Two Poems by Sally Wen Mao
Ode to Extinction
I will never be as exuberant
as my anger. In winter, small shells
explode at the feet of migratory
terns. We collect their ruins,
the skulls of species we never
knew went extinct. Then, after-
math—the prime number, primal
sound, little screams inside lips
too pursed. They tell us: do not dare
break the balance. We don’t indulge
the vulnerability in our rage—
instead, we use rhetoric and try
to prove our mastery, time and time
again, a museum of myopias.
Today I forgo anger in the burnt
garden, and caress what grows
there: gender, race, shortcomings—
my skin, my body, lack of power,
how I eat coal to live, cough it up
for something gentler. The rain
neither cleanses nor erases me,
a gale of what I gave up—my
mother’s immigrant yearnings,
estranged. Sometimes I shuck
all pride and submerge underwater,
strangling myself, my own myths.
Some mornings, I walk on a beach,
convinced of abundance. I have enough,
or, I’ve had enough. In Tyrico Bay,
I held a conch shell, still alive,
to my ear, the living so electrifying
it breathed my own breath back into me.
Ode to Eviction
Build a home. Someone burns it. Someone turns
it into a death trap. Someone turns.
Eviction by landlords, mothers, brothers, men: soon
the street, the garbage, recycling, erases
me. I’m magic. Dear brownstone I loved. Dear robins,
what of these blue eggs the cowbirds
pushed out? On the sidewalk, the egg white smears
another boot. Shell cracks, yolk runs:
beating organ, aborted. Beyond these windows, snow,
burning flakes, the takeout restaurant,
the laundromat—this can’t be sentimental. Dear murals.
Dear gutted fields. Dear neighborhood
silent as cypresses. Plainclothes traitors hide their badges.
The way he spoke, sweet as a cesspool
of roses. I’ve never lived in a house to call home. Pushed
out, the baby screams without waking.
Come Sunday, they build a police station on the kitchen
stove. they’ve already moved in: their sweat
in my bed, their lice on my carpet. Monday is pestilence,
stinkbugs crawling over sleeping mouths.
Tuesday is setting fires. The passing train is elevated, it gores
the mice. I, a hostage escaped. I eat the bait,
step out for a cigarette, they storm me out. Dear fire
truck, dear heat vent, dear Bushwick Ave,
a home falls like a bicycle when the screws come loose.
What more to flay? What more to betray?
In the end, I call a taxi elsewhere, swallow the rancid
butter so it keeps me alive one more day.
In a city like this, the tallest buildings resemble rescue
flares. An eviction is just another form
of migration. After severing his lease, Rimbaud wandered
the streets of Paris, feral with whiskey,
his season in hell. At dawn, he reached the railway station.
Get out. These survivals are beautiful to me:
soon after a forest fire, pinecones release fragrant seeds.
Those that survive, live on, take hold—
and where the burnt soil scorches, lupine grows gold.
The land once mine is now my landmine.
Here’s to raising the ground. Floorboards curve. Bless
their stains. Here’s to toppling the ceilings.
The chandeliers rattle. Bless their movement. Outside,
I listen to my enemies gnaw on meat.
Bless their weight. Bless their shadows. Bless their cruelty.