Assétou Xango performs at Cafe Cultura in Denver.


“Give your daughters difficult names.
Names that command the full use of the tongue.
My name makes you want to tell me the truth.
My name does not allow me to trust anyone
who cannot pronounce it right.”
      —Warsan Shire

Many of my contemporaries,
role models,
But especially,
Ancestors

Have a name that brings the tongue to worship.
Names that feel like ritual in your mouth.

I don’t want a name said without pause,
muttered without intention.

I am through with names that leave me unmoved.
Names that leave the speaker’s mouth unscathed.

I want a name like fire,
like rebellion,
like my hand gripping massa’s whip—

I want a name from before the ships
A name Donald Trump might choke on.

I want a name that catches you in the throat
if you say it wrong
and if you’re afraid to say it wrong,
then I guess you should be.

I want a name only the brave can say
a name that only fits right in the mouth of those who love me right,
because only the brave
can love me right

Assétou Xango is the name you take when you are tired
of burying your jewels under thick layers of
soot
and self-doubt.

Assétou the light
Xango the pickaxe
so that people must mine your soul
just to get your attention.

If you have to ask why I changed my name,
it is already too far beyond your comprehension.
Call me callous,
but with a name like Xango
I cannot afford to tread lightly.
You go hard
or you go home
and I am centuries
and ships away
from any semblance
of a homeland.

I am a thief’s poor bookkeeping skills way from any source of ancestry.
I am blindly collecting the shattered pieces of a continent
much larger than my comprehension.

I hate explaining my name to people:
their eyes peering over my journal
looking for a history they can rewrite

Ask me what my name means...
What the fuck does your name mean Linda?

Not every word needs an English equivalent in order to have significance.

I am done folding myself up to fit your stereotype.
Your black friend.
Your headline.
Your African Queen Meme.
Your hurt feelings.
Your desire to learn the rhetoric of solidarity
without the practice.

I do not have time to carry your allyship.

I am trying to build a continent,
A country,
A home.

My name is the only thing I have that is unassimilated
and I’m not even sure I can call it mine.

The body is a safeless place if you do not know its name.

Assétou is what it sounds like when you are trying to bend a syllable
into a home.
With shaky shudders
And wind whistling through your empty,

I feel empty.

There is no safety in a name.
No home in a body.

A name is honestly just a name
A name is honestly just a ritual

And it still sounds like reverence.

Copyright © 2017 Assétou Xango. Used with permission of the poet. Published in Poem-a-Day on June 9, 2020. 

A thin wet sky, that yellows at the rim,
And meets with sun-lost lip the marsh’s brim.

The pools low lying, dank with moss and mould,
Glint through their mildews like large cups of gold

Among the wild rice in the still lagoon,
In monotone the lizard shrills his tune.

The wild goose, homing, seeks a sheltering,
Where rushes grow, and oozing lichens cling.

Late cranes with heavy wing, and lazy flight,
Sail up the silence with the nearing night.

And like a spirit, swathed in some soft veil,
Steals twilight and its shadows o’er the swale.

Hushed lie the sedges, and the vapours creep,
Thick, grey and humid, while the marshes sleep.

This poem is in the public domain. Published in Poem-a-Day on November 7, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.

Needless to say I support the forsythia’s war
against the dull colored houses, the beagle
deciphering the infinitely complicated universe
at the bottom of a fence post. I should be gussying up
my resume, I should be dusting off my protestant work ethic,
not walking around the neighborhood loving the peonies
and the lilac bushes, not heading up Shamrock
and spotting Lucia coming down the train tracks. Lucia
who just sold her first story and whose rent is going up,
too, Lucia who says she’s moving to South America to save money,
Lucia, cute twenty-something I wish wasn’t walking down train tracks
alone. I tell her about my niece teaching in China, about the waiter
who built a tiny house in Hawaii, how he saved up, how
he had to call the house a garage to get a building permit.
Someone’s practicing the trumpet, someone’s frying bacon
and once again the wisteria across the street is trying to take over
the nation. Which could use a nice invasion, old growth trees
and sea turtles, every kind of bird marching
on Washington. If I had something in my refrigerator,
if my house didn’t look like the woman who lives there
forgot to water the plants, I’d invite Lucia home,
enjoy another hour of not thinking about not having a job,
about not having a mother to move back in with.
I could pick Lucia’s brain about our circadian rhythms,
about this space between sunrise and sunset,
ask if she’s ever managed to get inside it, the air,
the sky ethereal as all get out—so close
and no ladder in sight.

