Warsan Shire was unfamiliar to me until after watching Beyoncé’s Lemonade. Many people have already had the pleasure of reading her work as early as 2011, but as usual, I’m late to the party. Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth is her first publication, her introduction into the hands of poetry lovers. I caved (because I LOVE physical books) and bought her book on Kindle, since I could not find her work at any of my local bookstores.
It’s really a trick, how short this book appears to be. You assume you’ll read it in 10 or 15 minutes, and then go wash the dishes or otherwise return to your life right were you left off. 20 poems. Words with space to breathe. Instead, it unexpectedly changes how you see all of existence. You lift your head after the last word is read, and you are now living in a completely different life-
burdened enlightened with a new sense on how others move through space and time.
When We Last Saw Your Father
He was sitting in the hospital parking lot
in a borrowed car, counting the windows
of the building, guessing which one
was glowing with his mistake
Sometimes I could feel her words flowing through my veins, as if she were giving me words to express how I move through the world. I didn’t know I could have such a vivid image, crafted by just the right words, in so few lines of poetry. I experienced a flood of emotions as read to myself, both positive and negative. Some poems only a line or two, but filled with so much context. Context I wish I didn’t understand; concepts I wish I had no frame of reference for.
This was a social commentary conceptualizing the harsh conditions of living in darker skin, and growing up female. Her writing narrates the troubled awareness of wives, daughters, immigrant women, and occasionally, the innocent bystander. All of these poems feel as if they are written in the blood of their subjects, or maybe even the author’s.
“No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of the shark.”
from Conversations About Home (at the Deportation Center)
Many of the poems talk about love, but a painful love. Ritualistic love that can be looked upon as primitive. Infidelity. Lust. Disappointment. In Birds, she talks of fake virginity to appease a new husband. In Fire, she speaks of habitual domestic abuse, the idea of female complacency passed down from mother to daughter, because he pays the bills. But in those same lines, resilience. Cultural understanding. Forgiveness.
I’m not saying all of this to turn you away from her work- this book should be read over and over again. And I don’t believe she puts this into the world with the idea of filling space with words for things we do. I believe, and this is what I took away from it, that the reminders of pain and injustice, of sorrow and neglect, are to keep us on the right path. To correct our mistakes and gain insight to change.
After reading her book, I was unsatisfied. It was not enough. I read it again, and then went to search for more. The internet did not disappoint, linking to pages with poem excerpts and videos of Ms. Shire. I found her mesmerizing. With a soft-spoken demeanor, her pauses between words are just as loud as the words themselves. Her presence is heavy, as if you are listening to her while holding your breath under water. I have provided links below.
warsan vs. melancholy (a digital album)
Last, I want to leave you where I started. Featured throughout Lemonade, Warsan Shire’s “For Women Who Are Difficult to Love.” You can buy her book of poetry here.
*Note: The background music is by Zoe Keating, an independent music artist.*