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Self-Portrait as Pop Culture Reference

By Natalie Wee

I was born in 1993, the year Regie Cabico became the first
Asian American to win the Nuyorican Poets Cafe Grand Slam.

I want these facts to mean something to each other,
the way a room is just a room until love or its inverse

tells me what to do with the person standing in it.
Once, I stood on a street corner & a white woman, stunned

by the horizon I passed through to be here, put her hands
on my face to relearn history. I was named after a movie star

who died by drowning, A Streetcar Named Desire gone now
to water, & split an ocean every year to see my mother again.

The first man I loved named me after a dead American
& crushed childhood into a flock of hands.

The women I loved taught me that water cures anything
that ails, given enough thirst. I speak thirst,

sharpen the tongue that slithered through continents
& taught my ancestors to pray its name. I pray its name

& so undertake the undertaker, it preys my Mandarin name
so I watch Chinese dramas with bright-eyed bodies

to forestall forgetting my own. I’ve watched my skin
turned fragrant ornament thrown over women

the colour of surrender & they were praised for wearing it.
I wake wearing my skin & praise myself for waking.

My skin, this well-worn hide I fold into a boat
sturdy enough to bisect any body of water,

was made from light breaking through my mother’s hands--
my mother lifting her fingers to the sky & inventing

a story where she touched & swallowed it whole.
I’ve swallowed every name I was given

to spit them back better. To write is to cradle memory
& creation myth both & emerge with the fact

of your hands. I praise the first book
that touched me because it was beautiful,

because it was written by a stranger born looking
just a little like me & that made him beautiful, & in it

I find every person I’ve loved into godhood,
tunneling through the page & beyond the echo

of those beloved trees allowing breath: their shadows
blurring into a wave, rich & urgent, to greet me.




Listen as Natalie Wee reads "Self-Portrait as Pop Culture Reference."

Added: Monday, May 4, 2020  /  Used with permission.
Natalie Wee
Photo by May Truong.

Natalie Wee is a queer Peranakan community-builder and the author of Our Bodies & Other Fine Machines (Words Dance, 2016). She has work published or forthcoming in BOAAT, The Adroit Journal, and The Rumpus among others. She is the winner of the 2019 Blue Mesa Review Summer Contest for poetry, a finalist for the 2019 Best of the Net, and has received nominations for the Pushcart Prize.

Other poems by this author