“Self Portrait con Valencia” by Lupita Eyde-Tucker


Self Portrait con Valencia

In ninth grade I discovered chemistry—

intrigued by sodium, the soft metals
…………………………and all those
cliquey elementos that bonded so facilito

the ones that stuck together
while I floated             in a corner       like helium
invisible, less noble
……………………….my constant struggle

to reach a stable state

Expected to memorize every single name
I carried la tabla periódica in my back pocket
my gringa lips loving a challenge

repeating each element’s name in Spanish,
sequenced, according to its atomic number
that social value I figured out

holds everyone’s place at the table
my tongue whispered their names to my brain
litio, sodio, potassio, rubidio

each grouped by their capacity to connect
and I, xenón wondered about my own valence
still not confident with my outer shell

I observed los panas and los pelados
compounds and molecules
holding hands at recess
swapping electrons like spit

my fourteen-year-old feet felt stuck
in plomo, estaño, germanium, silicón
when my chemistry teacher said
don’t memorize

the glamorous synthetic elements
like Californium, and Einsteinium,
no son estábles 
he croaked

But ¡tecnecio!—I didn’t believe him.

I searched that table for a secret code
to unlock the power to attract             anything
found exotic locales, heroes and villains,

the ability to shape-shift. Glow like tungsten,
shine like a palladium disco ball, I
Newjerseyum dreaming of Europium.

I theorized, if a man-made element
like Americium could find a seat
at that table, between plutonium and curium
and feign an octet state, then

¡Molybdenum! so would I.


Copyright © 2020 by Lupita Eyde-Tucker. First published in Waccamaw and reprinted here with permission of the poet.



Lupita Eyde-Tucker writes poetry in English and Spanish. Winner of the 2019 Betty Gabehart Prize for Poetry, her poems have recently appeared in Nashville Review, The Acentos Review, The Florida Review, Raleigh Review, Asymptote,Columbia Journal, The Arkansas International, Yemassee, Pilgrimage, and Chautauqua. She is currently translating two collections of poetry by Venezuelan poet Oriette D’Angelo. Lupita will be a Staff Scholar at the Bread Loaf Translators Conference next summer and will begin working towards an MFA in Poetry at the University of Florida this fall. Her chapbook, Creek Lover, was published in October 2019 and is available for order here. Lupita and her husband homeschool their children in Florida. Read more of her poems here.


Poet’s Note

When I was 14 years old, my family moved from New Jersey to Guayaquil, Ecuador, and I was immersed in a new culture and a new language. Because all of my classes in school were in Spanish, learning about subjects like Chemistry and Biology was challenging, but it also expanded my access to language in a new way. I don’t know if it was boredom, a coping mechanism, or some sort of creative outlet, but I created my own vocabulary based on associations related to the sounds each new word or name made. Although that was fun for me, there wasn’t anyone who I could “talk” to using my new vocabulary, and that just made my feelings of isolation a little more acute. This poem explores that time in my life and gave me a chance to play with those words one more time.


Commentary by Amanda Moore, Poetry Co-Editor

Today’s poem follows a ninth grader as she memorizes the elements of the periodic table, an especially challenging feat for an English speaker learning these concepts in an unfamiliar language (Spanish) at the same time she orients herself to a new country and school. The chemical elements become an extended metaphor for trying to understand her new environment, not to mention the social hierarchy and her place within it. Chemistry gives the speaker a way to understand social norms as she dives into a new school, quick to realize that like many elements, her peers are “cliquey” and easily bond to one another. She, on the other hand, remains unconnected through much of the poem and even a little volatile in her uncombined state, like “helium / invisible, less noble.” In this metaphor, the “atomic number” of each element becomes an analog to her peers’ ability to maneuver easily within the social order. The speaker, in contrast, doesn’t know if she possesses the “social value” she has “figured out // holds everyone’s place at the table.” While others excel in the “capacity to connect,” she compares herself to xenon and “wonder[s] about [her] own valence.”

