James Pate reviews Nicholas Wong’s brilliant new collection of poetry on Hong Kong.
Nicholas Wong, Besiege Me (Noemi Press, 2021), 80pp.
When I started writing this review of Nicholas Wong’s brilliant Besiege Me, a poetry collection about Hong Kong’s history and current crisis, I quickly realized that this was going to be one of the most difficult reviews I’ve ever written. The reason for this is that Hong Kong itself, as a territory, as an idea, as a symbol, and as a place where more than seven million people live, is incredibly complex, and it short-circuits any appeal for ready-made answers. Modern Hong Kong exists because of the British Empire, and there is an argument by some on the Left here in the States that the US should not support Hong Kong’s call for political autonomy from Beijing due to this colonial history. Yet anyone who cares about the right to dissent, and the right to free speech more broadly, should be concerned about crackdowns against protestors in Hong Kong. (It has become fashionable in the US to see “freedom of speech” as a right-wing issue, but as recent calls by Republican politicians to ban the teaching of critical race theory demonstrates, “free speech” is crucial for emancipatory causes.)
The complexity of the Hong Kong situation by necessity complicates this book review. The persona used by many book reviewers (at least in the US) is often one of serene moral authority, where the writer is firmly ensconced on the “right side of history,” and what that “right side” might be is imagined to be static and unchanging with the coming years and decades. That’s not possible here. The situation in Hong Kong is so complex – with the territory being a creation of colonialism, but a creation whose current citizens are threatened by what could be seen as another colonial power – that it disrupts our usual political categories. Yet, Wong’s book is in many ways an exploration of this very intricacy. The cross-hatching in these poems of macro-power and micro-power, of polis and eros, ideology and “lived experience,” is dizzying, and seems incredibly modern – where issues of identity and language will only grow in their multi-faceted quality as we move about the globe.
In poems such as “City Mess, Mother Mess, Fluids Mess,” Wong addresses these baroque political entanglements directly, often relating these entanglements to family history and personal history. The title of the poem alone suggests a focus on boundary-breaking and spillage, with it being unclear (deliberately so) if the “city” mess and “mother” mess are two different messes or part of the same. “The year Margret Thatcher was elected,” Wong writes in the poem, “I was born,” building a direct link between self and Thatcher’s reign. Then, he addresses the issue of language, and how language is never neutral, but an outcome of historical circumstance. “I was 6. My mother moved me to an elite school, / where my ears were incised by new grammar, new words.” He draws out the full implication: “I once spelled grammar as grammer, grimmer, rim.” A language is a system that can enclose as much as open, as “rim” here implies.
By collapsing the personal and the political, Wong’s speaker employs a tone that is simultaneously intimate and public, with Hong Kong and its current crisis echoing out through his relationships with family members and lovers. (The title, too, suggest this intersection, since “besiege me” could be read as being addressed to a lover or, with bitter irony, to a political system.) In “War Notes on a Genre Called ‘Father,’” the speaker relates his (seemingly ailing) father to large-scale historical currents, and in doing so implies, as the title suggests, that to think of a “father” is already a sort of genre – a way of imagining the interplay of the macro/micro. Of his father’s origin, Wong writes, “Birth certificates were fabricated during the Japanese / invasion. Wars manifest temporal chaos to national & / individual histories. Lock survivors & survival in a / disjuncture.” By the end of the poem, this link between family and history is extended to the grandfather: “He [the father] told me Grandpa died of a heart attack at home when a / bomb fell. He said nothing of how Grandpa’s body was / found, how he reacted in the moment of fatherlessness.” Lineage here isn’t traced through family history alone. To remove war, violence, and invasion – to remove history – would be to erase the familial narrative. One is threaded through with the other.
The style of the collection is messy, which I mean as a compliment. The poems range from the minimalist (“Children of China” and “Golden”) to the much more maximalist (“Advice from a Pro-Beijing Lobbyist” and “Invitation”) without ever settling down into a house style. This variety creates a certain amount of exhilaration, as if the poet was trying on different types of masks with each stylistic turn, and the collection could almost be read as a political/personal masquerade.
There is also the sense of writing before a possible crackdown – of wanting to unleash as much wildness and strangeness as possible before such freedom becomes unthinkable. The book feels like it was being written in the twilight before the catastrophe. For instance, in the poem “Dark Adaptation,” Wong imagines a near-future when poets involved in a project enigmatically called Dark Adaptation will “not be charged with treason or advocating overthrow of the government. They will, instead, be charged with not complying with the duty of being writers, which, in their government’s feeling, is to provide closed yet didactic meanings.”
The poem for which the poets have been “disappeared” is not a sober recitation of injustices, as a reader might expect. Instead, it’s cryptic, surreally funny, and not exactly verse at all, but a series of sentences with fill-in-the-blank spaces for the reader. “A grand law about ___ was hatched fast / enough but was hated even faster” runs one sentence. Another states, “You woke up emptied of ___ / A. Chicken B. Chicken C. Chicken.” The blank spaces seem to be the crucial element here. The freedom of readers to at least partially create their own poem, while at the same time knowing the blankness will always be, in a sense, blank, highlights a playfulness made possible by absence, indeterminacy, and is the polar opposite of “closed yet didactic meanings.”
Wong’s Besiege Me as a whole is a collection that plays against totalizing systems of power both in terms of theme and style. Its antic, and sometimes ribald undercurrents are, in itself, a form of rebellion against any authoritarianism that wishes to stamp out strangeness and messiness. “The nights have stopped / their wrangle of rationality,” the speaker says at one point, and Besiege Me is a manifestation of this other night, where categories collapse, and the most personal enunciation of the “I” is no longer the essay, but the collage.
James Pate is a fiction writer and poet. He is the author of The Fassbinder Diaries (Civil Coping Mechanisms), Flowers Among the Carrion (Action Books), and Speed of Life (Fahrenheit Press).