Beautiful women suffer tragic fates—


With great beauty, comes great ruin!


From “Romance of the Castle-Topper”


Sally Wen Mao follows up her widely acclaimed book Oculus with The Kingdom of Surfaces, a haunting interrogation of Chinamania and the violence predicated on East Asian women. Mao is an immensely talented author with a long list of accolades, including the recipient of a National Endowment of the Arts grant, a Kundiman fellow, and a Pushcart Prize winner. The Kingdom of Surfaces extends her growing legacy as Mao uses art as a catalyst for hard conversations about the commodification of beauty, Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism, and prejudice in the wake of a global pandemic.

The metaphors undergirding The Kingdom of Surfaces stem from poems that chronicle the connotations of porcelain artwork, the formation of pearls, and the harvesting of silk. These poems are well-researched and prove apt metaphors for containing the long legacy of fetishized violence against East Asian women. Mao includes three calligrams titled “On Porcelain” in the shape of vases, each one opening one of the book’s three main sections. The first of the calligrams begins with an origin of porcelain and its popularity, noting that “For millennia,//the West has attempted to replicate/Porcelain/and failed.” The second half of the poem shifts toward a powerful parallelism in which the speaker laments, “The value and delicacy of white//women is priceless/A White woman’s tears enough to burn Troy…If a white woman cries/Every tear reaps the sentence.”

Mao traces silk harvesting to Empress Leizu in “On Silk” as the speaker describes how Leizu “knew something beautiful as silk required sacrifice,/so she planted the seed, pulped the pupa, reaped the dream.” The poem details how the harvesting of silk necessarily requires that silkworms die before they become silk moths. The author juxtaposes this with a series of scenes which highlights the pervasiveness of sacrifice. In one of the most haunting parallels, the speaker writes,


Once, a man slipped a note under her door, and

in that apartment their romance began. In that

apartment, their affair also ended. She moved out

soon after. Life begins as a worm spinning spools

of spit-cocoon, ends as a flea-infested gown.


The preoccupation with the delicacy inherent to porcelain and silk contextualizes the continued destruction of East Asian women described across the collection. “On Silk” recalls how “real Shanghai ladies were melancholy,” while “Romance of the Castle-Topper” chronicles numerous stories in which Chinese women die, arriving at “the Han dynasty expression” that beauty is a precursor to tragedy.

The titular poem, “The Kingdom of Surfaces,” is a sweeping narrative grounded in the art exhibition China: Through the Looking Glass and Lewis Carrol’s infamous tale, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. The poem is separated into numerous vignettes that, together, trace the speaker’s surreal experience navigating the art exhibit. As the speaker moves from one section of the exhibit to another, she confronts the long history of Western fetishization, colonialism and the appropriation of Chinese culture for Western audiences. The vignettes each include an epigraph describing the reasoning behind the exhibition, which ultimately amounts to an insistence that the art collection should be viewed not through what Edward Said terms Orientalism, but “as an appreciative cultural response by the West to its encounters with the East.” Naturally, the experience of the speaker resists this “rethinking” and emphasizes the inevitability of Western fetishization.

Mao bookends the collection with a pair of poems that, to some extent, hover just outside the collection’s central fixation on Chinese artifacts. The first poem in the book, “Loquats,” describes the use of yellow loquats to quell a cough before the speaker recalls that “In different years//of my life, 2012 and 2017, two men/with the same name fucked me…” The poem concludes with the speaker insisting that “The tree inside me isn’t loquat//but strangler fig. A tree so pretty and snakelike/it renders you breathless, then worthless, all at once.” The final poem of the collection, “On Garbage,” is a reflective piece in which the speaker ultimately concludes, “Among the treasures I rifled out of the trash, I found/myself.” That this is the last statement in the collection emphasizes how Mao utilizes the various explorations of art, beauty and commodification as a vehicle for self-reflection.

The Kingdom of Surfaces is an impossibly rich and complex collection, one that cannot be fully or fairly contained to such a brief review. This is a book that will pull readers back again and again, offering new perspectives and insights each time they revisit a poem. Sally Wen Mao reasserts her place among the most celebrated writers of our time with her expansive and philosophical third collection. I, for one, can’t wait to see what she does next.

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