Sally Wen Mao, Pt. 1: Your smelt muscles sing. / The slag on your bones cannot die on this earth.

For each day of National Poetry Month one of our fellows will explore the breadth of poetry in three ways: through a question from another fellow, through a poem and through a writing prompt, #writetoday.

(h/t The Gypsy Astronaut)


Timothy Yu asks, Tell me about you and animals. You’ve got poems about Leviathan, poems about aquariums, poems where you’re a wild bird or living in a wolf den. And of course we all know your spirit animal is the honey badger. Why are these non-human creatures so important—so inspirational—to you and your poetry?

Sally Wen Mao responds,

The first “manuscript” I wrote for my undergraduate thesis was titled A Field Guide to Trapped Animals. Animals were my first ongoing poetic trope because there’s something very delicate and very fierce about animals—they have long existed in various tomes and discourses as the natural antithesis to humans, the primitivism to our civilization. To me, animal themes are not necessarily an antithesis of human ones—they’re so connected to our survival and our progress that often these animal themes reflect our own follies and desires more vividly than human themes. Animals are the subjects of most extreme cruelty and reverence; this contrast interests me. I think poetry’s natural habitat rests not in the ordered world, but the wild one. I’d like to return poetry to the wild. I want to investigate if language could survive in the wild—if language could even begin to explain the beauty and sublime endurance of the animal.

Sonnets for Kudryavka

                                                            (originally published in Post Road)

Kudryavka, before Sputnik

Toast to you, dog, for your solar-powered

organs. Your smelt muscles sing. The slag

on your bones cannot die on this earth.

From dumpster to rocketship, the true

rags-to-riches tale—and it’s not even

happening to a human. Not even happening

in America. World-famous gutter-sucker,

tonight you give birth to a new name: Laika.

Before any dog impregnates you, you will shoot

off into the galaxy. Mammal as asteroid,

ultimate runaway. Who are you, whose kismet

matches the greats—a martyr for thought,

like Socrates? Will you drink the hemlock

of space? You, Laika, original cosmonaut?

Kudryavka’s Sobriquets

Zhuchka, little bug: stray mutt covered

in snow—how many tulips have you eaten

since spring? How many cabbages drenched

in ruined milk? Limonchik, little lemon:

as a stray, you knew hunger so well you wrecked

your own mouth. In Moscow, they squeezed

lemons over your coat. The seeds stuck

to your damp fur, but the juice disinfected

you. As you licked your own neck, the taste sang

through your tongue. You howled and howled

and it opened your flesh and you were made

invincible. Laika, barker: you are that dog

whose face shined in red paint. You are that dog

they renamed so they can silence you again.

Sally Wen Mao is the author of Mad Honey Symposium (which will come out next month from Alice James Books! – Preorder here or here).