A Review of Natalie Wee’s Our Body and Other Fine Machines
“What is it like to be made a person / instead of a stranger’s dim shadow?”
Ruminations on what constitutes identity run rampant on Our Bodies and Other Fine Machines, Natalie Wee’s 2016 anthology of poetry (Words Dance Publishing). This excerpt, from “Either / Or / Other” sketches a history of identity as one of inequality and exploitation, citing both historical inequality in post-Civil War United States to pop culture, and drawing on the queerbaiting television series The 100. Wee’s ability to synthesis disparate pieces of information allows her to cultivate a voice with a multi-faceted understanding of how deep its impact can run. In this piece, the technique sets up a house of mirrors not to answer the question of what constitutes an identity, rather, to demonstrate the maintenance of identity. For Wee, a precedent set by a historical event is reflected through that culture’s media and the implications of that media can lead to the maintenance of cultural identity. For this reason, much of Our Bodies advances strategies on reclaiming one’s selfhood while living in a culturally-inscribed body.
“On the Queer Girl Fantasy” zooms in on one facet of Wee’s identity to illustrate the discontinuity between identity as a cultural idea and identity as it applies to Wee’s life. “Men’s faces crack open to swallow me whole,” Wee says, commenting on the fetishizing of her orientation. As Wee observes, the heterosexual over-fascination of queer relationships fails to recognize the legitimacy between queer partners. At its extreme, it treats those in queer relationships as sexual commodities, Wee describing it as “Body as sport / Eyes on everyone except each other.” “Fantasy” is an act of metonymy, as Wee’s experiences are unfortunately common for members of the LGBT+ community in the Western world. While this piece turns to pay attention to the passion Wee brings to her relationships, it implies that one way to be an ally to those in queer relationships is through consideration and privacy. An approach like that may help in remedying the burning gaze of onlookers that currently render Wee as the object of fantasy.
The advantage of presenting this collection as an anthology is that it allows Wee to dissect the constituents of identity and selfhood and continually approach those components from different angles. That is not to say that the sum of Our Bodies is greater than its parts, as the individual works presented here carry a striking pathos. “Therapy Talk” details Wee’s side of a therapy session, but the prose on the page is set up in a series of uneven columns with gaps that split each line at varying points, suggesting a disconnect between Wee and the woman she is working with. Another possible interpretation is the difficulty of confession, with every gap between words imitating a Wee struggling to discuss prior instances of self-harm. Wee’s resolve in the face of adversity is inspiring, and pieces like “Therapy Talk” bare her vulnerabilities, reminding her audience that despite a nearly superhuman show of strength, she too is human.
The most striking quality of Our Bodies is Wee’s sense of balance. This may be a lean anthology of poetic works, but it ranges from discussing racial and sexual inequality to individual accounts of mental illness and therapy sessions. Dedicating several pieces to other people, Wee’s voice is never overwhelmed by the myriad of subjects she takes on in this collection. A given piece does not need to be about Wee for the audience to feel connected to her, as the closeness Wee feels for what she writes about allows for any of these works to function in a personal domain. The final takeaway from this anthology is revealed in the title: Wee writes about anyone and everyone in a collection that is not hers, rather, it is ours.
By Jeffrey Holmes
Jeffrey Holmes is a journalist and philosophy graduate student from Philadelphia, PA. Their experience includes writing and editing for a range of publications, including the Daily Local News, the West Chester Zine, and RateYourMusic. During their bachelor’s program, Holmes served as the entertainment editor for the Quad, West Chester University’s campus newspaper and a DJ for 91.7 WCUR FM. Recently, they presented original work on environmental conservation at Yale University’s Graduate Conference in Religion and Ecology, and currently, they are finishing a master’s thesis on identity politics in the United States.