It is rare to find a debut collection that contains the range on display in Sally Wen Mao’s Mad Honey Symposium. Mao’s fearlessness in tackling subjects as various as sexual awakening, racism, carnivorous plants, and honey badgers suggests that her intellectual curiosity is central to her poetics. Opening with a sonnet, the book also includes poems labeled soliloquies, arias, eclogues, and haibun. The vocabulary in these poems delights and challenges: “propolis,” “capybaras,” “sclera”—some stanzas are as exacting as a biology exam. We recognize the honey badger from the 2011 viral video “The Crazy Nastyass Honeybadger,” which has garnered over 69 million views on YouTube. The unholy collision of subject, style, and form that made that video a surprise-hit meme is omnipresent in Mao’s work. In “Capsaicin Eclogue” Mao commands the Trinidad Scorpion, “Tingle— / Tangle—Sweat—Heave—Spin—Break / dance! Mix the pulp. Snakes snap their jaws / through stomach lining,” then pivots from the pastoral to the surreal: “The furniture melts / and outside, the cool evening breaks your legs.” Mao’s dexterity nearly overburdens the sensorium. She succeeds in making our world seem alien in its lushness and danger.
But Mao does more than describe the frightening variety of the physical world with precision. She uses her gift for vocabulary and music to blend the natural sciences with the social. When this abutment is fully realized, Mao achieves something sublime. From “Yellow Fever”: “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.” Such ecstatic declarations abound in Mad Honey Symposium, which couches a poetic bildungsroman among its pastorals. The first and third poems of the collection tell the story of a masturbating girl, “dead-sexed, hyper- / sexed,” who rejects her mother, “half-asleep in her gender,” and her sister, “inside her purity panoply,” in favor of the Venus Flytrap: “Venus, let me swim in your solarium. / Venus, take me in your summer gown.” But Mao urges in the second poem, “Apiology, with Stigma”: “When resources run out, don’t sit there and behave. Abandon hive.” That tenor of assuredness makes Mad Honey Symposium among the strongest debut collections of the year.