[REVIEW] โ€œThe Desire to Be Free and the Desire to Be Good: Nicholas Wongโ€™s ๐ต๐‘’๐‘ ๐‘–๐‘’๐‘”๐‘’ ๐‘€๐‘’โ€ 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 fatherโ€™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 poetโ€™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.

โ€œCity Mess, Mother Mess, Fluids Messโ€ asks: โ€œcan you be shockproof? I ask languageโ€. Containing a range of poetic forms, Besiege Me tests this question. Wongโ€™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 (โ€œOn Insertionโ€). Some are dense columns composed of a single sentence (โ€œBiased Biography of My Fatherโ€). Some are shelves of distinct and evenly spaced sentences (โ€œApology to a Besieged Cityโ€). One is almost a perfect square of text (โ€œInvitationโ€). One imitates posts in an online forum (โ€œGoldenโ€). Others have complex structure, containing poems within poems and even visual diagrams (โ€œVacuumโ€; โ€œCity Mess, Mother Mess, Fluids Messโ€).

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 (โ€œBiased Biography of my Motherโ€), and crafts new words to blend Chinese and English linguistic principles (โ€œCity Mess, Mother Mess, Fluids Messโ€). 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 (โ€œApologia of the Besieged Cityโ€; โ€œGrindrโ€). At every turn, sex is assaulted by feelings of guilt, shame and resentment (โ€œApologia of the Besieged Cityโ€; โ€œInvitationโ€). Sex never takes place in private but under the harsh eye of judgement (โ€œSelf-Portrait as My Boyfriendโ€™s Rolexโ€). Some poems show consumption of pornography, in which sex becomes garish performance and role play (โ€œOn Insertionโ€; โ€œThe Little Pinkโ€; โ€œSeeking Paternal Guidance on Absencesโ€).

In โ€œThe Little Pinkโ€, sex is contained prophylactically by an overarching censorious authority (โ€œIn praise of the regime, I / seal my cravings in latex glovesโ€). The desire for pleasure battles the desire for virtue as a citizen and political unit (โ€œIn praise of the firewall that illuminates / my perspectiveโ€). The former, swelling (โ€œfirm pressure balls I squeezeโ€) presses against the bulwark of the latter (โ€œan education holding my soul /strong against foreign powersโ€) and threatens to burst its banks; we can hear it squeaking. The poet seeks a target to sublimate his desires (โ€œthe young should etch language into / cuttlefish, hummingbirds, & GDPโ€) but there is no orgasmic discharge; the pressure builds.

In โ€œOn Insertionโ€, sex takes place under another watching eye: the judgment of a conservative society (โ€œstill / called riffraff / by those who fuss / about crises / between the legsโ€). Sex is a political act intertwined with violence (โ€œI like the pain / I cause to glossed / leather when I tug / the shoelacesโ€) and excoriation (โ€œArenโ€™t / our bodies a pair / of rotating blades / that carve the love / out of us?โ€). Under the watchful eye, sex becomes a performance and its participants lose their status as independent individuals (โ€œNothing less / than a multi-entered / porn star, collared / between in love & in / addition to this love.โ€). This poem and โ€œThe Little Pinkโ€ are reminiscent of the 2016 track โ€œWatch Meโ€ by ANOHNI, another despondent queer work that rhapsodises online pornography in an era when โ€œDaddyโ€ (governments, corporations) monitor and harvest our data: โ€œI know you love me โ€˜cos youโ€™re always watching meโ€.

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 (โ€œIntergenerationalโ€, โ€œBiased Biography of my Fatherโ€, โ€œI Swipe my AmEx to Cover My Fatherโ€™s Treatment for a Virus in His Lung I Donโ€™t Know How to Pronounceโ€, โ€œFive Acts with Fatherโ€, โ€œSeeking Paternal Guidance on Absencesโ€, โ€œWar Notes on A Genre Called โ€˜Fatherโ€˜โ€). 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.

