Back to Issue Thirty-Five

Sunday Stroll Through the Marriage Market



Old women kneel in the square with open umbrellas,
	their granddaughters pinned
to the nylon. Osmanthus trees, summer-buttered, 

	torn—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—Woman. Born 1990.
	Raised here. Educated in London. Speaks

	three languages. Virtuous. 1.60m. Hobbies—
cooking. Playing with children. Flying kites. Virtue, 
	the glint inside you turning dark.

Man. Born in 1981, Hangzhou. Good job 
	at a banking firm. 175 cm tall. Needs a caring, 
devoted wife, preferably born in 1980s. 

A strange man stares, asks you if you’re “looking.” 
	You shake your head, I’m just a tourist. 
No, I am not alone. One truth, one lie. 

Lotuses scoff under the stone bridges, so pink 
you wonder if touch draws their blood.
		A lotus is not alone

on its wet saucer—roots always connected
	to another’s blooming, another’s dying. 
Today you are not connected to anything. 

Another man offers to draw your portrait. 
	So beautiful, he says. Are you married?
You sit on the concrete as he touches a spot

of graphite, forming eyes, a nose, a mouth
	you cannot recognize.



Pleasure Garden



小姐姐,好漂亮	daily the love notes
                                from strangers in other hemispheres

                                can I live on these every day 
                                without anyone touching me

—without anyone looking at my face in person

                                they don’t know the swollen
                                stone in my body, my lungs like a hagfish
                                a beat-up grin


to be a woman poet is to disconnect, despair,
experience kingdom-destroying pleasure

                                at the museum I saw the hairpieces 
                                of courtesans who ate raw osmanthus
                                from silver ewers 

they ornamented themselves to resist
a promise of decay

                                but decay is just a matter of getting closer 
                                to the earth 
                                the worms breathing underneath all bored

punish me to lie down with my ears 
on the soil, hear the footfalls
of past lovers, a clamor of pangs

                                —whose laughter hurts the most?


in the pleasure garden, all my ex-lovers meet each other
snakes and snapping turtles bite the stems off water lilies

some speak English, others can’t communicate
some will make friends, others will make enemies

by the glow of the scholar’s rocks, they guzzle sorghum wine
and most of them hate poetry, so likely they’ll plot escape

some of them stay, develop an attachment to tending gardens,
some of them love snapping the bonsai trees’ miniature branches

some’ll survive on catching koi, roasting all their golden scales
some’ll sleep in the orchid pavilions, argue over how to leave

and I will not touch them, I hide in eaves, stay in the lookout 
tower with my brass telescope, the past smudged on its lens 


in the pleasure gardens, the courtesans sometimes wrote 
                                carp-bitten love poems,
                                painted silk mountains, ambergris,
                                embroidered lucky bats, blue peach trees

I read about them: how they destroyed their kingdoms
                                with their fatal beauty

how they rose up the ranks
and bewitched their kings

                                all the regicides committed in their names

and here in my corner I’m watching 
the hot wind flog the legendary West Lake

                                bored by the supremacy of romance,
                                I eschew the water lily’s idolatry

the sight of them reminds me
that I do not want to live forever

Sally Wen Mao is the author of two collections of poetry, Oculus (Graywolf Press, 2019), a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and Mad Honey Symposium (Alice James Books, 2014). The recipient of a Pushcart Prize, she was recently a Cullman Fellow at the New York Public Library, a Jenny McKean Moore Writer-in-Washington at the George Washington University, and a Shearing Fellow at the Black Mountain Institute. Her poetry and prose have appeared in The Best American Poetry, Tin House, Poetry, Harpers Bazaar, The Kenyon Review, Guernica, and A Public Space, among others. She is a Kundiman fellow in both fiction and poetry.

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