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  • Playing Dead, and: Ode to Emptiness, and: Ode to Egress
  • Sally Wen Mao (bio)

Playing Dead

The first time I was touched,

parts of me were seen:the nautilus, the teeth,

the cavern of mouth, how a questionmarks the spine and then it is never

answeredhow his seeing became my seeing

he surprised me his fingerslipped into

a barren—burrowsa bare

contusionI thought I was exposed

but unbeknownst to me,most parts remained unseen

and I was to retain this unseen feelingmost of my lifeI've spent apart, not a part

of any tribe or religion or possemost of my life I identified with animals

like the possumsearching for trash or playing dead [End Page 97]

After this thing was done to meI believed I played a part in it

an actress finds a partso she could slip, finally, into another skinmy parts, these parts

I wrote the whole thingoff, my feelings were leavesthat bypassed everyone and buried me

in autumn, my seams partedand all I did was write a poem—an odeto roadkill

and a decade passed before I knewI didn't give

permission, the only thing I could controlwas my reaction: wide-eyed, limp,maybe a gasp, maybe a sigh

When the possum plays dead, it entersa shock stage

It plays such a convincing partthat people have discovered possums this wayand buried them alive

Comatose, its glands produce rotting scentsGreen mucus shrouds its bodyto repel predators

The laws of predation knowa carcass can't be harmed

the same way a living thing canEven a predator is afraid of a deadbody in the dark

And then the possum lies stillon an empty road, under stars or pine treesshe'll never see,

until eventually a car comes speeding down the highwayand kills her, this time for real. [End Page 98]

Ode to Emptiness

There comes a time when you stop hopingfor love. What then to live for?

There are substitutes: the lunchon your lap, the power lines overhead,

the heritage buildings liningyour neighborhood—

razed yesterday, absent today, raised tomorrowfrom the dead. These black-bean

noodles never nourishedyou, only gave you that impression,

but perhaps their imprint was enough.What sweetness touches you now,

you must thank if you notice. Trashcan be delicious, tart as limes. There is mercy

in the way milk sours. Conveniencein the way we throw our spoils

away. Because some emotions are madeof plastic, junking up inside. Your debris

becomes your whole composition—your oeuvre of sorrow, it kills entire whales,

it litters your whole ocean—a super-isleof flotsam, never to decompose.

Every night you beg it to die,and every morning your wish is granted. [End Page 99]

Ode to Egress

I've always been taken with egrets                the way their wings fold                        alone in the tall grass                how their name is an echoof regret         egret                this shoreline has always carriedmemories of a child's loneliness                where searching for relief from it                        and looking for the egretI skinned my knees on my bicycle                        the bruise turns greenand yellow       as if attempting camouflage                        it feels true"Requite" means return, but also                revengeand there is no returning this loveand I don't need more vengeance in me                so I suppose it's OKfor you to leave me                on the steps of the Brooklyn Museum                I suppose it's OKthat I am sitting here still                the ice cream melting in the cup                and you egress                        regressinto the desert         the hoarfrost                        of not knowingbut no             this is not an ode                        it's a palinodeit's not OKit was never OK                                I egressto the windless shoreline                where that one egret                        standing wildcould comfort me                when there is nowhere [End Page 100] to put my heart                        I place it in the nestsomewhere by the river                        and push it outin hopes it will be found again                        or never [End Page 101]

Sally Wen Mao

Sally Wen Mao is...


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