Valence, or valency as it is sometimes spelled, is “the property of an element that determines the number of other atoms with which an atom of the element can combine,” a kind of Physical Chemistry analogy to “Emotional Quotient” or “Social IQ.” [Source here] Digging into a high school chemistry textbook helps me appreciate Eyde-Tucker’s playful wit and resourcefulness as she examines the complicated social structure of high school through an elemental lens. Xenon, to which the speaker compares herself, has a high atomic number and is quite dense; it’s also a noble gas and thus inert to most chemical reactions. Xenon has zero valence, and its “outer shell” has eight tightly bonded electrons, so it doesn’t combine with much. In contrast, the solitary speaker sees that her peers, presumably with more bondable outer shells, “holding hands at recess” and “swapping electrons like spit.” Comparing the way electrons forge elemental bonds to the way teenagers exchange physical contact and affection is novel and rich, especially in the way it highlights the speaker’s sense of loneliness and undesirability. It’s interesting to revisit high school chemistry here, but even without doing that research, most readers remember that feeling of our “fourteen-year-old feet” and selves being “stuck” as if in lead, or the rhythmic process of memorizing long lists of words.

After exploring the social metaphors of the periodic table, the poem’s speaker uses her teacher’s warning (not to memorize the “glamorous synthetic elements / like Californium, and Einsteinium”) as an opportunity to reflect on her place in her new country. The teacher’s objection to synthetic elements isn’t entirely clear—it may or may not have to do with his claim about their instability—but in any event, the speaker identifies with those outsider, not naturally-occurring elements. Using clever coinage of her own invention (neologisms), she describes herself as “Newjerseyum dreaming of Europium.” Longing to “unlock the power to attract” and “shape-shift,” she returns to one of the poem’s first images of a lunch table, hoping she can transcend her instability to “find a seat” in this new place just as “Americium,” a synthetic, “man-made element,” has found its place on the periodic table.

Poems, as we know, are often working on several levels at once, and “Self Portrait con Valencia” deftly charts the bilingual experience in addition to the social one, crafting a subtle metaphoric relationship between the elements of the periodic table and language. The poem’s title, half in English and half in Spanish, is the first compound we encounter, though we don’t truly understand its deep connection to thematic components until later. As the poem builds, Spanish words are breezily interwoven with English ones; in recounting her discovery of chemistry, for example, the speaker is “intrigued by sodium, the soft metals / and all those / elementos that bonded so facilito.” English is clearly an element with a lot of valence here—the Spanish bonds easily into its diction, and the resulting compounds are easy enough to understand. The use of Spanish also creates the opportunity for internal rhyme: “elementos” (meaning “elements”) and “facilito” (“easily”) create a satisfying rhythm and rhyme that sonically enacts such bonding.

Sound continues to be a unifying element between the two languages throughout the rest of the poem. The speaker loves to challenge her “gringa lips” to learn and recite Spanish names of elements, and the poem mimics that memorization by including the Spanish names in an incantatory line: “litio, sodio, potassio, rubidio.” Incidentally, that list has an even truer rhyme in English—lithium, sodium, potassium, rubidium—though I don’t find it nearly as pleasing to recite. A list of elements that comes later, when the speaker is frustrated by her inability to connect with her peers, doesn’t flow off the tongue easily in either Spanish (“plomo, estaño, germanium, silicón”) or English (lead, tin, germanium, silicon). No matter the reader’s language facility or working knowledge of the periodic table, it’s still easy to appreciate the aural qualities that communicate so much meaning in these lines.

This is something Eyde-Tucker capitalizes on in the poem’s conclusion when she turns an element name into an exclamation, sometimes called a grammatical interjection or ejaculation: “if a man-made element…could find a seat…then // Molybdenum! so would I.” Molybdenum is a rare element that is neither synthetic nor found in nature, and further research might turn up some deeper interpretation of the final line. What I hear, though, is fun with language, Eyde-Tucker using the word more for its sonic than its semantic qualities. She uses a familiar syntax with an unusual substitution for the more colloquial “gosh darn it” or “so help me” that could just as easily express the same can-do outlook that closes the poem.

When I teach poetry, I often ask students to consider which poetic “elements” most influence and enhance their understanding. In this way, they reflect on craft as much as on narrative. This question has a few new facets for me after considering Lupita Eyde-Tucker’s “Self Portrait con Valencia.” It’s fun as both a reader and writer of poems for me to think in terms of a periodic table of poetry, categorizing the atomic weight and valence of certain choices. How bondable is anaphora, I wonder, and how dense its twin element, epistrophe? It’s at least arguable that making an effective end to a poem is analogous to bringing it to a stable state. Whether or not you agree, viewing human relationships through the safety-goggle lens of physical chemistry is certainly a new and powerful way to bring a poem to life on the page.


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