1. 
Our parents argued in a language 
we didn’t understand. We were born 
in Las Vegas or Teheran, 

twin cities of fantasy and chance. My 
sister and I found our words in Long 
Beach, Big Wheels and Barbies, 

Bluebird troops and kidnap breakfasts. 
A war forced our cousins 
to buy false passports, lose their savings. 

We ate Chef Boyardee after school, 
hot spinach and meatball soup 
on the weekends. I yelled into a phone 

so my Iranian family could hear 
me. I learned I was the silk carpet 
my mother didn’t own, the casino 

payout my father kept chasing. 
I didn’t know until later 
the Persian Leopard was trapped 

in the Zagros mountains after 
the Iran-Iraq war, in danger 
of tripping old mines. 

2. 
I taught myself who I was 
by watching my sister carefully.  
I worried when  

the day came and I wanted 
to say I’m not her. First out the womb,  
she was named and I wasn’t.  

Her name is Iranian but sayable  
by everyone. My name 
would wait. They waited until 

they knew they had it right. 
Not Sheila, my mother’s veto. 
Farnaz, a name that made me lonely.  

We lived in between Iran 
and America, a customs declaration zone.
By the time I was born 

my mute parents wondered 
how to speak as Americans 
as they moved away 

from the people who loved them. 
How could I know the dark 
inside their mouths hurt them, too. 

3. 
My father studied numbers in the racing 
forms, and I bet following my gut. 
I influenced dice at the craps table 

by spinning three times  
in each direction while my father  
placed his bets. Even now, 

I’ll retell stories in my head 
one hundred times to end them right.  
It’s a system.  

I came from the racetrack, ignoring  
all the horses in the flesh. I sounded out  
the names of long shots.  

The odds say Blinding Telegram 
will win, but I like the music 
of Queen the Fox. 

I believed that how I got my name would mean 
something. I am still finding the names for some things: 
the youth my parents brought to parenting, the attention 

I didn’t know I was waiting for, the word for wanting, 
feeling its deep hole. Such naming 
I have been slow to do. I am waiting until I have it right

I know that once named there is a road 
down which that named thing runs, 
and I am not the one who built the road. 

Related Poems

Give Your Daughters Difficult Names

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.

I Never Knew I Loved Dean Rader

after Hikmet/O’Hara/Reeves/Vuong

Someday, I’ll love Dean Rader
                                                          the way the blue jay
loves the sparrow egg,
or perhaps the way the waves love the curve they give
themselves to when giving is no longer an option
like falling or dreaming
                                           or even being on this earth,
in this body.
                          Someday I’ll love my body, itself a form of silence,
which is not the same as being quiet, 
even though we are sentenced to this language with its strange letters,
their shapes like bowls, small sticks, the bellies of pregnant women, 
as though everything spelled 
                                                      must also be birthed and broken,
cracked open and spilled, 
                                                filled with the absence of what won’t do,
like waiting for the earth to tap out your name.
                                                                            I never knew I loved my name, 
can someone who has never believed his name love it? 

Once on a train to Serbia a soldier woke me from a dream I still remember
and pointed a gun at my right shoulder. 
                                                                                              I never knew 
I loved my shoulder until I placed my son’s head there 
our first night home from the hospital, 
                                                                      his chest lifting like an umbrella
in a storm. I don’t like comparing my son to an umbrella,
though he has known what it is to be folded, 
                                                                                to be wet and cold.
Someday I will love the cold,
                                                     not just as metaphor but as a means to clarity,
which is what I need this November night, 
the moon swinging in its black noose over the city,
the entire world hooded, 
                                             blindfolded perhaps,
lined up against a wall and waiting,
                                                                       the way a reader waits,
for a poem to get where it’s going. 

Someday I will love the poem, 
                                                         the way I will love being afraid,
but this is not what I want to say.
It is something more like this: 
                                                       the future is not what it used to be,
and even that is only part of it.
The other part has something to do with speculation, 
like what awaits us when we remove the hood. 
                                                                           I never knew I loved blindness. 
The punishment for sight is always forgiveness.
Someday I will love forgiveness, 
                                            but it is difficult to love what has not been earned.

My grandfather when he was tenderest would call me Dean Dean,
and I felt like a child 
                          in the body of a boy who believed he had the ideas of a man.
Every morning after breakfast he and my grandmother
would throw leftover toast into the backyard for the birds.
I just remembered the birds and the bread. 
                                                                                          I love them both. 
Someday I will love more things, 
                                                                   and I will not think of death,
and even if I do I will not feel saddened by the end
of the person who wears my name, 
                                                               even though it is always easy to mourn 
                            a stranger.

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The Voice of Robert Desnos

So like a flower and a current of air
the flow of water fleeting shadows
the smile glimpsed at midnight this excellent evening
so like every joy and every sadness
it is the midnight past lifting its naked body above belfries and poplars
I call to me those lost in the fields
old skeletons young oaks cut down
scraps of cloth rotting on the ground and linen drying in farm country
I call tornadoes and hurricanes
storms typhoons cyclones
tidal waves
earthquakes
I call the smoke of volcanoes and the smoke of cigarettes
the rings of smoke from expensive cigars
I call lovers and loved ones
I call the living and the dead
I call gravediggers I call assassins
I call hangmen pilots bricklayers architects
assassins
I call the flesh
I call the one I love
I call the one I love
I call the one I love
the jubilant midnight unfolds its satin wings and perches on my bed
the belfries and the poplars bend to my wish
the former collapse the latter bow down
those lost in the fields are found in finding me
the old skeletons are revived by my voice
the young oaks cut down are covered with foliage
the scraps of cloth rotting on the ground and in the earth
	snap to at the sound of my voice like a flag of rebellion
the linen drying in farm country clothes adorable women 
	whom I do not adore
who come to me
obeying my voice, adoring
tornadoes revolve in my mouth
hurricanes if it is possible redden my lips
storms roar at my feet
typhoons if it is possible ruffle me
I get drunken kisses from the cyclones
the tidal waves come to die at my feet
the earthquakes do not shake me but fade completely
	at my command
the smoke of volcanoes clothes me with its vapors
and the smoke of cigarettes perfumes me
and the rings of cigar smoke crown me
loves and love so long hunted find refuge in me
lovers listen to my voice
the living and the dead yield to me and salute me
	the former coldly the latter warmly
the gravediggers abandon the hardly-dug graves
	and declare that I alone may command their nightly work
the assassins greet me
the hangmen invoke the revolution
invoke my voice
invoke my name
the pilots are guided by my eyes
the bricklayers are dizzied listening to me
the architects leave for the desert
the assassins bless me
flesh trembles when I call

the one I love is not listening
the one I love does not hear
the one I love does not answer.