Sign up to receive an unpublished poem every day in your inbox.
today's poet
Charif Shanahan
Charif Shanahan

If I Am Alive To

Recorded for Poem-a-Day, May 24, 2018.
About this Poem 

“This poem considers the ways in which we save and wound one another—sometimes at the same time—and the deeply personal choices we might feel we need to make in the face of global injustice, inequity, and hatred. Formally, the poem performs a thinking through of deep, constitutive emotion, a kind of confrontation of the analytical and emotional minds. It is also a love poem to my heroic and exquisite mother.”
—Charif Shanahan

If I Am Alive To

A second death in as many days and I succeed at being 
Strong and contained, until the tweet 
Where one young brother says I’m not scared of dying,
I’m scared of breaking my mother’s heart. I am flesh
Two rooms down the hall from my mother’s flesh
Holding in my hands the news which is not new and today, at last, I understand
How primal and intelligent her need
To be done with this—
Our sorrow, our joy, anything at all thought ours—
To be done with the almost unavoidable assertion
Of a self she refused
To let her body take on—and to be done
Permanently, by making
A useful choice, through a man made useful by her choosing,
A man of Irish-Scandinavian stock (the only criteria, 
I have wondered, in angrier moments), so that
Her boys, my brothers and I, or at least our bodies 
Emerged from hers looking Spanish, maybe Greek or Italian.
Three boys, each passing
Closer to her one True North.
When she tells me not to put forward that I am Black, she is saying I love you. 
She is saying I want you to live. I see now. When she told my brother she wished
He’d just find a nice blonde girl and settle down, I took her by the face
And, staring into her even-keeled nonchalance, 
Told her I love you and you are crazy. Today 
I see: I am flesh, I am free
To inhabit my life: to stand, to sit, to breathe, to play tag 
Or with a toy gun, to walk away, or to run, to put my hands up, to ask why.
Today on a walk I took to release
How it felt to be shut out—this time,
By the editor of the African diasporic journal
Who asked not me but someone who didn’t know me
Was I Black—
I cross 112th and Amsterdam and suddenly
Am 20 years-old again,
Drunk, out-of-control in pain without knowing
Why, trying to jump a taxi
Because I’d spent my money on booze, and the cop
Whose car pulled into the crosswalk to block me,
To stop me as I ran, gets out and says to me
If you don’t pay the man, I’ll arrest you.
I was underage. I jumped a taxi. I was incoherent and angry.
I did not have the money to pay the man. I was not arrested.
Turning from the news, I complain now to a friend
I don’t know why we (all of us) should want to live—
It’s all so futile and banal. It’s all so pointless, even when it’s 
As my mother rests inside her safe and dusty room
Next to the man she crossed an ocean to find.
I have thought her wrong
To think that we would need saving. But what do I know
Of having to choose one violence over another? Asleep now
She rests inside her flesh, my father close beside her
On his back, his forearm across his eyes,
He who chose her, too,
And over his own family, he knew to tell us, having learned early
That you must cross whatever line you have to cross. 

Copyright © 2018 by Charif Shanahan. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on May 24, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets.

Copyright © 2018 by Charif Shanahan. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on May 24, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets.

Donate Today

Classic Books of American Poetry

This collection of books showcases the masterpieces of American poetry that have influenced—or promise to influence—generations of poets. Take a look.


To Live in the Zombie Apocalypse

The moon will shine for God
knows how long.
As if it still matters. As if someone

is trying to recall a dream.
Believe the brain is a cage of light
& rage. When it shuts off,

something else switches on.
There’s no better reason than now
to lock the doors, the windows.

Turn off the sprinklers
& porch light. Save the books
for fire. In darkness,

we learn to read
what moves along the horizon,
across the periphery of a gun scope—

the flicker of shadows,
the rustling of trash in the body
of cities long emptied.

Not a soul lives
in this house &
this house & this

house. Go on, stiffen
the heart, quicken
the blood. To live

in a world of flesh
& teeth, you must
learn to kill

what you love,
& love what can die.

Burlee Vang

The Iraqi Nights

In Iraq,

after a thousand and one nights,

someone will talk to someone else.

