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Sally Wen Mao
The Kingdom of Surfaces
Graywolf, 2023


reviewed on September 5, 2023

One of the most ambitious titles of the year, and deserving of serious consideration for the year's major prizes, The Kingdom of Surfaces offers a capacious yet nuanced object study in western imperialism, focusing on the acquisition and imitation of Chinese art in Europe and the U.S. during the chinoiserie rage of the 18th century.  


As its title suggests, the book examines empire through its glittering surfaces, from glazed majolica to the mirror-like reflections of water to the iconic blues and whites of porcelain invented in Jingdezhen around 200 B.C.—and subsequently plundered, as Mao points out, by successive western incursions along the Silk Road.  Tracing the provenance of these and other objects, The Kingdom of Surfaces aspires to a globalist logic, ranging in place in order to document the totalizing procedures of capital.  Mao has produced, that is, a keen-eyed appraisal of racial capitalism, indication—along with titles like Anthony Cody’s The Rendering, Paisley Rekdal’s West: A Translation, and Lindsay Turner’s The Upstate—that American poetry might, at the present moment, be cutting its obsession with individual identity with the welcome tonic of systemic critique.


Juxtaposing Mao’s birthplace of Wuhan, China, with a market in Berkeley, California, and shuttling between an apartment in Harlem and the twin peaks of San Francisco, The Kingdom of Surfaces tracks the vectors of capitalism through processes of cultural interchange.  “Consider,” Mao writes in “On Porcelain,” a concrete poem in the shape of a vase, “when museums / and private collections acquire / their objects / How language, like history, // neuters, neutralizes.”  At a moment when entities from Meta to the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia endeavor to sanitize wealth through processes of cultural laundering—cf. Zuckerberg General and MDLBEAST—Mao offers a timely reminder that culture itself has long been implicated in violence.  “For humans to harvest silk,” she explains, “the silkworm has to die.  Cocoons thrown in boiling water.. […] Otherwise, it would just be pretty and uncomplicated.”


At the heart of Mao’s meditation on cultural violence is the book’s title sequence, a response to a 2015 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art called China Through the Looking Glass: Fashion, Film, Art, in particular to Andrew Bolton’s accompanying essay “Toward an Aesthetic of Surfaces.”  To be sure, the exhibition and essay seem rather low-hanging fruit, presenting, as Bolton does, “a rethinking of Orientalism as [in fact] an appreciative cultural response” and offering a representation of a China “culturally and historically decontextualized.”  Still, Mao lets the Met have it, insisting, of course, that history matters in all its discomfiting granularity:


Lewis Carroll published Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There in 1871, the same year as the Chinese Massacre in Los Angeles, where nineteen Chinese immigrants were robbed, tortured, and hung by a mob of more than five hundred white men in a single alley in what is now downtown, near Union Station.  It was one of the largest mass lynchings in American history.


Refreshingly, Mao exempts neither herself nor eastern cultures, including China, from economic and political critique, revealing how both are implicated through culture in forms of violence which they would—on a conscious, ethical level—stridently reject.  “Proboscises of rare bugs gleaming in jewels,” she describes in “The Kingdom of Surfaces.”  “Dazzled, I touch them and disgust myself.”  Another poem, “Romance of the Castle-Toppler,” examines Chinese imperial concubines who were blamed, as early as the 18th century B.C., for toppling both emperors and empires.


In leveling such critique, The Kingdom of Surfaces does suffer, on isolated occasions, from a tendency toward the strident and sententious, as Mao overwrites a point already made more implicitly and with more subtlety.  “We march / For Black liberation,” she writes in one poem, “For Indigenous land and water / America / We march / An uprising.”  Nigh parodic in its parading of leftist virtue, the passage also demonstrates the kind of imprecise or gestural writing that sometimes mars Kingdom, as when Mao notes that “[o]n this side of the river, / memories of blood spilled.”  Whose memories? one wants to ask.  And what is spilling?


Such indulgences are rare, though, particularly in comparison with Mao’s contemporaries, many of whom fill entire collections with similarly slack and/or bromidic posturing.  Far more common in The Kingdom of Surfaces, and far more memorable, is Mao’s unflinching re-appropriation of Chinese culture both past and present; reminding us, as Kingdom does, of the precarious and threatened existence of Asian and Asian-American women in the United States, the book looks back in order to look forward, imagining into existence the survival of Mao’s speaker and of the culture she represents. 


“Among the treasures I rifled out of the trash,” she writes in the book’s final poem, “I found / myself.”

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