I came across the name Warsan Shire through Beyoncé’s visual album, Lemonade. As I’m sure many others have been, I was intrigued to find out more about the strong voice behind the poetic interludes in Beyoncé’s album. I soon ordered Teaching my mother how to give birth and her poetry pamphlet did not disappoint.
From reading the quote on the first page of the collection I was already hooked. The quote is by one of my favourite poet’s, Audre Lorde. The quote, “Mother, loosen my tongue or adorn me with a lighter burden” comes from Lorde’s poem, “Call” and it is a perfect opening to Shire’s collection. Teaching my mother how to give birth explores the relationship between a daughter and her mother as well as touching on themes of identity, race, religion and migration.
Lorde is more than an apt figure for Shire to gesture too, as Lorde is something of an expert on writing about identity, race and feminism. She was a radical feminist and civil rights activist whose poetry and essays I cannot recommend enough.
The Lorde influence is clear, as many of the poems delve deeply into the experiences one has with their mother and the cultural tensions that come with being black in the Western world. At the same time Shire clearly has her own style and voice. Her poetry ranges from softer, sensual images, such as in, “Grandmother’s Hands”:
“Your grandfather’s hands were slow but urgent.
Your grandmother dreamt them,
a clockwork of fingers finding places to own-
under the tongue, collarbone, bottom lip,
arch of foot” (11)
And then, sometimes her poetry is colloquial, brutal, refusing to shy away from abusive sexual experiences and the harsh realities women face every day. Like in, “Birds” which opens with the line, “Sofia used pigeon blood on her wedding day” (14) referring to a woman who uses pigeon blood to hide the fact that she has already lost her virginity. And in “Your mother’s first kiss” which has the opening line, “The first boy to kiss your mother later raped women”.
One of the poems that I found most inspiring was, Shire’s three-part prose poem entitled, “Conversations from Home (at the deportation center)”. The topic of migration continues to be a central issue in the UK and Europe since the beginning of the migration crisis. Somehow Shire manages to adeptly explore a highly political topic through the art of poetry. The line, “no one leaves home unless the home is the mouth of a shark” is arresting and genius in how it manages to attack the other side of the migrant question, achieving one of the essential qualities of poetry; its ability to express political and dense matters in a beautiful, evocative manner.
As Lorde writes in her essay, “Poetry is not a luxury”, poetry is for some, an essential medium, a, “relevatory distillation of experience” that acts as a mouth piece for minorities; people of colour, women and in this case refugees and those who have migrated to another country due to dire circumstances in their departure country, and have experienced racism because of it.
“Conversations from Home” demands a lot from its readers. In part 4 she writes:
“Are they really this arrogant? Do they not know that stability is like a lover with a sweet mouth upon your body one second; the next you are a tremor lying on the floor covered in rubble and the old currency waiting for its return.” (27).
After reading this line I couldn’t help thinking of the recent image that went viral of a boy who has just survived his home being bombed in Aleppo, Syria and the many people who are so quick to dismiss claims that refugees have valid reasons for leaving their homes.
The final poem, “In Love and In War” reads almost as a warning: “To my daughter I will say, / ‘when the men come, set yourself on fire’.” (34). It is a beautiful, haunting ending to a great collection of poems that I find, like Audre Lorde I will now also be adding to my list of recommendations.
Lorde, Audre. “Poetry is Not a Luxury”. Strong Words. Ed. Herbert, W.N. and Hollis, Matthew. Northumberland: Bloodaxe books, 2000. 137-140.
Shire, Warsan. Teaching my mother how to give birth. The UK: Mouthmark series, 2011.