“Wet Market”

A Poem by Sally Wen Mao

September 14, 2020  By Sally Wen Mao

From youth I was taught that fresh meant alive

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until the moment you buy it                                My mother

used to pick up chickens at the wet market,        slit the throats

herself              At four I helped her                    defeather the fowl,

drain its blood                                                       in a vat

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My parents barely ate meat                                 until the 1980s

In reeducation camps,                                         they ate ground pork

once a year       In America, we don’t buy            live chickens,

but my mother always                                         wanted to see the fish

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alive, head on before we take it                            home


Chaff was the best sustenance—the eyes,           the head,

the scales         At twelve I return                        for the first time

to Wuhan         In the wet market, I touch live             snapping

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turtles, frogs in vats, smell the musk of                        open-air

stalls    You want your meat squirming                and slippery,

not the squids and king conch                             packed in ice


The butcher slices an eel in half—I squint       in disbelief

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at the dying I witness—live kill,                       slit eel

Slit eyes, I’ve been called back home, my sightline         a bloodless

gash     Wet markets flourish with produce,                      feeding

a generation     Mine, the offspring                  of those who starved,

like my father,                                                   in their mother’s wombs


Now pundits call for their ban, citing              barbarian diets—

raccoons, offal, civet                                         cats, bushmeat,

not spinach and wood ear,                               plums and star apples

At the Berkeley farmer’s market, no one         bats

an eye How lovely it must be, to possess        a body cleaved of

hunger and horrors, its stench so                    inherently


clean    Nightly I dream of Angel Island’s        quarantine

station—my immigrant                                               body scrubbed

raw with carbolic soap, my immigrant             belongings fumigated

in sulfur steam The evening I saw death,         we ate eel braised

with bitter melon,        drowned it                              in cloudy broth

To this day the memory                                     how I tasted marrow

like an elegy frozen                                            in bone


The preceding is from the Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which features excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The latest issue of Freeman’s, a special edition gathered around the theme of power, featuring work by Margaret Atwood, Elif Shafak, Eula Biss, Aleksandar Hemon and Aminatta Forna, among others, is available now.

Sally Wen Mao
Sally Wen Mao
Sally Wen Mao is the author of Oculus, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Poetry. Her first book, Mad Honey Symposium, was the winner of the 2012 Kinereth Gensler Award. She was born in Wuhan, China and raised in the Bay Area, California.

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