“Absences and Apologies”: A Review of Nicholas Wong’s Besiege Me

Updated: Jan 22

By Livia Meneghin

Besiege Me by Nicholas Wong.

Noemi Press, March 15, 2021.

80 pages. USD $18.00


When I picked up Besiege Me for the first time, I couldn’t have imagined the breadth of conversations that managed to make their way into its pages. I had been to Hong Kong a long time ago and without the presence of mind to fully sit with its complex past, present, and future. This collection is not only a bold queering of an urban terrain but also an unexpectedly cluttered and unfiltered nest of personal and global economies that we who live in such landscapes cannot afford to ignore.

Wong invites readers directly into his palms in search of answers to “translate the smoothness of wounds without scratching them into words” (64), unafraid to expose both the real and surreal within his home. With precise vocabulary and poetic play, Wong skillfully dictates nearly every aspect of the reading experience. Throughout the collection, instances of joined and intense consonant sounds slow the pace. For example, the sounds of “obnubilates” in the poem “War Notes on a Genre Called ‘Father’” must be masticated carefully; their weight must be swallowed (61). Wong adds speed and spirit with slant rhymes in other moments such as, “Your tanks broke the humerus to write humorous music in 1989” from “Children in China” (3). These lines are both corporeal and cerebral. Tanks break bones as metaphor and as fact. The body and the music born from it are made tangible.

“First Martyr” does both moves, pushing and pulling the reader within one space. It is prefaced by an epigraph from The Guardian on the Anti-Extradition Bill Movement in 2019, and then begins:

Hello, white flowers. Hello, origami swans.

One of you is alive; the other, more so.

A caterpillar dies for its arithmetic smallness.

Hello, stinky times. Hello, rhapsodic feet. (8)

Words like “arithmetic” and “rhapsodic,” require attention to the tongue and lips when read aloud. This slowing down and defamiliarization adds nuance and apophenia to the poem. The origami swans and the vast crowds detailed in the epigraph are one in the same, as are the caterpillar and the man who fell to his death. In this large and violent world, it is easy to feel singular and isolated. Wong reminds us that when we come together, there is movement. Lines such as, “Now I have more swans than ponds, prayers than pain” use image and consonance to evoke this simultaneous emptiness and overcrowding we experience as living, breathing people. What is each of these without the other?

Wong’s poems feel authentic not only in how they construct sound, but also in the repetition seen throughout Besiege Me. “Biased Biography of My Father,” for example, is all one sentence, propelled by the like-phrases “who,” “whose,” “whom,” and “who’s” (11). The poem is punctuated by these echoes like an owl’s cry within the rich details of a father

who missed most of his kids’ childhoods

busy selling cough syrup, who coughed

& felt the back of his lungs

hard like a board, whose name meant

moon-owning or happy friends, whose name lacked

the theatrics like Marlon Brando or Al Pacino. (11)

The man is described by what he is not, by the absences, and by what he is lacking. The collection’s cover encapsulates Wong’s sense of longing and a desire to fill, or at least to find wings and fly through all the complexities and histories that aim to shape him before he gets a chance to define his own identity. The palms come from the bottom edge of the image, symbolizing a grounding. While these could be the hands of the author, perhaps they instead are everything he inhabits: family, city, nation, queerness. Wong himself, therefore, is depicted by the dark birds, a stark contrast against the light blue sky and pure white clouds.

“Apology to a Besieged City” calls us all to make reconsiderations, and Wong successfully presents the weight of every decision with long double-spaced lines. The reader must pause and reflect on the white space around each sentence. They all start with “If,” but Wong forces everyone to be a part of this apology, from “toddlers” to “elders,” from the speaker to the “you” (9). Even fire cannot escape. Wong writes:

If fire didn’t become the unit of currency for a briefness.

If I didn’t empty my wallet.

If I didn’t dare the flames to groom the hours themselves. (9)

Currency and the self and flames are all intertwined. This speaks to the connectedness, often associated with forests, that exists within cities and urban landscapes as well. Wong provides "Apologia of the Besieged City" at the end of Besiege Me as its twin. While the previously discussed poem is an offering to the city, this final poem sits within its corners and along its streets. Yet “Apologia” evokes a third-person plural “they,” creating an ironic distance (66). The sentences here are not constrained by the line, and each detail is braided with others, creating individual lines such as, “like a shell put back onto the sand. They love” and “Imagine the vibe in bed. Imagine how hard” (66). Wong shows readers that it’s possible to inhabit intimate spaces and public ones simultaneously, that one can be political and sexual and everything in between.

And so, while Besiege Me is full of emptiness and lost souls defined by what they are not—exploited Indonesian migrant workers caught in a vacuum, dissatisfied boyfriends, erased language of mothers—it also offers information, a sense of fearlessness and wholeness that readers can’t help but take with them into their own daily lives and this global community we all share. Wong convinces us that we owe each other our true selves and to not hold anything back.

 

Livia Meneghin is the author of the chapbook Honey in My Hair and a Review Writer for GASHER. Her writing has found homes in The Academy of American Poets, BOAAT Journal, tenderness lit, Entropy Magazine, Tinderbox, So to Speak, Whale Road Review, and elsewhere. She earned her MFA at Emerson College, where she is now affiliated faculty and Program Coordinator for EmersonWRITES.