[REVIEW] “The Desire to Be Free and the Desire to Be Good: Nicholas Wong’s 𝐵𝑒𝑠𝑖𝑒𝑔𝑒 𝑀𝑒” by Liam Blackford

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Nicholas Wong, Besiege Me, Noemi Press, 2021. 88 pgs.

Besiege Me (Noemi Press, 2021) is a new poetry collection by the award-winning Anglophone Hong Kong poet Nicholas Wong. The title is apt because the collection depicts the self as a battleground for various forces and anxieties (sexual, familial, political) between the desires to be free and to be good. This battleground is full of disruptive transitions and reversals of power (in the bedroom, in the family home, on the city streets). The poet confronts disappointment (from others, with the self, with authority) and prejudice (particularly his father’s homophobia), navigating landscapes fraught with danger and risk; in this respect and others, it is a queer work. It is also a literary portrait of Hong Kong in and from 2019, a singular moment in history when unrest in the city mirrored deepening ideological schisms on the world stage.

Wong is not only a poet but also a teacher, interviewer, and multidisciplinary artist, as well as an important voice in the local community. Accordingly, Besiege Me is actively situated in and engaged with our contemporary reality. Replete with finely observed details, emotions, and scenes, each poem deploys the poet’s cinematic eye. By crafting and experimenting with language, with Besiege Me, Nicholas Wong creates a psychedelic and hallucinogenic reality, the likes of which can be achieved only through poetry.

“City Mess, Mother Mess, Fluids Mess” asks: “can you be shockproof? I ask language”. Containing a range of poetic forms, Besiege Me tests this question. Wong’s experiments emphasise the water-like qualities of text: how it can be poured, sprayed, and vaporised, how it can flow into different forms and states. Some of the poems have metred lines and stanzas (“On Insertion”). Some are dense columns composed of a single sentence (“Biased Biography of My Father”). Some are shelves of distinct and evenly spaced sentences (“Apology to a Besieged City”). One is almost a perfect square of text (“Invitation”). One imitates posts in an online forum (“Golden”). Others have complex structure, containing poems within poems and even visual diagrams (“Vacuum”; “City Mess, Mother Mess, Fluids Mess”).

Wong is profoundly alert to language: he absorbs it from news articles, literature, online forums, heard speech, text forms, quizzes and of course other poetry. He uses English, standard Chinese, Romanised Cantonese, deconstructed Chinese character components (“Biased Biography of my Mother”), and crafts new words to blend Chinese and English linguistic principles (“City Mess, Mother Mess, Fluids Mess”). He channels the voices of third parties, heard with his own ears as well as on broadcast and online media, refracting them into his own poetic voice.

Besiege Me pulses with various anxieties, sexual, familial and political. Though all vibrate powerfully, sexual anxiety is to the fore. The poet gives sex a euphoric quality: sweet only as a fleeting escape from melancholy, a moment of warmth and tenderness in a cold and callous world (“Apologia of the Besieged City”; “Grindr”). At every turn, sex is assaulted by feelings of guilt, shame and resentment (“Apologia of the Besieged City”; “Invitation”). Sex never takes place in private but under the harsh eye of judgement (“Self-Portrait as My Boyfriend’s Rolex”). Some poems show consumption of pornography, in which sex becomes garish performance and role play (“On Insertion”; “The Little Pink”; “Seeking Paternal Guidance on Absences”).

In “The Little Pink”, sex is contained prophylactically by an overarching censorious authority (“In praise of the regime, I / seal my cravings in latex gloves”). The desire for pleasure battles the desire for virtue as a citizen and political unit (“In praise of the firewall that illuminates / my perspective”). The former, swelling (“firm pressure balls I squeeze”) presses against the bulwark of the latter (“an education holding my soul /strong against foreign powers”) and threatens to burst its banks; we can hear it squeaking. The poet seeks a target to sublimate his desires (“the young should etch language into / cuttlefish, hummingbirds, & GDP”) but there is no orgasmic discharge; the pressure builds.

In “On Insertion”, sex takes place under another watching eye: the judgment of a conservative society (“still / called riffraff / by those who fuss / about crises / between the legs”). Sex is a political act intertwined with violence (“I like the pain / I cause to glossed / leather when I tug / the shoelaces”) and excoriation (“Aren’t / our bodies a pair / of rotating blades / that carve the love / out of us?”). Under the watchful eye, sex becomes a performance and its participants lose their status as independent individuals (“Nothing less / than a multi-entered / porn star, collared / between in love & in / addition to this love.”). This poem and “The Little Pink” are reminiscent of the 2016 track “Watch Me” by ANOHNI, another despondent queer work that rhapsodises online pornography in an era when “Daddy” (governments, corporations) monitor and harvest our data: “I know you love me ‘cos you’re always watching me”.

The father is a titanic figure in Besiege Me, one whose presence is felt across almost all poems in the collection and who is the dominant subject in several (“Intergenerational”, “Biased Biography of my Father”, “I Swipe my AmEx to Cover My Father’s Treatment for a Virus in His Lung I Don’t Know How to Pronounce”, “Five Acts with Father”, “Seeking Paternal Guidance on Absences”, “War Notes on A Genre Called ‘Father‘”). The father takes the classic position of the Freudian super-ego, a stern authority figure who compels obedience, regimentation and reformation, in constant battle with the compulsive, instinctive and hedonistic id. All anxieties in Besiege Me (sexual, familial, political) point toward the father, the psychological substrate in which the poems of Besiege Me take root.

