Mad Honey Symposium, by Sally Wen Mao. Alice James Books. 128 Pages. $15.95.
A lot of hype has been made about Sally Wen Mao’s Mad Honey Symposium. Before getting a copy, I saw ads in magazines. I saw the cover picture shared all over Facebook. And maybe I’m biased because of being a faithful Kundiman/Alice James Books fan, but the hype is well deserved. Mao’s poetry is diverse and daring—though her poems explore everything from animals, bees, honey that drives people ill, racism, music, the Chinese revolution, and her own family history in place, they all come together in a carefully structured, evocative book.
When first opening the book, it’s clear that Mao is very experienced with writing. Her poems have been previously published in a page-full of places, including The Best American Poetry 2013, Beloit Poetry Journal, Indiana Review, and Quarterly West. Even in the first poem Valentine for a Flytrap, Mao’s sense of urgency and economy of language are made evident.
Right away, we are thrown into a Technicolor world of flytraps, bees, and honey badgers—where everything is both beautiful and dangerous. For the fly-trap, Mao says: “This is why you were named/ for a goddess.” Yet these characters she selects also have a darker undertone: their beauty is—at least in part—deceptive, and can result in deadly consequences for those that approach them intimately.
With her scientific lyricism, Mao writes about the animal and plant kingdoms with such bright intensity, it is as if her poems themselves are intoxicated by mad honey. (On this note, I’ve never seen better cover art to prepare a reader for the poetry inside!)
When we get to the Mad Honey Soliloquies though, we see the first human presence in these poems. The first Mad Honey Soliloquy series (1-3) responds to a case of a couple in Turkey who complained of heart pain—they were consuming honey to improve sexual performance, but instead experienced atrioventricular block, and fall into a surreal state of consciousness.
This idea of “mad honey”—something that is initially, externally sweet, but when consumed is deadly—is a uniting theme in Mao’s poems. This mad honey is not restricted only to a physical sense, but is manifested in love, society, race relations, and as a whole, survival. Through all these bouts of mad honey, there are casualties, but the true survivor that prevails over and over is the honey badger.
The honey badger is described as having “ferocity”, fighting for survival in a relentless environment. Only in Honey Badger Palinode do we see the badger “broken”, where Mao says: Even the thickest skin is still a membrane. In this way, the honey badger is a living, complex and relatable creature for us—though she fights to live, she is not entirely invincible.
It is with this image of the honey badger that we transition into insights on the poet’s own place in the mad honey world. In section III, we get the sequence poem Migration Suite, where we see Mao’s family history of migration. She and her mother, like the other characters preceding them, each fight for survival from “the country eating her alive”. This not only gives us a more intimate context for the world Mao has created, but it also gives readers a larger narrative and investment for these ideas of mad honey, survival and illness.
And this is what is so effective about Mao’s poetry: her build-up is perfect. Her poems are not self-centered, but instead lure us into her story. She never outright tells us what is going on, but let the images drive us. I often have trouble with current lyric poetry—I often feel like poems are avant-garde for the sake of being avant-garde—but Mao’s work is anything but purposeless. With her intense energy, she is not so abstract as to lose our attention, but neither does she spell out her intent. She creates poems that are available for being accessed, but that require investment from the reader. She is creative with form, not for the sake of being different, but uses the page to its fullest advantage.
Where this build-up ripens is in the poem Yellow Fever, where we see mad honey in the very intimate, and unfortunately alive context of racism. It is here that Mao lets herself be less restrained, but because of how she has successfully lured us through her craft, her bluntness doesn't come as preachy or unwarranted. This is such a phenomenal poem that I feel the need to copy it in full:
You are the kind of person who would frame a print of Hokusai’s
Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife and stroke the airplane
at night, imagining yourself as monster, tentacular
lady-killer. I am the eavesdropper sitting in your ear listening
to everything you whisper—I am smaller than milkweed bug,
and you can’t kill me. With the smugness of a man who has
just caught a trout, you say, I love those Asian women.
I will fuck you up with the spastic ember of a Puccini opera.
I know what you crave. It is larger than me. It is the pretty
face on the library book—the fallow field, the woman
with a comb in her hair, a grin about her like so many hives.
It is squalid peonies, murderous silk. It is febrile butterflies
and it is slave. It is shedding its clothes and it’s shredding your pants
and you are the thing in the plastic bidet. Don’t try to musk the malodor--
anyone can smell. You love the feel of socket on tongue? Strip
the pork rind. Shoot the waif. See that smile? Simulacrum.
Tiny waist in jade—you sweat, you slaver. What is this body
to you? Body you subsume—body you misconsume? To have
and to hurt—utter the word Orient, I dare you. She may spit
or she may nod. Who’s to say the hornbeam awakens to blight.
Here, the mad honey and the honey badger truly come alive. It becomes clear here that Mao is the spirit of a honey badger: she will not be killed, and will not tolerate injustice. She will survive and thrive despite the dangerous world around her. Even so, she acknowledges that this is something she is still learning. In Drop Kick Aria, she says:
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.
About the author:
Meg Eden's work has been published in various magazines, including B O D Y, Drunken Boat, Eleven Eleven, and Rock & Sling. Her work received second place in the 2014 Ian MacMillan Fiction contest. Her collections include Your Son (The Florence Kahn Memorial Award), Rotary Phones and Facebook (Dancing Girl Press) and The Girl Who Came Back (Red Bird Chapbooks). She teaches at the University of Maryland. Check out her work here.