Beasts at Every Threshold, Natalie Wee’s sophomore collection, is overflowing with myth and magic against a backdrop of pop-culture-meets-folklore. With careful control, Wee blurs the borders between beast and human with her hybrid form that draws from prose and poetry alike, combining to explore survival and hope in spaces where both seem lost. By the end of her collection, Wee breathes new meaning and perspective into the interconnection of diaspora and queerness.
Wee’s collection has two sections: “Thresh” and “Hold” both experiment with the white space of the page to destabilize a linear narrative. Wee’s line breaks, indents, and even flow charts call attention to what takes up space amid what is left unsaid. Poems from the first section “Thresh” feature playful allusions to pop culture, such as “Self-Portrait as Monster Dating Sim.” The poem is demarcated as a dating simulator to inject new meaning to familiar questions. The choose-your-own-adventure style offers readers branching paths. A style which necessitates a second reading to explore the paths left unchosen. The last line asks: “And how long have you been lonely?” before echoing Wee’s first answer: “Long enough to split the first echo.” In the second section “Hold,” Wee includes a similar experiment in self-portraiture: “Self-Portrait as Beast Index.” Formatted as a two-page crossword, the poem lists monsters and beasts ranging from the hulijing to the crane. Clues like, “yes, we are woodwind whittled through with life” (“dragon”) and “how each cry, barely audible, escapes the insect that made it” (“banshee”) invite the reader to play, dwelling on the ways Wee breathes new life into each creature’s histories.
Pop culture becomes folklore as Wee draws from the worlds of Avatar: Legend of Korra, Phoebe Bridgers, Wong Kar-Wai, and others. Wee’s playing with tenets of pop culture ask us to consider conviviality seriously – that the act of play might also be an act of archival, of queering the ways we remember ourselves, and injecting counternarratives into some of the most memorable gems that we grew up with. Wee emphasizes her focus on pop culture in “Self-Portrait as Pop Culture Reference,” which traces her upbringing, from her birth, against a backdrop of movie stars and past lovers. She writes, “The first man I loved named me after a dead American & crushed childhood into a flock of apologies.” Wee describes the violence of forgetting embedded in queer memory, and confronts her memory in a beautiful whirlwind-investigation of ideology. “En Route to the Sixth Station, Chihiro Counts the Clouds” draws from the Studio Ghibli film Spirited Away, directed by Hayao Miyazaki, to transport readers through childhood movies and their cultural impact amid details of “Y2K pink & baby blue” – her attention to detail never feels overwhelming. Instead, she challenges our pre-existing conceptions of pop culture as pure superficiality.
Wee’s writing is full of hope with an unflinching confrontation of violence and power. Wee showcases her masterful use of rhythm in “Phoning Home to Tell My Grandmother I Survived a Hate Crime.” As dialogue and timelines blur together, carefully-inserted slashes form an image that is always changing, controlled in her momentum, but relentless in her assertion of identity, one that resists the assimilating call of citizenship from the nation-state: “I am not / a citizen / crossed all that water / just to live like a dog.” Even in the spaces where Wee does not write anything, her negative space speaks volumes. In “After the Atlanta Spa Shootings, We Sat in a Field,” Wee reckons with the empty silence between each of her lines, white space bridging hurt, rage, and an unceasing demand for joy from ourselves. Towards the end of her poem, she leaves a crucial reminder of joy’s inseparable role in survival to her readers:
“If there’s anything
that still surprises me
it’s the fact joy too has weight.”
Wee’s collection moves worlds and breaks borders, sculpting new landscapes from the rubble of the old. In a genealogical weaving of myth and history, she forms images of beastliness from identities relegated as “other.” While reading Beasts at Every Threshold, subjects become fluid, emptiness forms demands, and any semblance of static ontology is transformed into something new and full of hope. Wee points us inward to reckon with everything we’ve lost, and asks us to find survival. With her words as a guide, I find joy and beauty in reclaiming the image of the beast.