Markets will open

for regular customers.

Small feet will tickle

the giant feet of the Tigris.

Gulls will spread their wings

and no one will fire at them.

Women will walk the streets

without looking back in fear.

Men will give their real names

without putting their lives at risk.

Children will go to school

and come home again.

Chickens in the villages

won’t peck at human flesh

on the grass.

Disputes will take place

without any explosives.

A cloud will pass over cars

heading to work as usual.

A hand will wave

to someone leaving

or returning.

The sunrise will be the same

for those who wake

and those who never will.

And every moment

something ordinary

will happen

under the sun.

Dunya Mikhail
Glacier National Park

Things We Carry on the Sea

We carry tears in our eyes: good-bye father, good-bye mother

We carry soil in small bags: may home never fade in our hearts

We carry names, stories, memories of our villages, fields, boats

We carry scars from proxy wars of greed

We carry carnage of mining, droughts, floods, genocides

We carry dust of our families and neighbors incinerated in mushroom clouds

We carry our islands sinking under the sea

We carry our hands, feet, bones, hearts and best minds for a new life

We carry diplomas: medicine, engineer, nurse, education, math, poetry, even if they mean nothing to the other shore

We carry railroads, plantations, laundromats, bodegas, taco trucks, farms, factories, nursing homes, hospitals, schools, temples…built on our ancestors’ backs

We carry old homes along the spine, new dreams in our chests

We carry yesterday, today and tomorrow

We’re orphans of the wars forced upon us

We’re refugees of the sea rising from industrial wastes

And we carry our mother tongues
爱(ai),حب  (hubb), ליבע (libe), amor, love

平安 (ping’an), سلام ( salaam), shalom, paz, peace 

希望(xi’wang), أمل (’amal), hofenung, esperanza, hope, hope, hope

As we drift…in our rubber boats…from shore…to shore…to shore…

Wang Ping

Lesson Plans for Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month

As part of your celebration of Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month in May—and all year round—take a look at this collection of lesson plans featuring poems by Asian American and Pacific American poets.

AASL Best Website for Teaching & Learning

How Alone Barbie Chang's Mother

How alone Barbie Chang’s mother
     must have felt doing
nothing but dying her mother actually
     stopped dying her hair
in January stopped being an actuary
     for her money she
must have known her time was limited
     did the diseased birch
tree know they were going to cut it down
     how quickly the air
around it filled in the space it does no
     good to know a mother’s
face who would have known that a 
     mother’s face could
be erased too at some point we are all
     eliminated from this
earth at some point most of us give birth
     at some point we lose
a mother at some point we are all
     disappointments who
can’t possibly care for others when
     our mothers die we
are all lost and there are no words for
     it some want to
name us as grieving others wrongly
     name us heroes
Victoria Chang

Teach This Poem: The Classics

Teach This Poem is a weekly series featuring a poem from our online poetry collection, accompanied by interdisciplinary resources and activities designed to help K-12 teachers quickly and easily bring poetry into the classroom. The following lesson plans from this series feature poems by classic poets, including Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and more.



A Poet's Glossary

Read about poetic terms and forms from Edward Hirsch's A Poet's Glossary (Harcourt, 2014), a book ten years in the making that defines the art form of poetry.  



            Night time is the right time . . .
                  —Ray Charles and Margie Hendricks

She had me in the car. I came forward like a song.
We did it before temple, after temple, between prayers.
The windows echoed her mantras, our cries warmed the air.
Two peaks merged, then sank below the clouds.

We did it before temple, after temple, between prayers.
Her stomach began to show and people asked us not to come.
Two peaks merged, then sank below the clouds.
Night and day, everything was changing.

. . . . .

Her stomach began to show and people asked her not to come.
My mother was all alone when I was born.
Night and day. Everything was changing.
The radio started playing rhythm and blues.

My mother was all alone when I was born—
The windows echoed her mantras, our cries warmed the air,
The radio started playing rhythm and blues.
She had me in a car. I came forward like a song.
Duy Doan
Spring–Summer 2018 issue of American Poets