Janelle Tan


                                                                                                         you start to collect what people say to you.

your mother:
is it permanent?

             as you lie on an ottoman,
              hair arranged like a chinese fan

                          you wonder if she understands that hair, like the forest floor
                           regenerates itself.

                                       being a bleached blonde is temporarily
                                       permanent, like a clipping tucked in soil:

                                                    every day it inches towards regrowth, invisible at first.

your mother, two months later, as you board the flight to see her:
are you back to black?

             your brother echoes the same question.

                          you picture them chopsticks in hand, picking up strands
                           of steamed kangkong and deliberating if you are sufficiently chinese
                          to be seen with the family

your spanish (one-time) boyfriend:
you will always look more natural with black hair.

him, while lying in bed after eating curry:
you’re asian, remember that.

                          as if to squash you
                          back into a mooncake mold.

your vietnamese-american hairstylist:
do you notice increased attention from men?

                          as if the most essential part of a salted egg yolk
                          is not its flavor but its yellow.
                          as if black hair means rice paddy.
                          as if whiteness is a country manor with acres
                          of hedge mazes and i am kissing the iron gates,
                          pleading with outstretched arms.
                          as if my most natural habitat is a landscape
                          wiped off a ming vase.

                          as if i need the colonial tongue to wag at me:                       
                          don’t try to be white.

waitresses at chinese restaurants:
you speak chinese? i thought you were korean

waitresses at korean fried chicken places:
you’re not american?

where are you from in california?

                                                                            ethnicity is elastic
                                                                            until it snaps.

            after the third bottle of peroxide you are the beginning of a joke.

man on the street:
a blonde asian wearing an ac/dc shirt walked into a bar

                          you start to wonder what futures can be derived
                          from peering at the sediment inside a bleach bottles –

                                                                 or if you are less chinese with all your pigment stripped.

Love Song For My Eyelids

my father’s cleaver falls like a bomb
and bone makes itself subservient, comes away
jagged like a beer bottle smashed on a railing.

            i have spent years saving up for someone to slice
            my eyelids, stitch skin to skin,
            create a crease.

standard pork belly is fifteen percent fat.
fatty varieties average thirty. my eyelids:
whatever percent, they cannot lift themselves.

            my eyelids are a tubby boy sleepily waiting
           for his mother. my eyelids try to slap themselves
           awake but droop their heavy heads.

until the gunshot of my father’s cleaver renders
every blink a beg. he hangs a cutlet,
red flesh, skin drooping in his window.

            sagging eyelids are the penance paid
            by a butcher’s daughter, for every
            pert and round thing dismembered in their place.

Janelle Tan was born in Singapore and lives in New York City. Her work appears in Arc Poetry Magazine, Bone Bouquet, and Stoneboat. She is the recipient of a 2018 Academy of American Poets Prize, and is currently an MFA candidate at New York University. janelle-tan.com.