reviewed on November 13, 2022
Loosely centered on its speaker’s breakup with her partner, Shelley Wong’s As She Appears returns time and again to images of aloneness—of detachment, of isolation, of solitude—within otherwise congested human and natural spaces. “I stood in a tropical sundress in the VIP section,” Wong writes in “Pride Month,” “surrounded by so many barely dressed people double- / kissing my face saying happy Pride & where is your wife?”
In many ways, “Pride Month” offers the defining image of the collection, one in which Wong’s speaker stands outside of—or alienated from—independent, self-sustaining economies of care.
In “Watch Hill,” for instance, the teeming congeries of New York during Pride Month metamorphoses into Fire Island’s rampant deer population:
Two white-tailed does sip fresh water
at the pond. There are too many deer
on the island as they have no natural
predators & tourists keep feeding them.
The does eye us & turn back into the tall grass.
Later in the poem, Wong notes that “the woodpecker / is careful to leave gaps between holes / to keep a tree alive.” Wong’s speaker, too, pledges in “Pandemic Spring” that “[t]o live, I want to be known & loved, the two together, inseparable."
Mutually sustaining, entire onto themselves, the celebrants of Pride Month and the deer of Fire Island, along with its woodpecker, represent for Wong a fidelity to self which her own speaker struggles to achieve in the wake of her breakup. As She Appears documents this struggle, tracing its speaker’s effort at self-invention as what we might call, after Beyoncé, an independent woman—indeed, Beyoncé herself stands in the collection as a model of such independence, alongside other feminist icons like Frida Kahlo, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Vermeer’s unnamed “woman with a water jug.”
Self-making is the topic par excellence, of course, among Millennial and Gen Z writers, whose every poem seems in some way a “self-portrait,” whose every collection traffics more or less explicitly in autobiography.
Long-listed for the 2022 National Book Award, As She Appears sometimes seems indistinguishable from such collections; at its weakest moments, in fact, Wong descends unironically into the self-pleased solipsism of her contemporaries, to the point that the speaker of “Pursuit,” for instance, seems a caricature of Millennial or Gen Z affectation:
We met at a lakeside retreat.
You were perpetually emo
with a voice like a struck
Back in the city,
over brunch, I said OK when you
told me that you didn’t identify
as a woman & I meant to ask
what pronouns you used.
The last time I saw you
it was raining at a protest rally.
The passage is almost parodic—in its bien pensant cultural politics, in its virtue- and wealth-signaling, the speaker in “Pursuit” models precisely the self-satisfied self-curation of that class and culture who would, in fact, attend “lakeside retreat[s]” before returning to brunch “in the city.”
What saves As She Appears from self-pity, though, and from solipsism—and what most sets it apart from the debut collections it might resemble—is Wong’s facility with wit and wordplay, a sometimes tongue-in-cheek linguistic sprezzatura which marks the closest the collection comes to an ironic or self-aware distance. In “Refrain,” for instance, Wong writes that “I love / sequins, but get // the sequence confused.” “A sequoia,” she riffs later in the poem, has “every vowel. // Every vow / like a closed hand.”
Never afraid of the pathetic fallacy, As She Appears continuously reads landscape as an index to self, exteriority to interiority. “She lives on a foggy // peninsula,” Wong writes of her speaker’s ex, “& I hear she’s smoking / again. I see the spring as a closing throat.”
Such austere landscapes, lonely even at their most congested, serve Wong well as images for the precariousness of queer love.
Her limpid, lithe style, moreover, close to the surface in As She Appears, lends the collection a breezy accessibility, even as it plumbs the depths of the contemporary self.
Indeed, Wong is at her best when she is most herself—when she flouts the now fashionable “ecopoetic” embargo on pathetic fallacy, for instance—less so when she resembles her contemporaries.
This says more, of course, about her contemporaries than it does As She Appears, a strong debut from a promising new voice.