Copyright © 2021 by Valencia Robin. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on April 6, 2021, by the Academy of American Poets.

This morning the snow
lowered so slowly, I was able
to lift my sonstill in pajamas
and show him each delicate
tendril of frost, the arctic structure
of a solitary flake. I was able
to make coffee and think only
of making coffee, a sensation
so sudden and dangerous
in its delight, I had to dilute it
by burning the toast. This morning
I breathed deeply, clicked on
the television and watched
for a momenta Boeing VC-25 fade
over our capital and dwindle
from sight. Nothing says revenge
like dwindle from sight. Later,
I’ll hear the new president pledge
to be better, try a bit harder.
I will try to believe him
the way a child believes a father
in an overcoat, by the door.
But for now, all is quiet.
My coffee tastes delicious,
and nothing says revenge like
the stillness of snow.

Copyright © 2022 by Jared Harél. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on January 20, 2022, by the Academy of American Poets.

a meme 

I am taking my iPhone to see my therapist. 
& I’m all like See see see see listen look there was a goose 
born without webbed feet I saw on Instagram & Farmer Gene
fitted Andy (that’s the goose’s name!!) with baby-sized Nikes
so Andy could walk but someone killed him anyway. The goose!
Clipped at his throat; wings severed & missing. In 1991.  
Never caught who did it. I’ve been drunk about it all day.
& my therapist wants to learn more about me & I tell her
what the FBI already downloaded: In 1991, I was born 
under a cloud of red, stolen feathers. 

I’ve been meaning to tell you that I’m taking myself 
seriously for once. I’ve learned so much since I paid 
my internet bill. I quit hissing. Jasmine tea miraculously 
appears in my mug where there once was rum. & now, I can
laugh, entertaining Eric with my strong strategy for the future
dystopia, in which I escape to the Minnesota lakes to harvest
milk from the last of the nation’s orphaned goats. 

You & my therapist say I spend too much time online, stupefied,
with the curtains drawn & my hand down the front, clicking myself.
But you don’t understand. The metaphor being I am the goose &
I’m contemporary to some degree. God knows who in this country is
Farmer Andy. But my sense of humor is the webbed feet & the Nikes
are my Blackness & my mellow but I’m killed anyway. You say turn It off,
but It’s where everyone contemporary is having contemporary arguments
no one started. Individuality is a phenomenon for which none of our social
structures adequately prepared us. I am always a better version away from
myself. & I can realize nothing else. 

Copyright © 2023 by Jameka Williams. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on June 2, 2023, by the Academy of American Poets. 

It is morning, Senlin says, and in the morning
When the light drips through the shutters like the dew,
I arise, I face the sunrise,
And do the things my fathers learned to do.
Stars in the purple dusk above the rooftops
Pale in a saffron mist and seem to die,
And I myself on a swiftly tilting planet
Stand before a glass and tie my tie.

Vine leaves tap my window,
Dew-drops sing to the garden stones,
The robin chirps in the chinaberry tree
Repeating three clear tones.

It is morning. I stand by the mirror
And tie my tie once more.
While waves far off in a pale rose twilight
Crash on a white sand shore.
I stand by a mirror and comb my hair:
How small and white my face!—
The green earth tilts through a sphere of air
And bathes in a flame of space.

There are houses hanging above the stars
And stars hung under a sea . . .
And a sun far off in a shell of silence
Dapples my walls for me . . .

It is morning, Senlin says, and in the morning
Should I not pause in the light to remember god?
Upright and firm I stand on a star unstable,
He is immense and lonely as a cloud.
I will dedicate this moment before my mirror
To him alone, for him I will comb my hair.
Accept these humble offerings, cloud of silence!
I will think of you as I descend the stair.

Vine leaves tap my window,
The snail-track shines on the stones,
Dew-drops flash from the chinaberry tree
Repeating two clear tones.

