Self-Portrait as Pop Culture Reference
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.
by Natalie Wee
from Split This Rock
Listen as Natalie Wee reads “Self-Portrait as Pop Culture Reference.”