Book Review: Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth by Warsan Shire


Book: Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth
Author: Warsan Shire

‘I don’t know when love became elusive. What I know is: no one I know has it’. If this sounds familiar, it is because you heard it in a voiceover in Beyonce’s audiovisual ‘Lemonade’ album. But before Warsan Shire’s poetry also found its way into pop culture, her evocative and almost experimental writing won her the Young Poet Laureate of London in 2014 and the Brunel prize for poetry in 2015.

In her first chapbook, Warsan using the physical body, places and relationships channels the notions of displacement, identity, trauma and sensuality in its plain and taboo forms. Emily Dickinson was quoted to have once said that ‘if I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry’ and this succinctly describes the effect that Warsan’s poetry has the power to evoke.

‘if I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry’

Her first poem in the collection:

‘I have my mother’s mouth and my father’s eyes; on my face they are still together’

sets the pace for the series of heart wrenching that is to be inflicted upon the reader. In Grandfather’s Hands which is one of my favorites, she says

‘Your grandparents often found themselves in dark rooms, mapping out each other’s bodies, claiming whole countries with their mouths’.

Warsan explores sensuality with the body in its physical sense but also as a medium to other places with a form of intimacy that feels so sublime, one almost feels like a peeping Tom. Her Old Spice, Conversations about Home (at the Deportation Center) poems reveal an inward interrogation about self, displacement, the immigrant experience and language as a means of preserving memories, lines such as

‘No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark’,

‘ I want to make love but my hair smells of war and running and running’

starkly convey how flighty the idea of stability is and lets on how the aftermath of the ravages of war and turmoil in one’s home never truly goes away. The book is also full of the different and complicated mother-daughter and overall female relationships; in Birds, a new bride tricks her new husband and mother-in-law into believing she’s a virgin by using pigeon blood; in Questions for Miriam, it is a form of open letter to the woman behind the songs and in the striking and open ended intention In Love and War, she says ‘when the men come, set yourself on fire’

‘when the men come, set yourself on fire’

The poems also explores sexual and man-woman relationships in its desire and pain, conflicts and taboo forms. In Beauty, a girl speaks of her older sister’s sexual liaisons and how it defines her. The Kitchen is of a wife claiming back her husband’s desires in light of his infidelity and My Foreign Wife is Dying and Does Not Want To Be Touched shows a husband’s turmoil when his wife is diagnosed of cancer.

The chapbook is a vulnerable, brilliant and brave collection of poems that are visual and humane and startlingly in the truth of the experiences they explore. Poems like Ugly, Tea with our Grandmothers and You were Conceived are illuminating in their almost barefaced truths and stories. Warsan Shire is a beautiful and intelligent poet with a shrewd ability to translate the narratives of her admittedly sometimes autobiographical and borrowed experiences into true and enduring works of art. This collection is worth every dime and more.

Creative works (literature, art and culture) emerging from Nigeria.

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