Warsan Shire “Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth” – review

Warsan Shire is a Kenyan-born Somali poet living in London. I came to hear of Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth because Beyoncé used Warsan Shire’s poetry in her music video to Lemonade (for an example  of Warsan Shire’s feminist poetry – check out this video )

More recently, I came across Warsan Shire’s poem “Conversations about Home (at the Deportation Centre)”  – one of the most moving accounts of the plights of refugees – and Warsan Shire is a refugee herself.

Here’s Warsan Shire reading an earlier version of the “Conversations about Home ” aloud, if you haven’t heard it yet.

I think the two reasons above should be reason enough for me to acquire a volume of her poetry, especially as it was available on amazon.co.uk for only £4. A great bargain, if you ask me – even though the book is very slim and takes only a moment to read.

Warsan Shire’s Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth combines tales of female sexuality with tales of violence. The final poem of the volume entitled “In Love and in War” unites the themes of love and death most obviously:

 To my daughter I will say,

‘when the men come, set yourself on fire’

In an earlier poem, “Fire”,  the metaphorical fire of sexual passion is replaced by the literal fire of a betrayed woman who sets fire to her husband and his mistress.

This union between eros and tanatos recurs throughout the volume –  take this opening line of a poem:

The first boy who kissed your mother later raped women

when the war broke out

This is strong and heady stuff, and I have only given relatively tame quotes so far. Hunger, adultery, murder, and rape feature heavily in this extraordinary volume of poetry. It tells the stories of young women growing up, be it in London, Nigeria, or Somalia. The world described by Shire is terrifying both in its brutality and its beauty. She has a gift for words, and I know I will find myself quoting her.

I find it very hard to review this volume of poetry objectively –most of the poems I love, some I think I would have loved had I encountered them as a teenager, and some simply baffle me.

I look forward to reading more poems of hers: this is a relatively short volume, but a complete volume of her poetry is supposed to come out soon 

Meanwhile, I shall list the titles of my favourite poems from this collection for you:

 

The Dedication (does it count as a poem? I don’t know, but it’s marvelous and it sounds like a poem to me)

Your Mother’s First Kiss (quoted above)

Maymuun’s Mouth (possibly my favourite in this volume, a poem about an immigrant girl growing up)

Birds (a funny poem – about a girl who uses pigeon blood on her wedding night)

Beauty (about a naughty elder sister)

Trying to Swim With God (featuring the line “My mother says this city is slowly killing all our women”)

Conversations About Home (obviously, an incredible poem)

Ugly (about a child of a refugee)

 

Have you read or listened to Warsan Shire? What are your favourite poems of hers?

I never used to read lyrical poetry in my free time at school or at uni, but now I find I miss it. Do you read poetry? Any recommendations on contemporary poets I should read?

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