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Recorded for Poem-a-Day, January 17, 2017.
About this Poem 

“When I moved to New York in 2014, I noticed a poster in many subway stations—the exhibition posters of the Exclusion/Inclusion show about the Chinese in America at the New York Historical Society. Anna May Wong, the Chinese American actress, was the face of these posters, but her name was not displayed prominently. It unnerved me that I recognized her immediately but most passersby likely didn’t know who she was, that in 2014 her face would still represent a vague concept of Chineseness, a conduit of this foreign ‘other.’”

Resurrection

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.

Copyright © 2017 by Sally Wen Mao. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on January 17, 2017, by the Academy of American Poets.

Copyright © 2017 by Sally Wen Mao. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on January 17, 2017, by the Academy of American Poets.

Sally Wen Mao

Sally Wen Mao

Sally Wen Mao is the author of Mad Honey Symposium (Alice James Books, 2014) and Oculus, forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2019. 

by this poet

poem

In Lijiang, the sign outside your hostel
           glares: Ride alone, ride alone, ride
alone – it taunts you for the mileage
           of your solitude, must be past

thousands, for you rode this plane
           alone, this train alone, you’ll ride
this bus alone well into the

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