Poem of the Week | April 27, 2015

This week, we gladly present another poem from our new Editor’s Prize issue, 38.1. Sally Wen Mao is the author of Mad Honey Symposium (Alice James Books, 2014), the winner of the 2012 Kinereth Gensler Award. Her work has been anthologized in The Best American Poetry 2013 and is forthcoming or published in Poetry, Black Warrior Review, Guernica, jubilat, and Washington Square, among others. A recipient of fellowships and scholarships from Kundiman, Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Saltonstall Arts Colony, and Hedgebrook, she holds an M.F.A. from Cornell University, where she was a lecturer in creative writing and composition. She currently lives in Brooklyn, NY and teaches in the Asian American Studies department at Hunter College.

Author’s note:

“Anna May Wong fans her time machine” is the first poem in a persona series I’m writing where I attempt to create the voice of the last great Asian American Hollywood actress, the legendary and incandescent Anna May Wong. The persona poems started as a question: what if Anna May Wong could witness the future of Asians in American cinema? What if Anna May Wong built a time machine, propelling herself into the future? All her life, Anna May has battled the racist machine of Hollywood, playing the only roles offered to her—passive or treacherous stereotypes of Asian women with almost always tragic endings. Though she was ever an outsider, Anna May Wong was strongly vocal about the limitations of these roles, famously saying “I have died a thousand deaths.”
In the time machine poem, Anna May Wong is hopeful about the future. She is done with the roles of Mongol slave or lotus blossom or Dragon Lady. She is done with taking minor roles because she can’t kiss a white man in yellowface. She has finally found her ultimate escape: a time machine. The time machine supersedes space and geography—it has the power to propel her to an unknown future full of the progress that she craves, or so she believes. However, this time machine will only propel her witnessing the next half-century of Asian stereotypes continually perpetuated and recycled. To witness this is unbearable, but for now, she relishes the promise of freedom in a machine built to take her to the future.


Anna May Wong fans her time machine


I’ve tried so hard to erase myself.
That iconography—my face
in Technicolor, the manta ray


eyelashes, the nacre and chignon.
I’ll bet four limbs I’d be cast as another
Mongol slave. I will blow a hole


in the airwaves, duck lasers in my dugout.
I’m done kidding them. Today I fly
the hell out in my Thunderbolt.


To the future, where I’m forgotten.
Where surely no one gives a puck
who I kiss: man, woman, or goldfish.


In the blustering garden where I was fed
compliments like you are our golden
apple and you are our yellow star, I lost


my lust for luster. They’d smile, fuck
me over for someone else: ringletted women
with sloping eyelids played the Chinese


cynosure, every time. Ursa Minor, you never
warned me: all my life I’ve been minor,
played the strumpet, the starved one.


I was taproot and crook. How I’ve hunched
down low, wicked girl, until this good earth
swallowed me raw. Take me now, dear comet,


to the future, where surely I’ll play
some girl from L.A., the unlikely heroine
who breaks up the brawl, saving everyone.