The following poems by Sally Wen Mao are from her debut poetry collection Mad Honey Symposium, published by Alice James Books this May.
Apiology, with Stigma
Stigma, n. (in flowers) the female part of the pistil
that receives pollen during pollination
For Melissa W.
There is no real love in the apiary.
Hive mentality: 1. Fatten until you reign
your country on a throne of propolis.
2. Copulate until you explode
with larval broods. Honey makes me sick,
and so does the Queen Bee. Even
in sleep, I see the arrows point at drones
stuck to the ceiling, sparkling spastically
like the sequins on a girl’s yellow prom
dress. Some girls pray to be Queen.
They think: wouldn’t it be terrific, to be
wanted like that. Wouldn’t it be terrific
to be stroked and adored, to lose your virginity
in the glorious aftermath of royal jelly.
Wouldn’t be terrific to roost, rest, be the envy
and the mother of all. But one girl turns
the other way. At lunch she eats green tea mochi
on the edge of the field, scouts unpopulated
places—a lemon tree, a barberry bush.
Dreading assemblies and cafeterias, she ducks
under the library’s front steps, smuggling
field guides or National Geographics
with covers of jewel beetles and capybaras,
counting the minutes until recess is over
and biology begins. The price of sincerity:
when the honeybee shucks the anthers
from the camellia, an anthem begins.
It’s a slow soprano. An anathema. It screams
from deep inside its ribs. It’s a blues,
an aria, an index of heartbreaks. It may break
a thousand mirrors before the pollen descends,
ashes over caldera. Split gorge. Fever. Finally,
the bee pollinates the stigma. The girl curse
sounds like that—a drone of flaws announcing
each maladaptive limb, freckle, admittance
of shame. How to battle this monster?
It is known that Japanese honeybees grow
immune to the vicious Asian giant hornet
by laying a trap: 1. Lure him into the threshold
of an open hive. 2. Besiege him—surround
the saboteur with a wall of impenetrable
bodies. 3. Vibrate until the temperature
reaches 115°F. 4. He will die from the heat
and carbon dioxide. His husk will break,
his heft will plummet. I don’t teach my girls
to brave the violence of sun, sons, or stings.
When resources run out, don’t sit there and behave.
Abandon hive. If the hornet breaks the heat net,
save yourself. Abandon yen. Abandon majesty.
Spit the light out because it sears you so.
Mad Honey Soliloquies
Case Study: Kayseri, Turkey, September 2008
1 [Patient: Husband]
My wife spread-eagles in a quiet room.
One teaspoon each morning of red
honey, incarnadine gamble.
A bid to bury our compulsions—
for our bed to open up and swallow us, hard
into its gullet. Each night one head
stampedes the other, twin eagles shot
in this province. The missives,
misgivings, spill our sheets afoul.
Is this pulse worth saving
in 2008? Friends cautioned
against the honey. Histories chimed in:
entire armies murdered. Remember Pompey?
Remember Xenophon? How the warnings purr
gently on that bed. Instead, it grows moist
with hives, spears of laurel. Yellow splendor
pumping water into the mouths that need it.
The promise of voltage, always enough.
2 [Patient: Wife]
We were certain it would lift
us from our sagging sheets.
After enough teaspoons, that first
week we finally reached
for each other’s bodies. Did I expect
electricity? A charge to elucidate
the fitful nerves on our fingers?
My seams, all splitting?
Something about the sealed
jar, the black market. He spoon-fed
me the sweetness. It felt ecstatic.
Like I was infant, sucking
up sticky milk. Sick, as if we were wrecking
some sanctified memory.
We guzzled tea afterwards
and its bitter burn scraped
our insides. Ancient pain—
the ruin of votive gods rusting.
Emergency: blades began spading
our chests. Our hearts split, shut
down. When the ambulance
came, my husband was already another
color. His tongue slipped out.
In its shade I saw a golden dart frog.
That morning, a middle-aged couple checked in for chest
pain, dazed as schoolchildren. What we found: bradycardia.
Their heart rates, nadirs at 35, 45 beats per minute.
Between tests, they mouthed the word honey, and the nurses
thought that it was romance—that this pitiable union
of arrhythmias could brace their connubial nest.
But then we found traces of mad honey they’d ingested
to revive desire, as if poison answered all the questions
about their bodies. In my life, many patients
have asked about the heart.How to hush its palpitations.
I have no easy answer for why the wishes that charge
angina pectoris will endanger it, put it to sleep.
“To lift an autumn hair is no
sign of great strength…”
Water, arsonist, spring onion, pig—
Show me what it means to be superhuman.
I will light a match in the basement, flood any attic.
Teach me how to do. This dojo’s already on fire.