โ€œBiased Biography of my Fatherโ€, for example, is a churning column of text, almost a single unbroken sentence, which visually resembles the intense and restless father โ€œwhose dreams didnโ€™t raise himโ€. It charts the fatherโ€™s endeavours in life, work, money, manhood, and success, exposing (with sensitivity) his obsessions and prejudices. Sweeping and cinematic, the poem reckons with the fatherโ€™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 โ€œIntergenerationalโ€, we feel the pain of a gay son dealing with his fatherโ€™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 (โ€œWhen 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 fireโ€, โ€œI liked how you said lei ah yeah / (your grandpa) not as a familial reference, but to curseโ€). This is true not only for the poet as son, but also for the father as son to his own father, such as in โ€œWar Notes on a Genre Called โ€˜Fatherโ€˜โ€ when โ€œthe notion of Father started to / dematerialiseโ€.

โ€œI Swipe my AmEx to Cover My Fatherโ€™s Treatment for a Virus in His Lung I Donโ€™t Know How to Pronounceโ€ is an intimate scene of a father and son in a hospital room. Here, the sonโ€™s sexuality is literally redacted, a taboo topic off-limits for discussion (โ€œMy ___-ness canโ€™t be spoken / of like my salary. We should, but canโ€™t / talk about my nights that involve / many limbs.โ€). Coarsely monetising the body, the poet laments that material needs perennially prevail over emotional needs (โ€œmy lungs arenโ€™t shadowed, / computed, invoiced, item / by item, then saved & paid / forโ€). The son strives to โ€œpay / the filial debts of my ___ skinโ€ 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 fatherโ€™s colossus. We search for her in โ€œBiased Biography of my Motherโ€ but donโ€™t find her: ostensibly an erasure poem, it contains only a vaporous cloud of pronouns, prepositions, and Chinese character components. โ€œCity Mess, Mother Mess, Fluids Messโ€ explains why: โ€œHer life after marriage has been task-based. She is pronouns, prepositions, and connectives.โ€ The mother is an entirely relational or auxiliary entity, never taking form as an individual.

โ€œCity Mess, Mother Mess, Fluids Messโ€ 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 poetโ€™s relationship with his mother but expands to take in the political turbulence of Hong Kongโ€™s Umbrella Revolution. The motherโ€™s domain is a closed world of homemaking, child-rearing, and tending to her husband and her own elderly mother. Her childโ€™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: โ€œCity Mess, Mother Mess, Fluids Messโ€. The poem is among the best in the collection, depicting a search for home that recedes like a mirage.

โ€œCity Messโ€ contains one poetic manoeuvre worthy of particular attention, involving an experimentation with the character ๅญ• (yun, โ€œpregnantโ€). The poet conceives of the character with English words (MotherMe) and imagines it recomposed as โ€œMeMotherโ€. A power transition: where the mother once cared for the son, the son now cares for her. In acknowledging that โ€œthere is no Chinese character for this role flipโ€, 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 cityโ€™s normally orderly streets attracted global attention. Suffused with this turbulence, Hong Kong is depicted as a technocapitalist paradise of movement and vigour (โ€œA hyper-real Shiseido billboard / hollered No Defects above me. / My arrival felt approved / by the swoosh on my shoes.โ€) but perched atop a widening ideological fissure which threatens to swallow it. Quoting John Yau, โ€œThe city is currently a faulty immune systemโ€, 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 (โ€œApology to a Besieged Cityโ€; โ€œThe Little Pinkโ€), who penetrates and conquers (โ€œNationalism Is a Tote Bag I Use Every Dayโ€: โ€œGrindrโ€; โ€œStraight Cityโ€) but who also suffers abuse and violation (โ€œCity Mess, Mother Mess, Fluids Messโ€; โ€œFirst Martyrโ€). Sex and violence unite on the cityโ€™s surface (โ€œthe cityโ€™s walls & starts will soon grow immune to bullets invented & not /  ๅ•ชๅ•ชๅ•ชๅ•ชๅ•ชๅ•ชๅ•ชๅ•ชๅ•ชๅ•ชๅ•ชๅ•ชโ€). The poet and the city interact sexually (โ€œIโ€™ll lick the cityโ€™s / glans, a prattling / lily knotโ€; โ€œIf no one should bring deceit into duty, / you should not bring your penis to the protest.โ€) and merge in erotic fashion (in a collection titled Besiege Me, two poems contain โ€œBesieged Cityโ€ 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 (โ€œHow to translate the smoothness of wounds without / scratching them into words?โ€). 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. โ€œThe Desire to Be Free and the Desire to Be Good: Nicholas Wongโ€™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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