(Cambridge, MA: Alice James Books, 2014)
“I imagine a star. A clove bullet/ ripping through me.” This is one way to render the feeling—a massive nuclear reaction; an intensity of flavor that parts flesh—of losing yourself in Sally Wen Mao’s debut Mad Honey Symposium. It’s a “dendriform paradise” birthed from seeds of sensations of hunger, desire, and danger—among a host of other subjects—all fertilized by a visceral, textural synaesthesia.
She opens with “Valentine for a Flytrap,” using this carnivorous plant to set the stage for the tug of war to come: “You are the caryatid/ I want to duel, dew-wet, in tongues.” The caryatid, a sculpted female figure that serves in place of a regular column as an architectural support, melts into the sonic double pun on duel/dual and dew-wet/duet, hinting at a sort of shifting nature of roles in feminine competition and cooperation. Thus, Mao sets loose a high voltage barrage of “feral” images—angry bees, poisonous flowers, dire wolves—that take their turns in a wild dance that unfolds over the course of four movements.
On their own each element of her catalogue of symbols—numerous plants, bodily organs, wild animals—feels familiar, yet the manner in which they are employed is assuredly not. The honey badger (mellivora capensis) makes several appearances; its fearlessness, cunning, and voracious appetite marking it as perhaps the collection’s spirit animal. Mao uses feminine pronouns when referencing the creature, blurring the lines between badger and speaker. And in “Searching for the Queen Bee,” as “Honey drips from glaciers,” the speaker addresses her again: “May you never sleep, badger:/ ever-droning, ever-hunting.” Such a gift for recontextualizing images amid gushes of lush descriptors lends a disorienting air even among signs of comfort. It’s an intoxicating mix, and as with any intoxicant, you’re better off surrendering to its effects than fighting to control its power.
The central intoxicant here is one of the book’s less common objects, the eponymous “mad honey.” This is honey that contains the nectar of plants from the family Ericaceae—generally rhododendron or azalea—and causes what is known as grayanotoxin poisoning. Mao’s poison takes the form of a sweet, alluring food; one that in small amounts heightens experience as an aphrodisiac and hallucinogen, but which in larger doses acts as a purgative, laxative, and paralytic: “we found traces of mad honey they’d ingested/ to revive desire, as if poison answered all the questions// about their bodies.”
And where is this consumption of mad honey happening? A party, of course, though not one we regularly participate in today. The text is a “symposium,” a classical Greek drinking party that served as the eponymous settings for Socratic dialogues by both Plato and Xenophon. The latter figure, a “Greek scholar and commander of 10,000 Greek soldiers,” appears here to deliver one of six “Mad Honey Soliloquies” on account of leading “his soldiers to Trebizoid [sic, Trebizond], where poisonous honeycombs grew wild and,” as Mao notes, “he witnessed the effects of mad honey.” Similarly, Roman general Pompey delivers a soliloquy following his own account of when, centuries after Xenophon, he led his own army “through Trebizoid [sic] where the enemy laid traps of mad rhododendron honey.” Xenophon’s presence, in light of his own encounter with mad honey and composition of a symposium, adds a delightful looping element to the work. This is no Socratic dialogue, but it does feel like a tripped-out party, where one watches “plastic ribcages melt in starbursts,/ drip like watermelons” and “Saguaros// peck at pterodactyl clouds.”
But this is all merely context, the grounding that allows Mao to charge her poems without electrocuting the reader. Though that risk of shock—through image, through description—is a major part of the book’s allure, as the its most immediate and rewarding sensations are found in how Mao crafts musical textures, the way she enacts being “strangled by language.” Not only is the tongue among the most prominent recurring images, the reader’s mouth is continually physically stimulated as the tongue ripples through lines like “I despised softness, how a bite can sluice/ the flesh with teeth,” and “Some kisses make me eat holes/ through wet kitchen towels until my teeth shine/ with detergents.”
In similar fashion, over and over you’re enveloped by the pungent aroma of that clove bullet cleaving your skin; the moments when Mao’s “emotions/ stunk of excess, so pure they could only belong/ in the gutter.” Does your whole mouth pucker as you say to yourself, “Dung describes my lips/ on your lips”? If it does, try cleansing your palate with “Junk in the organs, kinks clone the thyroid,/ diaphragm punctured like a paper lantern/ blown out.” This constant flood of diction swells the brain and excites nerve endings. It’s like being at a concert where the bass frequencies rise from the floor and suffuse the air; tightening your chest, setting your hair on end, and relaxing certain muscles that should stay constricted in polite company. Is this the dissociative intoxication of a touch of mad honey? If so, how much can one ingest here before a purge of bowels, before the dangers of cardiac arrhythmia and paralysis become very real?
This is how the mad honey party plays out: waves of pleasure and terror intermingle as the scenery changes, as Mao migrates from antiquity to modernity and from continent to continent. Even what is consumed morphs. Those recurring themes of hunger, desire, and intoxication find expression through the eating of durian and monstera deliciosa fruits. Though both are often described as delicacies, the former, which Mao dubs “a weapon of truth,” emits an overpowering, revolting odor that “may erase a child’s immediate memories./ So I am addicted, of course. Not to eating// but to sniffing it like glue.” The latter, meanwhile, will “poison the children,” and if eaten unripe “will steal your voice. Your gums/ will blister little stars. You’ll vomit, swell, tremble.” What’s more, when “the hunger stalks/ close enough to scoop the pupils/ from our eyes,” the starving will eat whatever they can scavenge, as North Korean children do in her poem “The Azalea Eaters”: “We’ve eaten toad, weevil, roe. We’d eat a houseplant/ or your pet. We’ve kissed poison flowers and retched/ it all but we’re hungry still.” In this light, swallowing the all-consuming “Bunsen flame” of the Trinidad scorpion pepper in “Capsaicin Eclogue” seems almost a relief.
Towards the collection’s end, Mao muses that, “If I could do girlhood again, I’d ask/ to be scarier. Less whimpering—more pyromaniac/ urges, more flirting with kerosene.” It would seem, then, that through these poems she has found some measure of that childhood she wishes she’d had. There is no whimpering here, no shying away from action, but there is plenty of squirting more lighter fluid on each little fire. She gave her honey badger instincts space to flower and that nectar, however toxic, is delicious.
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Alex Crowley is the poetry, science, and history reviews editor at Publishers Weekly and a co-curator of Brooklyn’s MENTAL MARGINALIA Reading Series. His poems have appeared in or are forthcoming from DIAGRAM, Handsome, Big Bell, InDigest, and BORT Quarterly.