Skip to main navigation Skip to main content

Tickets are available for Graywolf Literary Gala in Minneapolis on September 19. For more details about the event or to make a gift in honor of our 50th anniversary, click here

Book Title

The Kingdom of Surfaces

Author 1
Sally Wen Mao
Poem Excerpt
In her garden, Empress Leizu watched the fat white worm
feasting on the mulberry leaves,
its mouth a gutter,
a hole, a maw so consumed by consumption
it falls through a hole it has eaten
into her teacup, and once steeped in that bitterness
the silkworm unravels, retching spools and spools
of thread soft as magnolia, fragrant too,
and the Empress remembered a childhood hunger
so great it turned red like the mulberries
—from “On Silk”
In The Kingdom of Surfaces, award-winning poet Sally Wen Mao examines art and history—especially the provenance of objects such as porcelain, silk, and pearls—to frame an important conversation on beauty, empire, commodification, and violence. In lyric poems and wide-ranging sequences, Mao interrogates gendered expressions such as the contemporary “leftover women,” which denotes unmarried women, and the historical “castle-toppler,” a term used to describe a concubine whose beauty ruins an emperor and his empire. These poems also explore the permeability of object and subject through the history of Chinese women in America, labor practices around the silk loom, and the ongoing violence against Asian people during the COVID-19 pandemic.
At its heart, The Kingdom of Surfaces imagines the poet wandering into a Western fantasy, which covets, imitates, and appropriates Chinese aesthetics via Chinamania and the nineteenth-century Aesthetic movement, while perpetuating state violence upon actual lives. The title poem is a speculative recasting of “Through the Looking-Glass,” set in a surreal topsy-turvy version of the China-themed 2015 Metropolitan Museum of Art Gala. The Kingdom of Surfaces is a brilliantly conceived call for those who recognize the horrors of American exceptionalism to topple the empire that values capital over lives and power over liberation.

Share Title

List Price
Publication Date
Publication Date
Trim Size
Trim Size
7 x 9
A virtuosic new poetry collection from Sally Wen Mao, “a consistently inspiring and exciting voice” (Morgan Parker)

About the Author

Sally Wen Mao
Credit: Sookoon Ang
Sally Wen Mao is the author of a previous poetry collection, Mad Honey Symposium. She has received fellowships from the New York Public Library Cullman Center, the George Washington University, and Kundiman.
More by author


  • Finalist for the 2023 Maya Angelou Book Award
  • "By turns “maker, muse and beholder,” Mao (Oculus) explores in her ruminative third collection the politics of beauty and the ironies inherent in culture and civilization under the sign of empire... Emerging from epic battles and 'wreckage,/ wrack of flesh and blood tide,' Mao brandishes her own tenacious imagination."—Publishers Weekly
  • "Lineage is a mainstay of The Kingdom of Surfaces... So many gorgeous, sharp lines in this book that often reveal the pain beneath. A stirring collection."—Nick Ripatrazone, The Millions
  • "The Kingdom of Surfaces is an impossibly rich and complex collection... Sally Wen Mao reasserts her place among the most celebrated writers of our time with her expansive and philosophical third collection."—Ronnie K. Stephens, The Poetry Question
Back to Table of Contents