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Poetry Feature: “The White-Haired Girl,” by Sally Wen Mao


I will return your spurn with a curtsy
whipped in boiling water.
Cut the red ribbon from my hair,
what’s left of my youth. Lotus seeds slide
down your throat—does it taste chaste?
The fugue of winter casts shadows
on the furnace—how it glowers
like the limpets buried in my hair,
handfuls of which you pull
towards shore, toward stagnation.
My destination is not this village,
where boars shear off bad skin
in the river, dung and alderflies
thirsting for flesh. Am I maid
or mendicant? The unwrinkled bed
is not what sky aches for. I am no swooning
debt. Next I say escape and small gullies
bloom before me—dendriform paradise:
mountain, grotto, kindling. The lightning
in my temple wards off wolves. I bow
only to pick the ticks off my shoes,
brand them clean across your cheekbones.


2011 redux

I stirred five bullets
into your burned porridge,
stole the money you sewed
into the mattress and took a bus south
of my sorrow, approaching sand,
approaching steel. I couldn’t stay
another weekend, peeling roaches
from their graves. Out on the highway
to Half Moon Bay, I saw a power
line detonate a flock of geese.
Another lonely city emerges
from their sooty feathers,
and across the magnetic fields,
taxonomy of aurochs run west
of their extinction. Should I be
embarrassed for trying to survive?
I turn inside out between
motel sheets, prisoner
of altitude. A child mistakes
a strand of hair for lightning
and the signals of far satellites
question your penance. I won’t go to
bed hungry. I wait for your footsteps,
slicing an apple with a borrowed knife.


This poem originally appeared in Indiana Review 34.2, Winter 2012.

Anni Liu (Poetry Editor): This poem offers two retellings of the Chinese opera and film of the same title–both based on the real stories of multiple women. In them, a young women named Xi’er is captured by her father’s landlord and killer and forced to become a servant and concubine to him. She escapes and lives in the mountains, fighting off wolves and taking food from the temple offerings. Although the opera and film were propaganda for the Communist Party, Sally Wen Mao’s rendering focuses on how Xi’er rejects all society for a defiant solitude. In the contemporary version, near California’s Half Moon Bay, men are still violent and greedy, and the speaker evades both him and the sorrow he inflicts. This is a poem for the wild strength in us.

A more recent prose piece by Mao can be found here; weaving the story of a women transformed into a fox outwitting her hunters and the Korean Empress Myeongseong who fought Japanese colonialism, it is a perfect companion to this poem.


Sally Wen Mao is the author of Oculus (Graywolf Press, 2019) and Mad Honey Symposium (Alice James Books, 2014). The recipient of a Pushcart Prize, she was a 2016-2017 Cullman Center fellow at the New York Public Library and the 2017-2018 Jenny McKean Moore Writer in Washington.