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Lavender Town: Three Poems by Sally Wen Mao

‘When you climb the stairway, / don’t shield your eyes / from the pixels, 30 hertz heat— / don’t shield your awe / from the ghosts of pretty prey’

By Sally Wen Mao


Lavender Town


Don’t let the sour flowers fool you, child.

This town is a dead town. The tower tolls
to your trill, your heartbeat,
to everyone except you. You listen. You hear.
Ghost notes, discordant leaves
clutter the earth, tin & rustle—
a lachrymose bird cries,
a graveyard glistens. When you climb the stairway,
don’t shield your eyes
from the pixels, 30 hertz heat—
don’t shield your awe
from the ghosts of pretty prey.
The ones you catch
when you’re alone and afraid.

Lavender Town, noble purple town, plumed, perfumed
dream of violet fields—can you hear
the killing machine sing? What secrets hide?
Why run? Why hold on?
You walk by the side of the road, biting an apple
as you wave your thumb—
blood sickles down, a rebel
you are, a hitchhiker, a tiny savant.

When you grow up, and the screen lights up
all your blind
spots, and you replace the dead
green cartridge
with a blank one of your making,
you’ll arrive, at last, at the final
battle. Maybe then you’ll find
that the game you’re playing
is a hack—you thought you were invincible,

and just like that, the boss
KOs you. And other times, you’re astonished
at your own breath—

you thought you were dead,
but your body was eternal all along.





Anna May Wong goes home with Bruce Lee


We meet while he’s filming The Orphan.
My young skin gleams. I’m in the future,
1960. My real self is alive somewhere,

but I’ve jinxed my own time machine to find
him. The bar sweats, sweet with salt, conk,
lacquer. The jukebox plays “Chain Gang”.

We were born in the same golden state, surrounded
by cameras, chimeras for our other selves. He admits
some applause could be cruel, then steals a kiss.

Only he knows this terror—of casting so huge
a shadow over a million invisible faces. The silver
of our eyes dims them, and for that I don’t forgive

myself. But Bruce understands. He knows the same
shame. On the dance floor, he cups the small
of my back, his hands cold like gauntlets.

I like how he describes a machete. How he hooks
his digits with my incisors, how he rips the skin
off bad memories, with just one lip, bloody apple,

and one battle has me pinned, saddled, on my spine.
In the aftermath, he reads me the poems he’d publish
posthumously—“Though the night was made for loving”

and “Parting”—how he kisses with both eyes open,
staring straight into me. A lot of nothing at stake.
At this time, my heart dead—little pigeon buried

beside the torn twig. He asks me to take him
with me, to the future. It’s the only place we can live
, he ventures. I want to say yes. I want to let

the flush flood over and take him there, our own
happy ending. But I don’t. It’s not ours to own,
I say, and bury his silence with my mouth.




After Nam June Paik


Good Morning Mr. Orwell (1984)

We wake up to the era of a doom tube. Save
us, save us, save us—if our suffering

is broadcasted, let it be known.
Let it be collective. Let it be real, let it be
the future real soon.

Opera of our nightmares, today is the day
the heavens have promised: the day we survive

ourselves, move forward and fast. Farther and farther
the sky rumbles over us—faster and faster,

the transmissions, boomtowns, bodies in space:
New York to Paris, Berlin to Seoul, WNET

to Centre Pompidou, we broadcast
our triplicate shadows, our robot politics,

we install our souls, our space yodels, our rebel kisses,
into your television set, your cell phones,

until the moon rises
into your kingdom
and drowns in the cove of our satellite waves.