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Sally Wen Mao reads five poems from her debut collection, Mad Honey Symposium, forthcoming in May from Alice James Books.
Valentine for a Flytrap
You are a hairy painting. I belong to your jaw.
Nothing slakes you—no fruit fly, no cricket,
not even tarantula. You are the caryatid
I want to duel, dew-wet, in tongues. Luxurious
spider bed, blooming from the ossuaries
of peat moss, I love how you swindle
the moths! This is why you were named
for a goddess: not Botticelli’s Venus—
not any soft waif in the Uffizi. There’s voltage
in these flowers—mulch skeins, armory
for cunning loves. Your mouth pins every sticky
body, swallowing iridescence, digesting
light. Venus, let me swim in your solarium.
Venus, take me in your summer gown.
“Dirty is yellow…” —Gertrude Stein
You are the kind of person who would frame a print of Hokusai’s
Dream of a Fisherman’s Wife and stroke the airplane
at night, imagining yourself as monster, tentacular
ladykiller. I am the eavesdropper sitting in your ear listening
to everything you whisper—I am smaller than milkweed bug,
and you can’t kill me. With the smugness of a man who has
just caught a trout, you say I love those Asian women.
I will fuck you up with the spastic ember of a Puccini opera.
I know what you crave. It is larger than me. It is the pretty
face on the library book—the fallow field, the woman
with a comb in her hair, a grin about her like so many
hives. It is squalid peonies, murderous silk. It is febrile butterflies
and it is slave. It is shedding its clothes and it’s shredding your pants
and you are the thing in the plastic bidet. Don’t try to musk the malodor—
Anyone can smell. You love the feel of socket on tongue? Strip
the pork rind. Shoot the waif. See that smile? Simulacrum.
Tiny waist in jade—you sweat, you slaver. What is this body
to you? Body you subsume—body you misconsume? To have
and to hurt—utter the word Orient, I dare you. She may spit
or she may nod. Who’s to say the hornbeam awakens to blight.
The White-Haired Girl
after the 1945 revolutionary opera of the same name
I will return your spurn with a curtsy
whipped in boiling water.
Cut the red ribbon from my hair,
what’s left of my youth. Lotus seeds slide
down your throat—does it taste chaste?
The fugue of winter casts shadows
on the furnace—how it glowers
like the limpets buried in my hair,
handfuls of which you pull
towards shore, toward stagnation.
My destination is not this village,
where boars shear off bad skin
in the river, dung and alderflies
thirsting for flesh. Am I maid
or mendicant? The unwrinkled bed
is not what sky aches for. I am no swooning
debt. Next I say escape and small gullies
bloom before me—dendriform paradise:
mountain, grotto, kindling. The lightning
in my temple wards off wolves. I bow
only to pick the ticks off my shoes,
brand them clean across your cheekbones.
I stirred five bullets
into your burned porridge,
stole the money you sewed
into the mattress and took a bus south
of my sorrow, approaching sand,
approaching steel. I couldn’t stay
another weekend, peeling roaches
from their graves. Out on the highway
to Half Moon Bay, I saw a power
line detonate a flock of geese.
Another lonely city emerges
from their sooty feathers,
and across the magnetic fields,
taxonomy of aurochs run west
of their extinction. Should I be
embarrassed for trying to survive?
I turn inside out between
motel sheets, prisoner
of altitude. A child mistakes
a strand of hair for lightning
and the signals of far satellites
question your penance. I won’t go
to bed hungry. I wait for your footsteps,
slicing an apple with a borrowed knife.
In 1997, the days were long, the sun
bloodshot, and Mountain View, CA smelled
like duck shit. Those days, everyone’s mind
was a sex tape on repeat. Hirsute rumors
clogged the shower drains. When young girls
disrobed together in a locker room, rancor
smelled like petunias. The whole stink glowed
with mutant love. In 1999, tremors erased
my larynx. Voicemails flooded with cackles,
inboxes sneered. Late afternoons, my legs
greened Granny Smith-style and I believed
when they called me leviathan.
Ovoid girl—black hair, burnt skin, snaggletooth
& sexless ruin. I saw tumors grow the size
of California. Nobody spat. Only suggested.
Give this up. Shucked each desire.
Evenings, when I was finally free, I saw crushed stars
roll into the thistle field. On that pungent summit
I was a gutter, a bountiful gutter. I collected
clean rain. I was a passageway to the open shore.
The Azalea Eaters
Mother begs us not to eat the flowers.
We scrape the pots for blubber. Fat
scalds our dreams, broils our sweat.
Softly, azaleas kill our hunger.
Because we believe in pink spadix,
the fragrance pollinates our tongues.
Before the farmers bulldoze them,
we smuggle fistfuls into our knapsacks.
Now we are sick but only as sick
as the river that fed us golden tadpoles.
The river is a gutted diorama: the dire wolf,
awakening, spits out teeth and fur.
* * *
In our retching, we summon the aphids.
We enter the malnutritive night.
Stag beetles and horntails
swarm the wax leaves, calm
the poisons in our too-hot
In our fevers, we summon summer.
Weevils swim the length of lake. Toads
tease us with their fat slime.
No water makes us believe we have gills.
Frogs hatch from fuzz. We pity their birth.
* * *
It’s the eleventh season of hunger. Ding dong,
belts the frog in the muck. Ding dong,
sings the salamander.
Fetal and feral, we curl
in our beds.
Fetal and feral, we drink
in the dusk,
hands damp with loam. Old cures
don’t work anymore—
* * *
ailing, we lean against the window,
& mother, panicked,
wilt on the sill. We grow red welts.
We ask her will we grow red whiskers.
We ask her will we grow red feathers.
She covers our mouths,
breathes hush hush. How will we fall asleep
now that the skink has grown a new tail?
* * *
We’ve eaten toad, weevil, roe. We’d eat a houseplant
or your pet. We’ve kissed poison flowers and retched
it all but we’re hungry still. In the forest we pantomime
guns with our hands. Bang, bang: let’s kill the deer, drag
it by its hooves to the fire pit. Gather its juices, grease
the grasses. Hunger strikes—our teeth, our laughter.
We eat & eat & eat: it is our rebellion and our disaster.
Excerpted from Mad Honey Symposium with permission of Alice James Books. Copyright © 2014 by Sally Wen Mao.