There is the particular feeling of being at the beach on a partly cloudy day. The wind threatens to pick up; the colors of beach accouterments stand out brighter; the ocean sprinkles with a heightened crisp. Your place in the world is at the edge of both unsettled and renewal. This is the essence with which Shelley Wong opens As She Appears, walking the beach at the line between longing and self-discovery.
Several of the poems take place on Fire Island, where “the tide calls the water / of the body”, a place that delivers the speaker both dancing and loneliness. Wong draws on traditions of wearing white, fun and dancing, and queer love on the island. But it is also a place where the speaker feels, “I am in a floating year,” or awash with displacement revealing a double sense of absence.
First, it’s that Fire Island in the general imagination rarely conjures the image of Asian American women loving women, and present in the poem is a stance against that erasure (The book and this review were both penned months before the release of the Fire Island film on Hulu, though undoubtedly in conversation with it in questions of representation and erasure.). “I had to invent her. / I’m inventing her,” the speaker proclaims. The speaker eats kimchi on the beach deck and finds “mosquito girls flying with my spiced blood”: in the process of finding her place, she becomes a byproduct in another’s feeding.
In “All Beyoncés & Lucy Lius”, the poem names the Lucy Lius, the Keanu Reeves of Hollywood, but they live in “the most exquisite loneliness”, in between caesuras collecting stereotypes and superstitions. Later in the book, in “Monolids”, Wong further questions the emphasis on Asian representation on screen:
. . . our eyes
are next door eyes
but sometimes our eyes
want to stay unread.
Which is to say, to be seen is not the same thing as being known. Even so, with faces like ours on the silver screen, it’s still the blonde heads turning heads at the art gallery, as in “Private Collection” and “Vermeer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art”. Even so, it’s the white faces on the beach asking us where we’re really from. Even so, the collection is not so focused on pushing forward this overwrought point. It primarily redirects to the questions of personhood and heartbreak that we still face as people.
The second sense of missing is that the speaker is there without a specific long-term lover, whose presence blows further and further away as the speaker takes hold of her own presence. The book is one that prioritizes privacy, but not without feeling. There are few specifics of the past, but flashes of pain in the present are clear. “Refrain” in the second section of the book is an anthem made of short couplets to announce the step beyond “romantic / sacrifice”, to declare that “I will honor / my body, my only.”
Throughout the book, the forest is a contrast against the beach: in “Memorial Day Weekend”, the speaker longs “to dwell in a maritime forest away from the seductions”. The metaphor culminates in “The Winter Forecast”, referencing how “in Chinese, two trees make a forest / as inoculation against loneliness” That is, the character 木, meaning wood or tree, when doubled becomes 林, or forest. Each woman, perhaps, is a tree, learning how to become oneself and stretch into the world. From the opening poem, the speaker warns against too far a stretching: “These trees have / too many branches, but it is not my place / to revise them.” Barren in winter, trees next to each other haunt the scene. Not all are meant to nurture another, and even the weight of a tree’s own flowers can be too much to bear.
The collection is broken up into four sections, each one ending with a season’s forecast. In the final “Spring Forecast”, “a tree asserts I am every shade of pink.” A full year has passed since a poem in the first section saw “spring as a closing throat.” This is a collection that honors the slow pace of healing and the passage of time. In “Courtship”, the speaker asks:
I’m the tree coming back
through the page. If I’m honest,
most mornings my skeleton
aches a little. If I unfold
the fan slowly, wait for me.
In most poems, Wong makes use of flashes of color, passing through the pages like a kaleidoscope. In the first few sections, they feature on clothing and are tried on for size: “I saw a film / where the heartbreaker girl / only wore green so my colors / turned verdant”; “The red minute hand insists”; trying on “whisper pink, lavender, spiked butter …. longing to be / a natural wonder”. The expectation for “little girls dressed in pink and red”. This calls to a series of epithets to Frida Kahlo, known for using many colors and floral imagery in her own work, with an undertow of darkness. At times, a “flash of gold”, a burst of pink, are used as erotic. The colors spin as a kaleidoscope to the reader, and we try to place the speaker and ourselves amongst the flashes.
This leads to “The Allergy Test” serving as ars poetica, revealing that the speaker has been donning black this whole time as a contrast.
I don’t wear black
to mourn. I armor myself
against a world that makes me itch.
I want to believe love is where
I am safe in my own mind
& body. To let go of pain
as an anchor. There is a look
to every exchange, a kind of weather.
In the closing poem, “Pandemic Spring”, there is a different voice to the poem than any other. Whereas the earlier sections all feature a sparse voice over short lines and generous white space, this poem is tight and without line breaks. I don’t know a single poet for whom the pandemic hasn’t changed their poetic voice in some way. After this passage in time, and during a time where time itself has felt so suspended, “color becomes a feeling”, the speaker observes acutely. Thinking back to memories and the self that lived in those memories before the pandemic is a kaleidoscope of images, coming in and out of focus. It’s through the colors and the run-on paragraph form of this poem, set off in its coda, that the many images throughout the book come together, with the eye of retrospection and ultimately an invocation to live on.
It’s been more than two and a half years since the start of the pandemic, and something deeper has been stewing too: so many Asian women including myself have recently equipped themselves with some kind of personal alarm or pepper spray. I promise, we just want to be in a world where we feel safe. As Wong longs for, a world where we are known and loved, and allowed to love who we want to love. In this time of unease, I’d like to think the deer appearing in Wong’s debut is the same deer as in the opening poem of another debut of this spring, in Jennifer Huang’s Return Flight. We make a 森林 with each other where they live. Taking care to watch over us as the waves crash on.