“Biased Biography of my Father”, for example, is a churning column of text, almost a single unbroken sentence, which visually resembles the intense and restless father “whose dreams didn’t raise him”. It charts the father’s endeavours in life, work, money, manhood, and success, exposing (with sensitivity) his obsessions and prejudices. Sweeping and cinematic, the poem reckons with the father’s complexities but finds no resolution for them.

Throughout Besiege Me, the father is an avatar for the homophobia with which the poet wrangles. In “Intergenerational”, we feel the pain of a gay son dealing with his father’s illness, yearning for an acceptance which death threatens to foreclose forever. Fatherhood is depicted as a botched process which does violence to the son (“When you gave a few pushes on my mom / to give me manhood & a prostate, you also / gave me a natal chart & some bones to break /in the years of fire”, “I liked how you said lei ah yeah / (your grandpa) not as a familial reference, but to curse”). This is true not only for the poet as son, but also for the father as son to his own father, such as in “War Notes on a Genre Called ‘Father‘” when “the notion of Father started to / dematerialise”.

“I Swipe my AmEx to Cover My Father’s Treatment for a Virus in His Lung I Don’t Know How to Pronounce” is an intimate scene of a father and son in a hospital room. Here, the son’s sexuality is literally redacted, a taboo topic off-limits for discussion (“My ___-ness can’t be spoken / of like my salary. We should, but can’t / talk about my nights that involve / many limbs.”). Coarsely monetising the body, the poet laments that material needs perennially prevail over emotional needs (“my lungs aren’t shadowed, / computed, invoiced, item / by item, then saved & paid / for”). The son strives to “pay / the filial debts of my ___ skin” but finds he is eternally behind on the payments.

And where is the mother? In Besiege Me, she is elusive and enigmatic: a shadow to the father’s colossus. We search for her in “Biased Biography of my Mother” but don’t find her: ostensibly an erasure poem, it contains only a vaporous cloud of pronouns, prepositions, and Chinese character components. “City Mess, Mother Mess, Fluids Mess” explains why: “Her life after marriage has been task-based. She is pronouns, prepositions, and connectives.” The mother is an entirely relational or auxiliary entity, never taking form as an individual.

“City Mess, Mother Mess, Fluids Mess” elucidates the mother further. Visually, the poem resembles debris floating in the ocean after an explosion, bobbing chunks of text we pick up one by one trying to piece together what has happened. The poem starts as a psychohistory of the poet’s relationship with his mother but expands to take in the political turbulence of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution. The mother’s domain is a closed world of homemaking, child-rearing, and tending to her husband and her own elderly mother. Her child’s homosexuality presents an existential challenge: her reckoning with it resembles preparation for an apocalypse. Confused and lonely, she retreats and becomes hollow. Her son, leaving home, joins political protests, which become increasingly violent and erratic. Values, meaning, and emotions disintegrate toward entropy and disorder: “City Mess, Mother Mess, Fluids Mess”. The poem is among the best in the collection, depicting a search for home that recedes like a mirage.

“City Mess” contains one poetic manoeuvre worthy of particular attention, involving an experimentation with the character 孕 (yun, “pregnant”). The poet conceives of the character with English words (MotherMe) and imagines it recomposed as “MeMother”. A power transition: where the mother once cared for the son, the son now cares for her. In acknowledging that “there is no Chinese character for this role flip”, the son is lost in this new hierarchy, caught between carrying out his filial duties and the desire to stand on his own two feet. His possible futures are presented as options in a multiple-choice quiz. No, the correct answer is never given.

Hong Kong in and from 2019 is the major psychogeographical backdrop of Besiege Me, a time when violent eruptions on the city’s normally orderly streets attracted global attention. Suffused with this turbulence, Hong Kong is depicted as a technocapitalist paradise of movement and vigour (“A hyper-real Shiseido billboard / hollered No Defects above me. / My arrival felt approved / by the swoosh on my shoes.”) but perched atop a widening ideological fissure which threatens to swallow it. Quoting John Yau, “The city is currently a faulty immune system”, Wong shows a Hong Kong at once inflamed and contorting.

The poet projects sexual character into the city, making it an avatar with its own forceful desires and agency (“Apology to a Besieged City”; “The Little Pink”), who penetrates and conquers (“Nationalism Is a Tote Bag I Use Every Day”: “Grindr”; “Straight City”) but who also suffers abuse and violation (“City Mess, Mother Mess, Fluids Mess”; “First Martyr”). Sex and violence unite on the city’s surface (“the city’s walls & starts will soon grow immune to bullets invented & not /  啪啪啪啪啪啪啪啪啪啪啪啪”). The poet and the city interact sexually (“I’ll lick the city’s / glans, a prattling / lily knot”; “If no one should bring deceit into duty, / you should not bring your penis to the protest.”) and merge in erotic fashion (in a collection titled Besiege Me, two poems contain “Besieged City” in the title).

Full of vibrating energies and imagery, Besiege Me is a collection from a poet with a remarkable command of language and a willingness to grapple with difficult content (“How to translate the smoothness of wounds without / scratching them into words?”). Besiege Me explores the tensions between power, choice and desire for the individual who must not only stand alone but also within a community, society and nation. In an era when these tensions are ever more acute, his boldness and courage are truly invaluable.

How to cite: Blackford, Liam. “The Desire to Be Free and the Desire to Be Good: Nicholas Wong’s Besiege Me.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 02 Oct. 2021, chajournal.blog/2021/10/02/besiege-me/.

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Born and raised in suburban Perth, Western Australia, Liam Blackford is a lawyer, writer and poet of millennial age currently living and working in Hong Kong. He writes on internet culture, law, philosophy, religion, technology, literature, music, and poetry. He is a member of the LGBT+ community.

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