Tag Archives: The Best American Poetry series

AMA CODJOE.October 2022


Photo by Jeff Sirkin



My mother raised me to take

what I need. From the wind,

I take hunger. From hunger, lust.

From the men who shed condoms

like molt, I take green. A plant I have trouble

keeping alive. A hammer from my father,

to build or dismantle. A cup of nails, glittered

with rust. From my sisters, I take

a milk-bright bone, architecture

of my dreams. From the men who have come

inside me, I take a muffled cry

deprived of tears. I bring bread to my mouth

without blessing it. I gaze at the sky without

falling to my knees. From the apple tree, I steal

a pale green apple. On its skin, I taste salt

from the nearby sea. From the air, I take

a painless breath—robbed from the clutches

of saplings and sun. For the men

who undress me with their eyes, I fashion a dress

dangling with knives. From blades of grass,

I make a bright green bed, its canopy sheer

and billowing. From water, I claim

a rippling portrait, torn from the background

of blurry pines. In all this taking, I managed,

somehow, to keep my wants obedient

and small. I need a want bigger

than my needs. My mother was raised

to take what she was given. She offers me

her empty hands. At first, I see nothing

but gaps between fingers, swirls and lines

crisscrossing her palms. What is my

inheritance? I begin to understand:

lavish darkness, driftwood on the beach,

emptiness between branches. Restless wind.


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*** ** ***



Walking from the subway

to the apartment we shared—you a usual

few strides ahead—we passed

another couple. Languid and intertwined,

dripping with dinner’s slow-sipped

wine or with the icing savored

from a single fork. What passed

between them, back and forth,

was as open as it was secret.

This wasn’t the first time I’d seen them.

Earlier, on the subway, they were

teenagers who swayed and closed

a glowing negative space,

and tomorrow they’d be thick-waisted

and grey-haired, holding hands

unconsciously as you and I

hurry past. We could not make

the shape of love. I laid down

on the sidewalk and tanned

beneath the couple’s heat. I knelt to kiss

their dirty shoes. Like any worthy

supplicant, I worshipped

and resented them. They were

the lush valley I crossed

before climbing into our bed.


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*** ** ***



Aware of the middle-aged woman

sitting exactly opposite me,

perched on her porch, doing something

useful with her hands, I find

a memory of the last play I saw

before New York City went dark:

a chamber opera about a seamstress

who sews garments the texture of which

she can’t find elsewhere in her life,

except maybe in the silk

of her own belly, buttocks, and thighs,

or in the kind speech that falls

on her ears from time to time,

like scraps from the sewing table.

I am trying to stitch together

the pieces of my life, I want

to confess to the woman

who is right now a mirror.

On the street between us, cars zip

or cruise by with their windows

and operas. Once, while waiting

at a train station, I overheard a man

on the phone with his lover. He paced,

cellphone charging, close enough

for me to hear both voices. Accusation,

pleading, resolve, acrimony—their passion

made me dizzy. I tried to focus

on the book in my lap, words of a page

I did not turn. The stranger continued

to cross the space between

what he wanted and who he was.

Some might say he begged

like a dog. It made me wince.

I envied him.

What is the softest thing

you’ve touched or let touch you,

I want to yell across the street.

Watching the woman dwell inside

her own drama—reveries, regrets,

“to do” lists, fantasies—reminds me

of how the stage spun and the actors

sang into a dark they didn’t know

would be replaced by another.

Tonight, as the sun exits, one of us

will turn from the porch and acquiesce

to the warmth and light inside.

The other will be so absorbed

by the memory retrieved

from a car stereo

or the thought of something soft

against her flesh, she will not realize

she’s in the dark, alone.


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*** ** ***



after Robert Hayden


Because you will take me this way,

I am waiting: naked on the fire

escape. I am told my genes remember being

kidnapped and sold as a rocking

horse is auctioned away. Somewhere

in the folds, I must also remember

how to fly. I read the notes you scribed

regarding my homeland [America]. I was born

here, and yet homeland seems imprecise

[see kidnapping above]. Though, to most,

my navy passport is a prize.

Your home sounds beautiful, absent

of barbarities. I’d forgotten—

there was another killing last week—

such a country could exist. Does this make me

the barbarian? Listening to the news

while sipping tea, I do not cry

into my cup. Sometimes, I march

and scream, moved by the moving crowd,

but our throng is a meager stream

compared to the ocean

one mother inhabits after losing

one son, compared to the machine

of beliefs that leaves people of my hue

unprotected, vulnerable.

Justice bends like a flock of birds

away from us. Still, we cry out—

we throw stones at the mountain.

The humid air swarms like languid bees.

My nipples feel stung by a rough

hand. I am always naked in America.

I scan the sky for curious lights, feel sweat

grow cold. Some might call me lunatic,

planted here on the fire escape, but I know

from your planet, so far off, you can see

the flames engulfing . . . I want you

to take me, without a rope, past the branches

of brutal trees, past the airplanes, sailing

like paper boats, past the fire we call stars

to the home you described in comparison

to mine. Tell The Counselors I’m not

so naïve as to believe your land

is without flaw, but I wish to see it

for myself. This would be my rapture.


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*** ** ***



My temporary joy belongs not just to me.

We three share it like bread passed in a basket

and torn with bare hands or like loneliness

can be shared through the walls of a house.

I’m in the backseat of a fast car. Wildflowers

blur the window. Driving toward

the ocean with two friends, we sing as if

we’re alone. Song after song, we reach

for the high notes not caring if we fail.

My friends are alive and close enough

to touch. Within our abandon lies

the times we’ve stumbled, stunned,

bent in two, touching our swollen lips

and looking in disbelief at the blood

on our fingertips. Three parents dead,

a handful of failed relationships, a time

or two when we thought we’d lose

our blessed minds. We lose ourselves

and find each other. Our mouths open

like the mouth of the river. If I open

my eyes, I can see watercolor pines

and a sign that reads: Welcome to Rhode Island

the Ocean State, but my eyes are closed

because this is my favorite part of the song.

From the backseat, I speak softly now—

one of my friends has fallen asleep. I stare

at the backs of two precious heads,

as they stare at the lines on the road,

or at the hacked deer, or at the gentle wind

our voices made. I’m learning to use

speech again. I’m riding toward

the ocean. A silence stretches

like the miles between rest stops.

Soon, the window will be a mirror.

Soon, it will be too dark to see the sea.


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Ama Codjoe
is the author of Bluest Nude (Milkweed Editions) and Blood of the Air (Northwestern University Press), winner of the Drinking Gourd Chapbook Poetry Prize. She has been awarded support from Cave Canem, Robert Rauschenberg, and Saltonstall foundations as well as from Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop, Hawthornden, Hedgebrook, Yaddo, and MacDowell. Her recent poems have appeared in The Atlantic, The Nation, The Best American Poetry series and elsewhere. Among other honors, Codjoe has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council/New York Foundation of the Arts, and the Jerome Foundation.


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October 2022.AMA CODJOE