Crafting Fables in the Language of My Body’s Flood: A Review of Beast at Every Threshold by Natalie Wee
In the short video accompanying Natalie Wee’s first poetry collection Our Bodies & Other Fine Machines (San Press, 2021), a voice message overlays rainfall and lush leaves. In Mandarin, a family member says, No need to respond, but I want to tell you that you’re working hard and I’m wishing you well. I am reminded of my grandmother, soft and silver, painstakingly learning the functions of WhatsApp when her grandkids are halfway across the world. Later, we would move back, only three blocks away, but unable to meet under pandemic conditions. Distance is an amorphous thing—the years between generations and miles measuring oceans; the bond between affection and its target unspooling into feelings longer than what our bodies can hold. We make vessels out of language even though nothing can fully make it to the page, wishing that words would carry our intentions to each other. In Wee’s poetry, this faith comes in the form of lyric and metaphor, transporting us to the smooth plane of a lover’s skin and shores of familial beginnings. Yet language is something to be questioned in itself. Asian, queer, and an activist, Wee is strongly aware that choosing to write in a colonizing language on colonized land necessitates the unlearning and subversion of linguistic and ideological conventions—a strong undertaking to collapse constructs of “otherness” as she explores the liquid truths of diaspora, sexuality, love, and selfhood.
As a collection, Beast at Every Threshold exhibits breadth in subject and technique. Moments of self-clarity flash between saccharine romance and family ghosts carrying the burden of history and myth on their shoulders. Wee experiments with structure and form, her poems musical as well as visually compelling. Borders appear throughout the collection as visible breaks in the text twisting down the page, a representation of shorelines separating territories and syllables. Stanzas take on the shapes of mirrors, clusters of birds, and hyperventilating sobs. The lines show evidence of being contemplated over and over, fractured to the smallest unit until new meaning arises in reverberating phrases like, “maybe a daughter is just a breath,” “maybe a daughter is just a breach” and “you taught me / the mandarin word / to bear / 忍 / is written knife / over heart.”
The book comprises two sections, “Thresh" and "Hold,” preceded by an overture, “In Defense of My Roommate’s Dog,” where the first beast is presented, desperate and humiliating. A dog humps a stuffed bear at a gathering, chasing after an imaginary coupling that will preserve its existence. Guests roll their eyes in embarrassment, but the speaker identifies with it, considering the scene a portrait of the poet at work: “I was an animal / crafting fables in the language of my body’s flood.” Against flux and estrangement, the body is what tethers us to reality, our will to live realized through the touch of someone else. Other beasts in the collection are mythological, a cross-cultural genealogy of female assertion from which Wee finds her representation. In “Self-Portrait as Beast Index,” a poem structured as a crossword puzzle, the speaker’s Ahma compares life to layers of excavated soil and song. Referencing a criss-cross answer key of folkloric creatures, the poem pays homage to an epic lineage of womanhood in public imagination: sirens, succubi, hulijing (a fox spirit, shapeshifting into beautiful women to bewitch men), banshees, gorgons. From them, Wee contemplates the legends of female identity, created in part by male fantasy, yet remembered for their power to raise calamity. There is pride in inheriting these myths, for the ability to instill fear means one may rise above survival.
Born in Singapore to Malaysian parents, Wee is multilingual and inhabits a space where English, always demanding fluency, fails to articulate the full spectrum of experience. In “Sayang,” Wee explores the layers of the word to trace the memories of a lost father. In Bahasa Melayu, “sayang” is a verb (to adore, to love); a noun (dear, love); and a phrase ([it’s] a pity), evoking nuances between love and loss that cannot be carried over in translation. As if to accentuate language’s inadequacy, the word “father” is censored in the entire piece, a black box of complex adoration and trauma as the speaker remembers him as a protector, holding his arms apart behind a daughter learning to ride a bicycle, but also as an aggressor, knuckles white against a child’s blooming blue cheek. A man “who understands love only in measures of vessels” of material abundance, swearing to be “a boat bearing more than water.” It is not a stretch to compare parental love with the tongues we speak—both are obscure, vessels, passed down to us in our formative years, the violence of not being able to choose and loving anyway as we bridge the distance between hurt and longing.