It is morning, I awake from a bed of silence,
Shining I rise from the starless waters of sleep.
The walls are about me still as in the evening,
I am the same, and the same name still I keep.
The earth revolves with me, yet makes no motion,
The stars pale silently in a coral sky.
In a whistling void I stand before my mirror,
Unconcerned, and tie my tie. 

There are horses neighing on far-off hills
Tossing their long white manes,
And mountains flash in the rose-white dusk,
Their shoulders black with rains . . .
It is morning. I stand by the mirror
And surprise my soul once more;
The blue air rushes above my ceiling,
There are suns beneath my floor . . .

. . . It is morning, Senlin says, I ascend from darkness
And depart on the winds of space for I know not where,
My watch is wound, a key is in my pocket,
And the sky is darkened as I descend the stair.
There are shadows across the windows, clouds in heaven,
And a god among the stars; and I will go
Thinking of him as I might think of daybreak
And humming a tune I know . . .

Vine-leaves tap at the window,
Dew-drops sing to the garden stones,
The robin chirps in the chinaberry tree
Repeating three clear tones.

This poem is in the public domain. Published in Poem-a-Day on August 5, 2023, by the Academy of American Poets.

We met in the middle of the street only to discuss
the Buteo lineatus, but we simply said hawk
because we knew nothing of Latin. We knew nothing
of red in the shoulder, of true hawks versus buzzards,
or what time they started their mornings,
what type of snake they stooped low
and swift to eat. We knew nothing.
Or, I should say, at least I knew nothing,
and he said nothing of what he knew that day
except one thing he said he thought, but now I say
he knew: I’m going to die soon, my neighbor said to me
and assured he had no diagnosis, just a thought. He said it
just two weeks before he died outdoors just
twenty steps away from where we stood that day—
he and I between the porch I returned to and twisted
the key to my door to cross the threshold into my familiar
like always I do and the garage he returned to
and twisted some wrench probably on a knob of the
El Camino like always he did every day when usually
I’d wave briefly en route from carport to door
sometimes saying “how’s it going,” expecting
only the “fine” I had time to digest. Except today
when I stepped out of my car, he waved me over to see
what I now know to call the Buteo. When first I read its
Latin name, I pronounced it boo-TAY-oh
before learning it’s more like saying beauty (oh!).
I can’t believe I booed when it’s always carrying awe.
Like on this day, the buzzard—red-shouldered and
usually nesting in the white pine—cast a shadow
upon my lawn just as I parked, and stared back at us—
my mesmerized neighbor and me—perched, probably hunting,
in the leaning eastern hemlock in my yard. Though
back then I think I only called it a tree because I knew nothing
about distinguishing evergreens because I don’t think I ever asked
or wondered or searched yet. I knew nothing about how they thrive
in the understory. Their cones, tiny. And when they think
they’re dying, they make more cones than ever before. How did he
know? Who did he ask and what did he search to find
the date that he might die, and how did he know
to say soon to me and only me and then, right there
in that garage with his wrench and the some other parts
unknown for the El Camino and the radio loud as always
it was, stoop down, his pledge hand anxious against his chest,
and never rise again? And now the hemlock, which also goes

by Tsuga canadensis, which is part Latin, part Japanese,
still leans, still looks like it might fall any day now, weighed
down by its ever-increasing tiny fists. And the Buteo returns
each winter to reclaim the white pine before spring.
Most hawks die by accident—collision, predation, disease.
But when it survives long enough to know it’s dying, it may
find a familiar tree and let its breath weaken in a dark cranny.
And my neighbor’s wife and I now meet in the middle,
sometimes even discussing birds but never discussing
that day. And I brought her roses on that first anniversary
without him because we sometimes discuss a little more
than birds. And the Buteo often soar in twos, sometimes solo.
So high I cannot see their shoulders, but I know their voices
now and can name them even when I don’t see them. No matter
how high they fly, they see me, though I don’t concern them.
They watch a cottonmouth, slender and sliding
silent in tall grass. And the cardinals don’t sing.
They don’t go mute, either. They tink.
Close to their nests and in their favorite trees, they know
when the hawk looms. And their voices turn
metallic: tink, tink, tink.

Copyright © 2024 by Ciona Rouse. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on March 28, 2024, by the Academy of American Poets.