Five Reasons to Read: Our Bodies and Other Fine Machines,
by Natalie Wee
// review by AK Afferez //
Words Dance Publishing is building up their reputation of excellence when it comes to publishing contemporary poetry, and Our Bodies and Other Fine Machines, the debut collection by Natalie Wee, is yet another testament to the myriad possibilities poetry opens up for the self. As soon as I started reading Our Bodies and Other Fine Machines, I knew it’d be one of those collections I’d want to carry around with me all the time – I jotted down dozens of lines that combine beauty with devastating precision. Natalie Wee has crafted a debut that resonates deeply with intersecting experiences of girlhood, queerness, and brownness. Our Bodies and Other Fine Machines feels necessary, but even more than that, it positions us readers as witnesses to the poems and for that, we can only feel grateful.
1. Natalie Wee wields her lines like a set of perfectly-sharpened knives that never fail to hit the mark, carving out loss and love out of every syllable. There’s no flinching, but there’s also no denial of vulnerability:
Mouth an organic weapon holding
the heart at fissure point. The body a room
full of ghosts we never hold quietly
enough. (“Things to Watch Out For”)
Wee has an eye for layout, using the whole page to expand the line, allowing each one to breathe while never toning down the sense of urgency. Every word feels vital, essential, and irremediable. That moment when you come to the end of the line, that split-second of blank page before your eye goes on, when you hold your breath a little and almost choke – let’s call that moment desire. Every line is written against it. Wee controls enjambment and line breaks, makes them razor-edged or lingering, but always makes sure we’re yearning for more.
2. The body is soft and sharp, prone to pain and healing. Within her poems, Wee leaves room for both the animal in us and something else, and she knows how to crystallize the erotic and the desperate found within half-suspended moments. The collection begins with the description of a classmate:
Sometimes, she told me, liking someone
is just a way to pass the time.
Each illicit word a loose tooth slipping
from the open mouth of our class flirt—
Later, in “Sting,” the affirmation of love that opens the poem is startling in its brilliant violence: “I love you like a bitten tongue”. Wee locates the pain and the exhilaration that comes with wanting and loving in the body, and very often in the mouth, and then transmutes and transcends this desire “into speech into sacrifice.” The poems here are pure alchemy, but they do require something of the speaker, and also of the reader – a sacrifice, some part of the self that’s given up to the words in exchange for this kind of enlightenment.
3. In an interview for Room with Chelene Knight, Natalie Wee states: “My work has always been for the Othered.” The voice in this collection has been Othered and is speaking to those who have also been Othered. There are no apologies for being “a queer, immigrant woman of colour” – indeed the purpose of Our Bodies and Other Fine Machines is to explore all the possibilities that emerge within such a confluence of identities. In “Either/Or/Other,” Wee grapples with that confluence, and with what visibility means when different parts of you keep being erased such that you can no longer quite get a full, clear picture of yourself:
I practice unraveling
the secret of being queer/brown/woman
separately so maybe I can be happier
with two-thirds of a full life.
This secret is one she shares with others, for whom she writes. To make sense of otherness and to use it, claim it, and reshape it on their own terms:
If you asked me to cut out my heart
I would do it with my own knife. (“That Kind of Good”)
4. There is an arc to the collection, but the voice strays and digress, accepts the twists and turns such a journey has to offer. The poems move effortlessly between the voice of the speaker and the world it grapples with, between the concreteness of sensations and the interrogations of the mind. The speaker interweaves a reflection on the political relationship between race and sexuality, with a meditation about the fragility of her own desire. She talks about the complex, fractured relation to the motherland and the messiness of our relationships to others, exposing how “uncomplicated / & necessary” we are to ourselves and to one another. Exposing also, in “Lonely,” how the relation to others cannot come at the expense of the self:
Look. I was soft once, &
then I was a stranger to
myself. No tender mouth is worth
a slow death.
5. “We have already saved the world. All there is / left to save is each other.”
You can find Natalie on her website, and follow her on Twitter. If you want to read some of her poems, head over here for a complete list of what’s available online, and buy Our Bodies and Other Fine Machines right here. And finally, look out for her next book, Once In a Blue Moon, coming from BookThug in 2018.