As part of filling Station's new monthly review series, Margaryta Golovchenko reviews Natalie Wee's Beast at Every Threshold (Arsenal Pulp, 2022). Find the book at your local bookstore or online at Arsenal Plup.
Read the full review below.
It is hard not to look at the cover of Natalie Wee’s highly anticipated sophomore collection, Beast at Every Threshold, and not wonder who the beast in question is. A closer look makes this question seem, at first glance, redundant — one can clearly make out a fox-like creature in what appears to be a state of disassembly, reshaped by the hands to which its various parts are tethered. These parts, however, do not all biologically belong to a fox. One portion of the torso is scaly, another wing-like, the paws of tigers and bears also visible in the mix.
The deceptive optics of the cover also apply to Wee’s poems, which revolve around familial history and the immigrant experience, queer love and community-as-family, oftentimes blending stream of consciousness and pop cultural references. Throughout Beast at Every Threshold, Wee employs a selection of words—such as wolfing, monster, meat, paws—that conjure up a monster-like entity. In the Western imagination, there are only a few degrees of separation between the beast and the monster, a distinction that the poems “Self-Portrait as Monster Dating Sim” and “Self-Portrait as Beast Index” refer to. Most often, the difference between a beast and a monster is rooted in the monster being much more fantastical, its existence impossible because of its hybrid nature. Both are often imagined as hungry, insatiable, even, either demanding sacrifice or simply taking what they desire at will. Notably, the above selection of words can also be associated with an animal, in the broad sense of the term. In a lot of ways, a beast is also an animal. Sometimes, it is a living being who is misunderstood and feared, its natural behaviour twisted until it becomes unnatural, terrifying, something to be feared.
Beasts at Every Threshold asks its reader to consider this process of ontological transformation as it applies to people, specifically immigrants from Asian diasporas. The beast that is produced as a result of this process is either pushed to the peripheries or hunted for the purposes of becoming a trophy for white individual, “skin/ turned fragrant ornament thrown over women/ the color of surrender & they were praised for wearing it.” Working against this dehumanization, Wee’s collection reads like a journal kept by the poems’ speaker, in which they detail experience as an Asian immigrant in an increasingly hostile North America setting. To ask who the titular “beast” is, Wee suggests, is to remain grounded in an oppressive power dynamic. There is no corporeal bestial being in Wee’s poems, only actions that are monstrous in their attempt to impose the bestial onto others.
Although the collection is divided into two sections—“Thresh” and “Hold”—there is no easy way to separate out the different types of poems. The joyful and humorous, as in “Inside Joke”—“my bb sends a pic of 2 otters + the word ‘us’/ translated: we exist in every iteration of touch made possible”—exist alongside the melancholy or devastating. Beast at Every Threshold is tender with its reader when it wants to be but is adamant about determining what the word means and what tenderness looks like. The poem “In My Next Life as a Fruit Tree” is an apt example. Immediately, Wee disrupts any assumptions the reader may have had about this being a soft and fluffy meditation on life and love. Instead, the opening lines continue the thought in the title: “which by all accounts is a foolish aspiration/ considering deforestation rates & forest fires.” Wee once again disrupts the reader’s expectations at the end, asking them to “forget theories of sorrow & hellfire & brimstone at the final circle of the Earth.” The speaker’s desire “to be/ the bird that rests on your branches” exemplifies the moment when the beast is freed of the layers of fear that have overwritten its being. What remains is the human, the living being who “want[s] to be” because that “is already a complete sentence.” The speaker does not ask for nor even require tenderness from the reader because to be tender, in this case, is to push back as a way of making room for the self.
Similarly, Beast at Every Threshold never coddles its white readers, with poems like “After the Atlanta Spa Shootings, We Sat in a Field” and “Phoning Home to Tell My Grandmother I Survived a Hate Crime” unflinching in their approach. In the latter, the speaker addresses the reader as much as their grandmother when they describe how “a white woman / [mistook] me / for animal” in “this city / this land / where our color / is fresh meat / new leather / good leash.” When the speaker contemplates how, “If there’s anything/ that still surprises me/ it’s the fact that joy too has weight” in “After the Atlanta Spa Shootings,” it is a moment of rebellion, a space for reflection and healing that is reserved for the Asian community. The reader is a guest in Beast at Every Threshold. Wee leaves certain doors open for entry but leaves the keys in her own hands, requesting critical engagement rather than empty sympathy.
This sense of control is especially palpable in Wee’s use of language and form. Wee is a shapeshifter of a poet, re-bending what has already been bent by powers of authority like the border agent in “Can You Speak English?” The agent’s mispronunciation of Huan Ting as Haunting dehumanizing the speaker, transforming them into “A single exhale dislocating phantom from girl.” Wee’s resistance manifests through moments of contemplation. However, to say that it is a meditation on beauty feels like an oversimplification and a disservice to Wee. In her poems, the spaces that might otherwise seem transitional and empty acquire weight and significance for their ability to grant the speaker respite. Light and shadow are regular visitors in Beast at Every Threshold, as is the moon. Their elusiveness is what makes them so appealing to the speaker. These elements of the natural world exemplify a porous form of being that simultaneously never sacrifices the core sense of self, as multifaceted as it may be.
There is another, more personal, dimension to Wee’s definition of the beast in her collection, namely the confrontation with personal history and memory. This kind of beast is less straightforward. It lives inside the speaker and does not act upon the surrounding world as much. It is also a beast not because it is threatening or hungry, but because it is more indicative of a part of the self that cannot be ignored yet can sometimes be difficult to negotiate. Several poems in Beast at Every Threshold explore the theme of matriarchy, female familial relationship, and female abuse. This includes not only poems about the speaker’s relationship with their mother and grandmother but also extends to a discussion of language as another mother who also plays an integral in shaping one’s identity, especially for immigrants. This connection between cultural and biological motherhood is present in poems like “An Abridged History” and “Frequent Flyer Program.” The struggle that the speaker faces against the “beast” of identity is not rooted in victory, nor even in making sense. It is more about fighting alongside the beast to ensure its survival, the two working towards the same goal of “build[ing] a pain/ -less home.” In other words, the beast Wee writes of in Beast at Every Threshold is a version of the self that is fighting for its right to exist and taking no-bullshit approach to her hopefulness, as exemplified by the speaker in “Wei Ying Tells Me About Resurrection”:
A joke I was once told goes, I didn’t choose
this life, this life chose me. Fuck that. Choose a hell
of your own making over the hell that unmakes you. Flower
a garden of rage & eat & eat & eat.