Four poems by Sally Wen Mao

Sally Wen Mao

Sally Wen Mao

Sally Wen Mao is the author of the debut fiction collection Ninetails: Nine Tales (Penguin Books, 2024). She is also the author of the poetry collections The Kingdom of Surfaces (Graywolf Press, August 2023), a finalist for the 2023 Maya Angelou Book Prize, Oculus (Graywolf Press, 2019), a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and Mad Honey Symposium (Alice James Books, 2014). Her work has appeared in The Best American Poetry 2013 and 2021, The Paris Review, Granta, Poetry, A Public Space, Harpers Bazaar, The Washington Post, and others. 


This is where I hang out
between a muck pond and a well,
where years before, gravediggers shoveled
out the skin & bones of a forest witch.
She weighed maybe eighty-two,
& having wallowed inside the well for two months,
wrote a hive of riddles on her shrinking body.

Her skirt yawned with mayflies, snail shells,
pennies. In that darkness she dreamed
about toys, gongs, & concert halls
about September, its fantasia
of wind & half-digested crumbs, she dreamed
& thought: How gorgeous
is this taciturnity
when suddenly our silly little memories
fossilize. How we hobbled
in them, dumb & graceless.

It's fall and I'm laughing with a ghost,
Saddened by silence, sighs & spittle
on my lips. I offer her my basket
of Sapporos & sandwiches. With mud
on my fingertips, I tear grass, plowing
white moss.

It's September and friends are naming
their babies after months — July, August,
October. In the lily-wet earth, millipedes cry.
Against the sun's pink eyelid,
an egret bends to drink the mud.


Cloud Study

After watching Chungking Express,
I weep into a plate of tomato ketchup
& eggs, then open a can of pineapples
with a Dec 1st expiration date. Sleet pours
over the window as trains rattle
along the chain-linked fence. I throw a bottle
into the mist, while hapless cats
fuck under a chandelier of maple seeds.
Wandering out, I look up at the clouds.
I ask them where they're going, and they tell me:
Madrid. Rome. Moscow. Shanghai. Hong Kong.
Join us, they say, but I cannot. This blister
of rotting leaves in my palms hasn't healed yet.
The clouds tell me to get on a train.
I'm always waiting for impossible trains.
I walk past the Children's Blind Hospital,
the Natural History Museum. It's December 2nd,
& my love, my love has expired.


The Boy Who Grew Old

My heart's made of crayons. Here's how I know:
In Virginia my father owns a crayon factory
and at night it's haunted with ghosts. They stir
yellow sulfur with the oxides. Every
morning their warm breath
heats the barren hundred-year cold.

My heart contains a reptile, with strange and cold
blood. I wish I could have known
sooner. Last summer I took shorter breaths
as I biked from the toxic swimming hole to the factory.
Day to night I worked myself brittle, and every
time my mother touched me, I did not stir.

I took home strange girls who stirred
hot dreams in my adolescent brothers, and woke up cold,
braided in their pink limbs. Every
girl's name I'd forget by morning. I didn't know
how fast the rotary factories
of their hearts beat against my chest, or if their breath

smelled like rotten mangoes. But my breath
was always stale, leaden, my dead young flesh stirred
with fantasy & undoing. I rode to the factory
in the mornings, with the girl's cold
hands wrapped around my waist. I know
how much they wanted to remember every

passing memory, every kiss, every bone, every
rush of blood into the atrium, every lazy breath.
But summer turned into ashes, before we knew,
and I waited for the calamity, for ghosts to stir
me awake again. My grandfather's phantom pursues my cold
footsteps, his shrill echoes shaking the empty factory.

My heart's no good. My heart belongs to the factory.
In its blank gaze, I search every
particle for a sign of life. I only sneeze in the cold
dust, the caked colors, drawing a long breath.
The lapis lazuli crumbles as it stirs
with water. I imagine what I'd forgotten, or never knew:

I didn't know what stirred the stunned glance of every
passing stranger, what paused their breath for a second, still and cold.
I didn't know what face I dreamt of last night inside the factory.



Somehow you still gallop against me.
In the background I hear a Cantonese love song about a goat.
I'm in no mood for such songs be it for goat,
amoeba, or human; in Cantonese, sign language, or English.

Night after night, I press my nail to my lip
for signs of the kerosene you left on my teeth. I am a wild bird's
tropical insanity. The night is filled with hopeless accordions
wheezing in sync, reminding me that numbness, too, is a feeling.

Somehow I tell myself to evacuate. I'm on the boat now,
sailing alone. Now I am shoveling pieces of other people's shoes.
Now I am addicted to roasted seaweed laver.
Now I could never get to sleep, with my ashes in the spigot.