“Creating a Possible Self”: Natalie Wee’s BEAST AT EVERY THRESHOLD Reviewed by E.B. Schnepp

Beast at Every Threshold is not a collection that invites us in gently, holding our hand while we explore the world, but it is one that rewards us for taking the time to find our way in. The collection is a challenging read, equal parts devasting and delighting, defying all attempts at categorization; Wee reinvents the speaker repeatedly. Mythologizing the self, she grants agency through multiplicity as often as she defies conventions of form, moving from long couplets and traditional shapes to wide, breathy caesura’d lines, a video game style logic tree, and a crossword puzzle, all without sacrificing content for the sake of structure.

Everything about the collection is innovative. The speaker is invented and re-invented, forms are exploded, and we are awash in vibrant language, here (as in “Ten Years After Diagnosis”) “a moon pours itself / over creation myth / & we have a woman.” What makes the lore Wee crafts so delightful isn’t just the rich language, speakers, and complex movements that allow us to play in its world, never quite sure if we’ve found all the surprises she has to give, but the ways in which she thwarts the poetic form. Most of all, she holds folklore by the throat, creating and twisting it to showcase modern history while giving us a new type of moral, as in “Wei Ying Tells Me About Resurrection,” something that will allow us to survive in a world as bloody as any unsanitized folk tale:

[…] Child be ruthless. Be cut
throat. In all of eternity, you learn there is no forgiveness
to be crowned with. A joke I 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.

Loudly of its time and moment, another poem “Inside Joke” relishes in its text speak and BTS references, proclaiming “fuck language purists goodbye only exists bc sum1 wrote god be with ye in shorthand.” Pop culture references abound, making the lyric and structures prime us for how real and present the collection is and the gut-wrenching realities therein. Refusing to let us stay with Korra or Chihiro, we are ushered into the violence of the now as well, particularly that which is currently being perpetuated against Asians. From “After the Atlanta Spa Shooting We Sat in a Field”: “I asked for a legend / about what glows / so we could fill our bellies / with something death / hasn’t yet touched.” These expressions of the horrifying realities of being Asian, particularly in the U.S. and Canada right now, are deeply personal, with Wee in “Phoning Home to Tell My Grandmother I Survived a Hate Crime” depicting not only a moment of real violence, but the ways in which this isn’t new, a continuation of perpetuated violence over space and time:

a white woman / mistaking me / for animal / feeling behind / my teeth / for our country / discovering only / my mother tongue / some thief’s trick / cheap as yellow / skin spits warning / a war cry / I remember / back then / how you robed yourself / in tall grass / how your waiting / shrunk soldiers’ bayonets / into a single hairpin

This poem in particular is striking, not just for its rich use of language and structure, its ways of telling, giving the personal moment its space for the larger record of historical violence, but also for its ways of refusing to tell. “Phoning Home to Tell My Grandmother I Survived a Hate Crime” has lines written in Chinese that allow the poem to hold its community forward and serve as reminders to us that we are only voyeurs—both the care with which the poem holds this truth while creating a record feels incredibly vital. Wee is a true master at giving us no more than she wants us to know, creating sharp designations of who gets the full truth and experience of a moment, rejecting we who come to the page to be titillated by the experiences, violence, and self-creation she crafts. This is seen, albeit slightly differently, in “Sayang” as well. Throughout this poem we run into moments of redaction, names replaced by bold black boxes:

Once, a girl’s blue shadow stretched through light years
of night terrors, thrummed into the shape of her                ’s arm
still tucked beneath her skull, slivered an arrow as she jolted awake—

               ? and his echo, It’s just a nightmare. Come back

The technique allows the speaker to keep both the perpetuators of violence and desire to themselves.

Another poem, “Phoning Home to Tell My Grandmother I Survived a Hate Crime,” is also part of a larger discussion around making the self possible, grounding that same mythologized self in a horrifying reality, while centering survival and endurance. Building from these gut-wrenching moments in “An Abridged History”:

every sentence about a man who hurts me ends
in the sentence about the man who hurt my grandmother.

I peer through this bloodline & find on the other end
a man wearing a bullet for a face, convinced a girl

So even violence cannot stop the self from becoming. The speaker further blossoms through a series of self-portrait poems into the burgeoning hope found in “That Time I Thought Phoebe Bridgers Sang ‘When I Grow Up, I’m Gonna Look Up from My Phone and See My Wife'”:

The kind that thickens over the pool where a girl considers
time and latitude, how to rinse off enough fear to emerge    
a new fledgeling, not knowing departure has a shape

On the other side of this blossoming the speaker emerges “Futureproof”: “[Y]ou’ve done your work, say the clefted leaves that brush the earth. Now let me do mine.” The sequence closes with the coda “I Am My Dreaming Self Getting Better at This”: “I know you’ve failed / I know you’re failing / better I know / what you mean / when you say / I’m sorry / & yes I am / so proud of you.”

Despite any challenge inherent in the content, this is a collection that demands to be read. I’ve never had a collection so consistently picked up off my desk the way this one is, by me and by my students, who often curiously move through it while adding their own sticky notes: “B. likes this one” (“I Always Bet on Losing Dogs,” “When My Grandmother Begins to Forget,” and “When I Say I want to Learn Your Mother’s Recipe, I Mean,”) and “T. wants to know how to do this!” (“Self-Portrait as Monster Dating Sim”), among others. It’s prompted so many wonderful conversations already in content and form and I can’t wait to have more of them.

Beast at Every Threshold, by Natalie Wee. Vancouver, Canada: Arsenal Pulp Press, April 2022. 80 pages. $14.95, paper. 

E.B. Schnepp currently resides in Indiana. Their work can also be found in Ninth LetterLongleaf, and Up the Staircase, among others.

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