Mentor, I’m a truant for you.
When I was a child, helplessness ruled.
Home alone, braving anything, the stain
on the telescope, a bravura of halogen.
inventory of fear: God, juggernauts,
giant roaches, mummies,
stews boiling over, CO,
bandits snaking up brick—
Unarmed, I wore a nightgown made of paper.
Silt fell from walls. A maelstrom dragged my mama’s
dinghy away. Spumes stole the oars, toothed
bangles clamped my ankles. Of course I was curious
about the ingredients of insecticides, the fatal white
powder my father sprinkled against each wall
like sugar. How I tiptoed past it holding my breath
as the roaches died monotonous deaths. Strychnine
adorned their wings. On my mattress, an invisible
dance party. I was always invited, never acknowledged.
Bedbugs writhed across my wrists. An avocado pit
broke my milk teeth. Nerve after nerve, my face was lifted.
I’m the dunce in my dance class. Can’t do a split
if you hold a gun to my head. So I’m shedding that tutu.
Thanks to you, Mentor, I’ll do a backflip.
My place is here, in the dojo. Show me acumen.
Train me to crack a body with these Glow-chucks.
Give me plywood. Teach me how to break it down.
Let’s grow braver together, I said to no one.
So I grew up. Nails thickened until I couldn’t
tear without wincing.
inventory of fear: driving on freeways
at night. Infidels. Shucking
a mussel. Shadow of muscle.
Horoscopes. A man’s gaze.
The slime trail followed me onto the street.
In this lightless prefecture, only one dance
hall survived. All evening I stared hypnotized
by the acupuncture chart. Listened to 90’s
R&B. My heroines had died. Left Eye, Aaliyah
taught me not to beg for love. Demand! Pose
like a boy, wear a hood, they said. I imagined
them as scissor sisters, denuded of flesh,
two beautiful skeletons spinning on the floor.
I wanted to dance with them, feast on genes
and star fruit. If I could do girlhood again, I’d ask
to be scarier. Less whimpering—more pyromaniac
urges, more flirting with kerosene.
A four-day flash flood, and already there’s carrion
in this dojo. Mentor, why too exhausted
to pick up all the drowned blackbirds?
With each comes a trail of skinks.
Don’t let me learn your secrets for nothing.
Fight for them. Charge a price.
The first time something snapped inside me,
I found a crowbar in the woods. My emotions
stunk of excess, so pure they could only belong
in the gutter. Later, I happened upon a young
spruce—saw myself in its sprigs. Swung once
and missed. Swung twice and needles shook,
left a scar on the bark. How I shuddered
afterward, remembering my only childhood
friend whose name was Shiva, after the destroyer.
That day I adopted her name, picked ticks
out of my hair, punched stone until my knuckles
inventory of fear: bones,
of skin. Falling off trees.
In this rooster sunrise, let me believe all fantasies.
Outside our dojo, the sun lifts the landscape, a blindfold
of gauze. The yew trees have eyes.
Mentor, don’t let me give up, no matter how
frightened I sound. Teach me ambush, how to mercy
kill, how to cut with my hands clean.
If only my father could have seen me then—beating
the shit out of thugs like the son he never had.
It was so easy to deflect their bulk, to dart, shoot,
set traps for their behemoth shapes, boulders
that would crush me if not for my girl’s grace.
inventory of fear:
The speed of blood
when the skin is cut.
To think that the first time I opened a physiology
textbook, I was met with an image of a cow’s red,
pulpy heart. I didn’t sleep—my trauma lasted for days,
afraid that such an organ could also beat inside me.
Today I am struck by how delicate the mountains seem
when months ago, they looked so indestructible.
Mentor, don’t give up on me yet. My superhuman self
emerges from the geyser – ready to tackle, ready to defend.
One day, the force I was running from cornered
me, caught me in its arms. My ribs broke, my mouth
gorged in. Maybe these bones were cherry twigs
after all! There I was, knife-plunge, coughing red
on hands and knees, everything woozy, as if in
love, the taste of almonds flooding my mouth.
Skunks found my blood
in the snow. You followed one,
found me, took me to the dojo
where the light danced
all days and evenings,
dressing my wounds.
My scooter. My celerity. My roach home.
My beloved dojo. My centrifugal drop-kick.
If I were more than a string of spit across the eyes.
If I were more than mote, nail bed, bug.
If only my inventory of fear looked like this:
Atomic threat. Flying buttress
Pretty girl, unsaved.
On the street with whale-lights and trembling marimbas,
Watch me break it down.
Excerpted from Mad Honey Symposium with permission of Alice James Books. Copyright © 2014 by Sally Wen Mao.