Spilling the Tea
(or a book review)
The title of Shelley Wong’s new collection from YesYes Books does double duty. The phrase “as she appears” could refer to an outward perception by others, the way one appears to family, lovers, strangers. But it also can refer to an action, a revealing of the self, as one appearing from a hiding place or from behind a curtain. Wong’s collection, with its rich interrogation of both the internal and external self, uses both meanings as it weaves through moments of clarity and doubt using references to nature, art, heritage, and popular culture to frame a search for a way to meld those two selves.
The first section of the collection opens with the poem “For the Living in the New World,” a poem that begins with a description of a forest and then shocks us into a distinct present before revealing the trees as a metaphor for escape that the speaker cannot find in nature:
“The hypergreen periphery
is the opposite of Los Angeles on fire.
Any tree can become a ladder. These trees have
too many branches, but it is not my place
to revise them. I may be happiest
improvising the language a body can make
on a dance floor.”
This places the reader firmly in the recent past, where the natural world is presumed safer but still burns, a world where what makes the speaker happy isn’t currently possible or available. This sets the stage for more personal revelations about safety, loneliness, and loss that will follow.
Later in this section, Wong’s speaker explores the loss of a lover and the danger of exposing the self in the poem “Perennials.” The poem begins:
“Once she named them—Hong Kong orchids—
the voluptuous pink blossoms were everywhere.
Without her, I find they are the first
flowers to open in the Columbus Park of Roses.
They bloom like an aria.”
Reminders of the relationship sing and bloom here before the speaker reveals that they used to live together, the lover suffering from allergies to the trees in the landscape, the couple’s pets. These details seem superficial until the speaker brings them to bear in revealing the separation, both geographical and emotional, that comes after:
“Freely, she spoke,
being proudly out, while I feared cruelty
& broke my meaning. How dazzling when trees
burst into glamour, flowers releasing
into symmetry. She lives on a foggy
peninsula & I hear she’s smoking
again. I see the spring as a closing throat.”
This poem, only a page long, gives a glimpse into the speaker’s fear of appearing, of being seen for who she truly is, and it uses the image of spring and blooming, usually considered to be a sign of new beginnings, as a symbol of loss and a silencing of the self.
In the second section of the collection, Wong’s speaker seems to have reconciled with the issues of previous concerns to start the poem “Refrain” with:
“Farewell, romantic sacrifice:
I choose myself.”
Wong then uses wordplay to show the contradictions and joys of letting the self appear to the world:
“[...] I love
sequins, but get
At our end, I broke
& every face grew
speak to me
and finally makes a declaration of self-love and recognition:
“I will honor my body, my only.
My only body, its honor, my will.”
The fact that the poem is titled “Refrain” adds another layer of meaning, as a refrain is a repeated section of a song, something that the speaker must return to in order to believe the self worthy of honor.
This second section also contains the poem, “All Beyonces and Lucy Lius.” This poem uses song lyrics, films, and celebrity to name, claim, and question the portrayal of Asian culture in America and in her own life. The speaker tells us:
“I am four generations
deep / in America /”
and then uses slashes and short lines as well as slant rhyme to bombard the reader with images:
“enter Lucy Liu & my girl Drew /
lucky white ceramic cats
collect what’s owed / Hello Kitty
Little Twin Stars My Melody /
did you know Keanu Reeves
is part Chinese / his Hawaiian name means
cool breeze over the mountains /
/ is my eyeliner
even / I can’t tell Mandarin
from Cantonese / drink hot water
to flush the fat / how did Michelle Kwan
change you / Fields of Gold
forever / Mulan against the world /”
The style departure in the poem sets it apart from the rest of the collection, perhaps indicating that personal heritage is another part of the self that feels “othered,” a part of how the speaker appears to the world, a world against which the speaker has tried to protect herself, as in the poem “Allergy Test”:
“In this life, I hold on to what
echoes my body, what marks me
as one of my people. I don’t wear black
to mourn. I armor myself
against a world that makes me itch.”
Wong’s speaker seeks refuge in art, in trees, in the ocean and throwing herself into dancing. But those things fall short in terms of bringing fulfilling relationships. In “Pursuit,” the speaker meets someone who intrigues her:
“You had raccoon eyeliner
& a dangling chain wallet
like a Hot Topic teen. In your
notebook, you wrote where
do I put this lust? because you
had a woman & still listened
for when I stepped out of the pool
But the connection is flawed, and it doesn’t bring what the speaker hopes it will.
“The last time I saw you
it was raining at a protest rally.
We were strangers in the crowd.
You had no umbrella & I did
& neither of us could move.”
This familiarity with reaching out and losing leads to the proclamation in “Noli Me Tangere” that
“women are familiar with surrender & the appearance of it.”
Through all the losses and search for meaning, the speaker maintains a sense of humor, a desire to connect, to “appear” in the world as a whole and genuine self. This urge to define, forgive, and know the self is beautifully rendered in the poem “My Therapist Asks Me If I Would Be Happier If I Were Straight.”
“I have trees in my mind
& rivers too.
Drown the world
that gives us two Xs
for our eyes. With
the right song, I’ll dance
down my bones.
I use a trapdoor
when I erase my feeling.
When I take cover
I forgive myself.
These days, I’m
my breath. Desire
becomes a distant edge.
As a girl, I never
saw a woman
who looked like me.
I had to invent her.
I’m inventing her.”
It is this lyric and stunningly written invention that draws the reader through all of the poems in this collection, and it is only fitting that the collection ends where it began, startling us back to the present moment with a prose meditation on all of themes in the collection through the lens of a lockdown walk in “Pandemic Spring.”
“What’s new is the greater quiet, as if the world is echoing me: a tentative glance, no touching. Along the secret lake, I linger under a cherry tree in full blossom, as is my ancestral right, something my Ohio friend once said to me about hunting in Virginia. When the petals fall like snow, I think all my karaoke dreams.”
Nature. Disconnection. Legacy and heritage. And, at the end, an arrival of acceptance, an admittance that the two selves—the inner self that emerges from the shadows and the outer self that the world appears to see—are both necessary parts of living.
“There is a gentleness that returns once you let go of love’s disappointment. A fleeting expanse in the compressed day. When only the birds are with me, I embrace a redwood tree, breathing it in. Dear ancestor: I am always rapidly departing, forgive me. To live, I want to be known & loved, the two together, inseparable.”
Donna Vorreyer is the author of To Everything There Is (2020), Every Love Story is an Apocalypse Story (2016) and A House of Many Windows (2013), all from Sundress Publications.