The Kingdom of Surfaces, a poetry collection by award-winning poet Sally Wen Mao, was published in August 2023 by Graywolf, the same press that published her first poetry collection, Oculus, in 2019.
Many different poetic forms are used throughout this collection, from free verse to haibun to shape poems. One memorable series consists of poems written in the shape of Ming vases. Interweaving personal and historical — particularly art historical — details, The Kingdom of Surfaces explores how the forces of colonialism, past and present, reduce people to objects.
Sally Wen Mao is an Asian American woman from Wuhan, and she delves into the perspective her background affords her on the COVID-19 pandemic and governmental and individual responses to this global crisis. Timely explorations of wet markets, hate crimes, and radicalization pipelines are all featured in this collection.
At the same time, Wen Mao goes back through time with the attentive eye of an art historian, following the Silk Road and the global oppressive force of colonialism. A great example is the poem “On Silk,” which opens by recounting the mythologized origin of silk production, then presents a series of snapshots of silk throughout time, up to the present, with one of the poet’s friends wearing the material. “…Jane wears my green silk / dress gathering mussels in a tidepool.”
One of the recurring themes of The Kingdom of Surfaces I found most interesting is parasitism in various forms. The author explores this theme in “Nucleation,” which centers on the process of pearls forming inside oysters, and “Winter Worm, Summer Grass,” which follows the price — both monetary and figurative — of cordyceps fungus, which parasitizes insects, taking control of their bodies.
Wen Mao tracks humanity’s interactions with these elements of the natural world back through time, her lines darting from sociological and historical analysis to personal anecdotes: “Mikimoto, in his dreams, wanted a string of pearls to glow around the neck of every woman in the world… Women wear the trauma of other creatures on their necks, in an attempt to put a pall on their own,” she writes in “Nucleation,” while “Winter Worm, Summer Grass,” concludes with these lines:
How is it that two fistfuls of these husks
are worth more than my life
The most expensive parasite on earth —
that is a metaphor for love.
Another powerful poem exploring similar themes is “Cherry-Picking Season,” which uses tree imagery to describe the poet’s grandmother — from how she would pick cherries with her family, to how she figuratively was “…a tree / feeding all her children,” to how her hardened arteries were “barklike.”
My favorite poems in the collection are the ones with clear and vivid imagery like “Sunday Stroll through the Marriage Market,” which describes “…an August afternoon in the People’s Park. / Sky overcast, the pink Shanghai smog a heavy quilting / for the scrawls, damp printouts / laminated—taped to each shelter: / height, weight, measurements….”
Beautiful descriptive language both contrasts and sets the scene for Wen Mao’s explorations of objectification. The Kingdom of Surfaces focuses on the intersectional phenomena of art objects such as vases being looted, sold off, and displaced, and the same happening to oppressed people throughout history. I should mention that this collection of poems explores many heavy themes, including rape, both in terms of sexual assault and kidnapping.
My only criticism of The Kingdom of Surfaces is that, in the second half of the collection, the same historical details and themes are revisited too frequently. The series of poems that inspired the title of the collection and focuses on the “China: Through the Looking Glass” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art especially reiterates many details throughout. Because of this, I recommend not attempting to read this collection cover-to-cover in a single sitting, and instead revisiting it repeatedly over time.
I would recommend The Kingdom of Surfaces to readers of poetry who wish to learn more about the often harsh reality of life as an Asian American today, while also learning about how historical causes and conditions inform these contemporary experiences — especially those of women.