In a conversation with Krista Tippett, the writer Ocean Vuong, one of Wee’s most important literary inspirations, brings up the lexicon of violence embedded in patriarchal English language. “I heard boys talk about pleasure as conquest… ‘Go knock ‘em dead. Drop dead gorgeous. Slay—I slayed them. I slew them.’ What happens to our imagination, when we can only celebrate ourselves through our very vanishing?” To the settler, the process of integration is a visceral mutilation, as Wee demonstrates in “Can You Speak English?”:
We were shored clean of fathers,
throated harsh American accents
& muzzled breathing, only to be offered
a name half-pronounced. Haunting,
the border agent called me, instead of Huan Ting.
A single exhale dislocating phantom from girl.
The nonchalant mispronunciation of the speaker’s name to an otherworldly existence is an act of erasure, as is the mother’s decision to disavow her language to adapt to a new land. The speaker describes silence as a surgical mutilation of the mother(’s) tongue, and, like a caesarean, it is a birth achieved by trauma: “She fumbles, the stutter of birthing an unwelcome / child to a violent nation […] So she knife[s] a belly made for easier spoils, sew[s] her tongue backwards.”
Central to Beast at Every Threshold is the question of one’s identity and place—the poet writing against disappearance, but also to weave a tapestry of loved ones and influences. To choose tenderness in spite of hurt is an act of resistance. In “Immigrant Aubade,” Wee writes about gratitude toward found family members on diasporic land, who practice empathetic indignation and peel boiled eggs in the gentlest way possible together. Composed almost entirely in meandering couplets, the poem transforms the beach from a symbolic site of trauma into a nostalgic coast where peace is only interrupted by song:
My throat overflows with the lullaby
of we who name our motherlands
the place where sunset meets the sea,
we for whom maps hold no wonder
our bodies can’t outmatch. It’s magic, how
another diasporic darling makes
where are you from sound like sisterhood.
In a similar vein, Wee contemplates the process of finding one’s representation in pop culture, acknowledging icons—Phoebe Bridgers, BTS, Mitski, Rina Sawayama, Wong Kar-wai, Asami and Korra from The Legend of Korra (for whom Wee dedicates two poems)—who do not fit the mainstream mold of North American entertainment. These icons are embedded in the lines of Wee’s poetry, at times informing poetic structure to resemble lyrics printed on the backside of a CD album. Contrary to the misguided perception of the diasporic and/or queer writer as a singular genius, Wee also posits her work in conversation with poets like Hanif Abdurraqib, Hala Alyan, and Layli Long Soldier, engaging with current discourses on diversity and ways to create. A number of Wee’s poems have earlier versions published on online journals and social media, evoking an aesthetic built upon community and comradeship.
“After the Atlanta Spa Shootings, We Sat in a Field” exemplifies this blending of personal genealogy with political forces larger than our own. With one stanza of fragmentary phrases sprawling over three pages, the speaker describes the nonlinear experience of centering oneself after the atrocity, the blankness of the page suggesting an expansion of grief. The lover’s touch provides tangible security, but the speaker still feels the presence of the deceased: “we press our lips / to ghosts & inhale / until we are vessels for life / still unlived.” This poem makes frequent mention of enclosed spaces: cloister, conduit, vessel, room, chambers against the open field, an apt metaphor for what it is like to be marginalized in a country, of living under the threat of being safe for the time being. Again, there is the image of a vessel—the vessel as a container for the self and the wider significance of our bodies as a vicarious existence and demographic.
As a whole, Beast at Every Threshold charts a pathway toward gentleness, each poem a space for desire and memory, introducing nuance to the kinds of love we receive—from those dearest to us to the strangers we meet in each vague encounter—and the distance they have travelled to reach us. Oscillating between the physical body and abstract declarations of affection for an unspecific “we,” Wee shares a vision of navigating the conundrums of diaspora and language, showing there is beauty to be found in process and imperfection.
Jacqueline Leung is a writer and translator from Hong Kong. Her work has appeared in SAND Journal, Asymptote, Cha, and the Asian Review of Books, among others. She is assistant editor for The Offing and translations editor for Cicada.