Review: The Sunflower Cast A Spell To Save Us From The Void

Jackie Wang’s new collection of poetry, The Sunflower Cast A Spell To Save Us From The Void, explores the “psychic toll” (to borrow a phrase from Wang’s book of essays, Carceral Capitalism) one experiences from living in a surveillance state under late-stage capitalism through her personal dream catalogue. Dreams, presenting a jumbled, warped version of everything we see in the real world, amplify the anxieties and absurdities of surviving under such a system intended to only benefit the few. In Wang’s poems, neighbors are poised to call the cops on you as you make your way to the lake. You find yourself onstage being asked to “lighten the apocalyptic mood” by showing “more belly!” You are spoken to and can’t speak back. 

Despite a host of frightening scenarios in these poems, projections of the speaker’s concerns in the dream world often result in humor. In equal parts peril and playfulness, Wang writes in her poem “The Evil Noodle”: 

The little Asian girl, upon meeting her estranged sister, believes she will

die if she eats a single noodle from the bowl sis gives her.

The mother tries to force the little girl to eat the noodles.

I want to intervene because—what if the girl is right? Do we really want

to risk it?

As we navigate Wang’s dreamscapes, we are reminded that so much of how we react to the present moment is based on our intuition (particularly augmented in the dream realm) and what we’ve learned from our past experiences, our memories. The parameters of the dream poems allow us to trust these feelings, that it is not such a stretch to believe something sinister lies in every piece of this world — even a seemingly innocuous, single noodle. We have been tricked before. 

Trusting in these intuitions extends the speaker’s voice toward the prophetic; poems often highlight their fated or doomed ends through future tense. These prophecies draw stark lines of no return, emphasizing the effects of capitalism on personal relationships. Wang declares, “First of all nobody will survive money,” in the opening line of her poem “Waiting For Godel.” In another instance, she writes, “I don’t understand what has changed but I know I will never be able to touch you again.” Or, “I know that if I try to hold you, you will turn to dust.” These sentences that, well, sentence with finality feature in Wang’s dream logic as indicators of the system’s pervasiveness of guilt onto the personal. We feel it’s our fault that we cannot survive, and often cannot help loved ones survive a world that prioritizes wealth for the few over the health, safety, and pleasure of people. We cannot make up for this lack of empathy as an individual, thus many internalize the capitalist ideals of being better than, so to say, more deserving of. “I become, painfully, by condemning you,” Wang writes, speaking to how these systems perpetuate the need to confirm oneself as good, though it means supporting the belief that others are not. 

Illustrations by Kalan Sherrard

Given the difficulty in caring for one another in such a world where people are pitted against each other, or where we cannot hold loved ones who are incarcerated — Wang’s poems advocate for destruction in service of future possibility. In one of my favorite poems in the book, Wang begins to carry an ax so to smash glass walls, as she is tired of waiting at locked doors. “This mode of entering buildings goes viral,” she writes. “Now there are many of us who carry axes and never wait to be let in.” Destruction in Wang’s dreams looks like the morning after an absolute banger but the broken glass, the trash piles all bleed out into the city, where we realize the buildings, too, have been destroyed. One particular dream of a destroyed city reoccurs in Wang’s poems, one in which from out of the shell of a building grows a large glowing coral tree:

When I had this dream I thought, Here is the

destroyed world, and here—beyond the threshold—is the luminous

world. Simone Weil says that the greatest calamity the human race

can experience is the destruction of a city. That’s where I was: walking

through a destroyed city. But . . . the luminous tree!

The guidance given by nature, as indicated by the book’s title and this recurring dream, is the key to our continued existence. The insistence on a sunflower in the book’s title and many epigraphs points us toward the idea that there may be some innate quality in us, too, to reach toward what is good for us — to grow beyond the future the current conditions have given us, toward untouchable sun. With Wang’s poems’ suggestion that not much is worth saving in a world that values all the wrong things, perhaps a single sunflower sprouting from the rubble is all we need to be guided toward the light.

Hannah Treasure is a recent graduate of Brooklyn College’s MFA program in poetry. She is currently an Adjunct Lecturer in Brooklyn College’s English Department, and is also the poetry editor of The Shanghai Literary Review. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Cordella Magazine, Sonora Review, 86 Logic, The Shanghai Literary Review, and FORTH.

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