A Favorite Poem (Issue #20)

Hello, there!

Welcome to this month’s “A Favorite Poem,” in which I share a poem that has recently captured my attention.

For those of you who don’t know, I studied English back in college with an emphasis on poetry, so while I can’t say that I’m a professional scholar in this field (not by a long shot), I am passionate by poetry and enjoy reading and picking out the nuances in literary tropes and meaning.

With that said, here it is!

This month’s poem is that of Sally Wen Mao’s “Resurrection,” which I came across from the “Poem-A-Day” subscription that I’ve been subscribed to for the past two-plus years. What instantly struck me about this poem was the fact that its content, the silence of Asian-American representation in the arts, really resonated with me as a first-generation Asian-American myself.

Resurrection (Sally Wen Mao)

In the autumn I moved to New York,
I recognized her face all over the subway
stations—pearls around her throat, she poses
for her immigration papers. In 1924, the only
Americans required to carry identity cards
were ethnically Chinese—the first photo IDs,
red targets on the head of every man, woman,
child, infant, movie star. Like pallbearers,
they lined up to get their pictures taken: full-face
view, direct camera gaze, no smiles, ears showing,
in silver gelatin. A rogue’s gallery of Chinese
exclusion. The subway poster doesn’t name
her—though it does mention her ethnicity,
and the name of the New York Historical
Society exhibition: Exclusion/Inclusion.
Soon, when I felt alone in this city, her face
would peer at me from behind seats, turnstiles,
heads, and headphones, and I swear she wore
a smile only I could see. Sometimes my face
aligned with hers, and we would rush past
the bewildered lives before us—hers, gone
the year my mother was born, and mine,
a belt of ghosts trailing after my scent.
In the same aboveground train, in the same
city where slain umbrellas travel across
the Hudson River, we live and live.
I’ve left my landline so ghosts can’t dial me
at midnight with the hunger of hunters
anymore. I’m so hungry I gnaw at light.
It tunnels from the shadows, an exhausting
hope. I know this hunger tormented her too.
It haunted her through her years in L.A., Paris,
and New York, the parties she went to, people
she met—Paul Robeson, Zora Neale Hurston,
Langston Hughes, Gertrude Stein. It haunts
her expression still, on the 6 train, Grand
Central station, an echo chamber behind
her eyes. But dear universe: if I can recognize
her face under this tunnel of endless shadows
against the luminance of all that is extinct
and oncoming, then I am not a stranger here.

Upon first reading, I took note of the poem’s prose style. Fluid and wandering, it shifts in time from the present to the past, linking the speaker’s life story with that of another’s. At first, I’d assumed that the person whom the speaker was referring to was their mother, an immigrant who had come from overseas to start a new life in the United States.

However, the line “hers, gone/the year my mother was born, and mine,/a belt of ghosts trailing after my scent” indicates that it is, in fact, not the mother and after reading Mao’s explanation of her work in the end, the person refers to Anna May Wong, a 20th century actress who is considered to be the first Asian-American actress to hit mainstream in the film industry. The poem, then, pays homage to her, recognizing her when people during her time and afterwards have long forgotten about her.

Mao’s diction and writing style is loose and colorful, literal and metaphorical, which I would say represents the sort of fluidity of time as indicated in the poem, since again it goes back and forth with the speaker’s experience and that of Wong’s. Usually, much of poem analyses focus on technique and theory, but this time, I would like to especially focus on how I resonated with this poem, as much as Mao did when she wrote it.

Again, I’m a first-generation Asian-American: I was born and raised in the United States for all of my life, and I’m lucky to have been raised in such a diverse, inclusive community as Los Angeles. At the same time, I’ve encountered racism in all forms at home and overseas, as well as been ignored or otherwise turned away from opportunities based on my race. This poem spoke to me in that it addresses the fact of being ignored, or otherwise covered up by mainstream society, which is heavily dominated by Caucasians. It’s especially so in the arts, from the entertainment industry to literary works: we as Asian-Americans aren’t given the time of day to be acknowledged for what could be great works.

In fact, not too long ago, there was a huge wave of dissent in the Asian-American community, of Hollywood casting white actors/actresses to play otherwise Asian roles (*ahem Emma Stone in Aloha, Scarlett Johansson in the soon-to-be-released Ghost in the Shell) and the fact that many aspiring Asian-American actors/actresses can’t even get a role playing their own race. Asian-American celebrities such as Anna Akana and Constance Wu have openly expressed their opinions on this matter, which really touched me since it’s *finally* that day and age when we can make our voices heard…and be considered for it.

…but I’m digressing. Again, this poem was a manifest of what I’ve been talking about in this post: the silence that comes with being ignored, the sadness and frustration that results because of it, and the need to make ourselves heard through the very medium that tries to shut us out, namely, the arts.

I could go on and on with this poem and its subject but that would mean risking a manifesto on my part. Plus, you’d get exhausted or just plain bored from me ranting, so let me conclude and say that “Resurrection” is, in a way, a form of resurrection for not only Anna May Wong, but also for all of silenced voices in the Asian-American community. One day, we will speak and we will be heard.

— The Finicky Cynic

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