cicatrix soaped, cilia & pus
rubbed raw. No machine. I dare
my witnesses to stick their pencils on me.

Do they marvel at a conquest—
blue flesh & gills. Do they think of me as soiled
or new soil. Do they take notes in their medical
journals. Am I their inspiration O Vesalius god

of anatomy is that why they ask so softly for my name.



This morning I peruse the dead girl’s live
photo feed. Two days ago, she uploaded

her confessions: I can’t bear the sorrow
             captions her black eyes, gaps across a face

luminescent as scum. I can’t bear Ithaca snow—
how it falls, swells over the bridges,

under my clothes, yet I can’t be held
or beheld here, in this barren warren,

this din of ruined objects, peepholes into boring
scandals. Stockings roll high past hems

as I watch the videos of her boyfriend, cooing:
behave, darling, so I can make you my wife.

How the dead girl fell, awaiting a hand to hold,
eyes to behold her as the lights clicked on

and she posed for her picture, long eyelashes
all wet, legs tapered, bright as thorns.

Her windows overlook Shanghai, curtains drawn
to cast a shadow over the Huangpu river,

frozen this year into a dry, bloodless
stalk. Why does the light in the night

promise so much? She wiped her lens
before she died. The smudge still lives.

I saw it singe the edge of her bed.

Anna May Wong Rates the Runway

Even the white models
all wear their hair in straight bangs.
The Asian models, too—like clones

they glide out, lush throats
throttled by nephrite. The editors
call the pieces “1920s chinoiserie.”


I call them glorified dog collars.
One by one they strut, chameleons,
fishnetted darlings with red lips


that imply: diablerie. These women
slip into the diabolical roles
I’ve played but don’t pay for it.


Now I am someone’s muse.
Good. It’s February, Fashion Week.
The coldest winter since weather


went live. Everywhere still—pale
legs exposed to infernal snow.
I want to trust the mohair


to keep me warm—I want to trust
the cloth that holds me close.
But in this room, the spotlight flatters


every flaw. When the show is over,
the applause is meant for stars
but my ovation is for the shadows.

-from Oculus (Graywolf Press, 2019), selected by POW Spring 2021 Guest Editor, Cyrus Cassells.

Sally Wen Mao is the author of Oculus (Graywolf Press), a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Poetry. Her first book, Mad Honey Symposium (Alice James Books, 2014), was the winner of the 2012 Kinereth Gensler Award. She was born in Wuhan, China and raised in the Bay Area, California.

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