cover artI probably first heard about Warsan Shire like a good many other people did, from Beyoncé’s Lemonade. I had to wait a couple of months for my turn to come around for Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth. Imagine that, a holds queue for a poetry book! It was definitely worth the wait.

Published in 2011, Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth is a slim chapbook of only 34 pages. It is one of those books that, while small, packs a mighty punch. The poems are about love and sex, betrayal and violence. There is pain and fear and struggle and hope. The poems often took my breath away. The language is rhythmic without being rhymed, lyrical but grounded.

Shire is Somali, born in Kenya and now living in London. Her poems speak of the black female experience, the immigrant and refugee experience, and sometimes a Muslim experience. Always the poems are about relationships between people, society, with oneself.

One of the gentler poems I liked very much is called “Grandfather’s Hands.” It begins with Grandfather and Grandmother drawing and naming parts of themselves and each other,

Your Grandmother kissed each knuckle,

circled an island into his palm
and told him which parts they would share,
which part they would leave alone.

And it concludes:

Your grandparents often found themselves
in dark rooms, mapping out
each other’s bodies,

claiming whole countries
with their mouths.

That one gives me shivers of pleasure.

But then there is “Questions for Miriam” that ends

You were a city

exiled from skin, your mouth a burning church.

And from the heartbreaking “Conversations About Home (at the Deportation Center)”

They ask me how did you get here? Can’t you see it on my body? The Libyan desert red with immigrant bodies, the gulf of Aden bloated , the city of Rome with no jacket. I hope the journey meant more than miles because all of my children are in the water. I thought the sea was safer than the land.

But there is beauty in the midst of ugliness, from “Ugly”

Your daughter’s face is a small riot,
her hands are a civil war,
a refugee camp behind each ear,
a body littered with ugly things.

But God,
doesn’t she wear
the world well?

Oddly, or maybe not, while I read the poems I often imagined them in Beyoncé’s voice, low and husky. This also made me read them slowly, a good thing because they would otherwise be so easy to rush through.

The New York Times has an article about Shire, her career so far (she is only 27!), how surprised friends were about the collaboration (she didn’t tell them). Not many poets get thrust into popular culture like this and Shire seems to want to keep a low profile. Her poetry deserves the attention. Hopefully her sudden fame does not cause a negative impact. I will be looking forward to seeing what she does in the future.