Sally Wen Mao’s Mad Honey Symposium is a collection of poems exploring obsession, honey, flowers, bees, and sex. Like a true symposium, there is a conflagration of voices, all coming together to discuss rather than tell the reader, creating a dialogue rather than a lecture. Wen Mao shows us some bizarre situations grounded in truth. Several “case studies” are referenced in the “Notes” section at the end of the book; notes which range from a medical article entitled “Mad-Honey Sexual Activity and Acute Inferior Myocardial Infarctions in a Married Couple” by Mikail Yarlioglues, MD, et al. to Chinese folk myths, Greek scholars, and film.
The collection begins with “Valentine for a Flytrap,” a poem addressing a Venus flytrap plant. Though sonnet-like, this poem does not fit the form completely—only just enough to help the reader conjure up the idea of a sonnet, which is Italian for “little song.” And so the scene is set for this collection, part symposium, part song. Poems in Mad Honey Symposium take the form of arias, duets, soliloquies, and songs. In a way, the reader is moving through an opera: a musical journey sung by several voices, all with some sort of love or obsession. Take these finals lines from “Valentine for a Flytrap”:
…Your mouth pins every sticky
body, swallowing iridescence, digesting
light. Venus, let me swim in your solarium.
Venus, take me in your summer gown.
Wen Mao celebrates the violence and sexuality of flowers. We celebrate with her as “an anthem begins” in the following poem and again as the speaker tells us about “The night [her] sex returned.” The first section is full of love and odes, including “Sonnets for Kudryavka”—or Laika, the first dog to go up in space—and ode to the “Mellivora Capensis” or honey badger, which is later recanted in “Honey Badger Palinode” in Section II. In this poem, Wen Mao focuses on the fragile aspects of this otherwise fearsome and fearless animal: “Even the thickest skin is still a membrane.”
The third section of this collection is one long poem broken into sections, titled “Migration Suite.” These sections create a sort of discussion, introducing a slower rhythm than the rest of the poems in Mad Honey Symposium, but with the same undertones of fixation and passion. Take these lines from Section V:
What if I told you to eat my red corona,
What if I told you to eat my breeze and my bullets,
What if you hang glide over my marbled barb—
The fourth and final section returns us to the world of honey with “Honey Badger Duet” and “Mad Honey Song,” a double-spaced prose block of sensory insanity that has become one of my favorite poems in this collection. Wen Mao’s poetry is both musical and thought-provoking. Any reader will leave Mad Honey Symposium having learned a thing or two about science, but it is also helpful to have Wikipedia handy when reading these poems.
Despite the “Notes” section, I looked up several items and definitions. It was well worth it. Once I understood some of the words a little better, Wen Mao’s poetry opened up to me in a new way. Mad Honey Symposium has a lot going on. This collection is an equally disturbing and beautiful assault to the senses, perfectly mirrored by the cover art. Wen Mao’s poems complicate these notions and constantly search for the unseen power, as in these lines from “Flight Perils”:
My hair is burning down
but what I see
surprises me: behind dread, a lighthouse;
behind mourning, a weather vane;
behind the trees, a tiny skiff departing.
Wen Mao’s voice is the skiff departing. With the speaker, we burn, we’re surprised. We mourn and celebrate and revisit seemingly familiar curiosities—bees, honey, badgers, sex—in new ways within these visionary poems.
Sally Wen Mao is the author of a forthcoming book of poems, Mad Honey Symposium (Alice James Books, 2014), the winner of the 2012 Kinereth Gensler Award and a finalist for the 2012 Tupelo First/Second Book Prize. Her work has been anthologized in The Best American Poetry 2013 and is published or forthcoming Colorado Review, Guernica, Gulf Coast, Indiana Review, Third Coast, and West Branch, among others. The recipient of fellowships from Kundiman and Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, she holds a B.A. from Carnegie Mellon University and an M.F.A. from Cornell University, where she is currently a lecturer. She has taught two sections of Great New Books and another course, New Asian American Narratives, which focuses on post-2001 Asian American “weird” literature. She currently teaches a class on animated films, nerds of color, and fantasy worlds.