(Words Dance Publishing, 2016)
Natalie Wee’s Our Bodies & Other Fine Machines is many things: 21st century guide to love and loss, statement of gender and body politics, and (this is the driving force of the book) a collection of precisely crafted language. She weaves between these modes with ease, always surprising with images that feel as if they’ve been hidden under our noses all along.
In “Blue Moon” a first kiss “feels so much like flying / you can hardly bear it: ribs opening / to rain” and then “a beautiful mouth blooming. / The un-bruising of a throat made/poppy. The trajectory of every coin / to wishing well reversed: levitation.” The imagery deftly dances back and forth between the delicate and the harsh. The body is repeatedly torn apart in this book, sometimes by actions of others, sometimes by itself. These poems force us to redefine our bodies, and to reexamine the power they have, as well as the power others try to exercise over our bodies.
When the speaker is asked in “Cartilage” why it took so long to say I love you, she responds, “Well, have you ever broken a bone? I mean an arm, a leg, a finger. / You know that second right after impact? The snap. The sickening / lurch of a missing stair & the perfect enclosure of shock after.” The images are clear and surprising, allowing us to hear the crack of bone, to see a body falling down a staircase.
Wee later writes in “Ode to the Goddess of Dance Halls” that “There are no words for what / my body is. Only what it does,” suggesting that the ways in which the cultural hegemony defines certain bodies (women and not straight in this case) lack validity. It is “tambourine bass thrum” and “spine spun top.” The sounds and movements of the language have their own kind of logic here, as Wee takes back the body and defines it on her own terms. When she says “Here things of desire reside, / insatiable & our / feral bodies, suffused with movement: / how each whirlpool of movement / stretches for sky / & almost touches it,” there is a sense that by engaging (or perhaps indulging) the body, one can transcend.
In “Practice Makes Perfect” Wee employs abstract imagery: “I miss you like a cloud passes right / through skin.” This is balanced against more blunt language later in the poem with the lines “You loved me & then you left. / You loved me & then you didn’t.” One can’t help but read these lines as non-fiction, and there is an elegance in their clarity.
In “On the Queer Girl Fantasy,” Wee takes on bro-culture: “I say I love women & men’s faces crack open / like a jawless throat to swallow me/whole.” There’s a palpable violence in the cracking, a grotesque image for a grotesque point of view that believes women who aren’t straight can be, as Wee puts it, “cured by cock.” There is no hint of shying away on Wee’s part. She doesn’t blink while saying “I love women. I mean in the way that one / chooses her own murder over men.” An extreme choice to be sure, but that’s the point here. She is making the decision; no-one else has a say in the matter.
The final poem, “Let Us Be Fireflies,” reads less like a poem between lovers and more like a public supplication, a call to open arms and to cut the bullshit. “For any hope of plain speech / we must do away / with skin suit propriety & / be animals again. / Undress pretenses / at pride & offer ourselves / to simple miracles / of meaning.” And why not? Who wouldn’t want to be one of Wee’s “alchemists of tenderness”? The closing four lines speak to the collection as a whole: “We can be sun-bodied / arrows in flight, / uncomplicated / & necessary.” Our Bodies & Other Fine Machines is elegantly uncomplicated. This book is a kind of standing-up. Speaking honestly and with clarity, Wee shows a willingness to be vulnerable and a rare kind of bravery.
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Hayden Bergman lives in Abilene, Texas. He is an MFA candidate at Fairleigh Dickinson University.