Sally Wen Mao on "The White-haired Girl"
Introduction by Christopher Soto
In Sally Wen Mao's debut collection of poems Mad Honey Symposium, she proves herself a lyrical gymnast. Mao exhibits an impressive control over vocabulary and form. Her poems are tightly and intentionally crafted, with meticulous word choice. Mad Honey Symposium is a place where flowers, animals, and insects embrace their ferocity (through the narrator's embodiment of them).
The White-Haired Girl
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.
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.
Sally Wen Mao on ""The White-haired Girl"
The inspiration for this poem, "The White-haired Girl", grew out of my fascination with tales about wayward women. The poem is named after a Chinese opera and film based on real-life stories from the 1920s and 1930s—it's about a girl, Xi'er,who was forced into marriage with her father's vindictive landlord and flees her captor by escaping into the mountain. There, she finds a cave and settles, getting food from a nearby temple, and at night the lightning strikes and her hair turns white. She becomes feral, returning to the wild, only trusting the sacred silence of the landscape. There is a magnitude to that silence.This speechlessness grows more intensely as she merges and adapts to her natural surroundings. The landscape, in turn, has marked her with white hair, a change in her appearance that reflects her transformation.
I've always been fascinated by the transgression inherent in this story. It centers the girl's plight, and it's not a tragic heroine that we see in so many of these narratives. Instead of suffering, she chooses to escape. There is a defiance and loneliness to that act, and that's perhaps the reason this tale fueled the revolutionary narrative that was brewing in China at the time. However, revolutionary China was pushing toward a new social order, and I interpret the tale differently, not as propaganda. Instead of attempting to fit into a social order that exploits and mistreats her, or joining a different order, Xi'er chooses to forgo social order altogether and forge her own feral order, in the mountains and the temple, surrounded by wilderness and lightning.
In my poem "The White-haired Girl", I wanted to capture her voice as she defies her oppressors and is transformed. She refuses to be disciplined and controlled: therefore, her body removes itself from its surroundings. In the poem, I decided to write two versions of her tale: one based on the original story, and one "redux", a modern-time version. In the "2011 redux", the white-haired girl is still on the run. She's still rejecting the narrative that chains her to sorrow. Instead of running away on foot, she's taking busses, hitchhiking, witnessing the sky above the highway. In a sense, to be feral is to not obey, to fail categorization, to fail to surrender, to reject discipline. I'm not quite sure what will happen to her, because I'm still writing her journey into existence. Xi'er's story can be reincarnated and rewritten for every generation.