Poetry Pages IV: Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth By Warsan Shire

After the double whammy of dissertation deadlines and finals fortnight, it’s great to leave essays behind and get writing about Warsan Shire’s amazing poetry collection, Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth. I bought this as a present to myself for finally finishing my undergrad degree, having fallen in love with Shire’s writing through her poem What They Did Yesterday Afternoon several years ago. This collection perfectly documents ‘narratives of journey and trauma’, focusing on Shire’s experiences as a Somali immigrant to London who has never visited her home country, and on the experiences of refugees, immigrants and diasporas more generally. The collective voice of Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth is desperate and powerful, emphasising previously unheard and marginalised voices. Family, girlhood and transitions between place and time are all prominent themes.

Structure: One simple section of 21 poems. There’s also a glossary in the back, translating Arabic and Somali phrases that feature throughout, and a short information section about Shire and her work. The cover art, by Effi Ibok, is also worth a mention for its sheer intricacy and power.

Aesthetics: art and activism / birth, death, and rebirth / something in the water / an energy transcending place and time / running / dust / red ochre / broken fences / never quite belonging / protecting your younger sisters / honeysuckle / danger down every pathway / beauty in brokenness / family dinners / runway lights / singing into a hairbrush / chipped nails / sensuality / heady perfume / wild birds / stickiness / fluttering skirts / wishing wells / learning to swim.

Favourite poem: Trying to Swim with God, a heartbreaking and haunting poem about a woman named Kadija.

Favourite quotes:

  • ‘He said the word in Russian; / my mother blinked back tears and spread her palms / across his shoulder blades like the wings / of a plane.’ - Snow

  • ‘When they left, I was twelve years old and swollen / with the heat of waiting.’ -Things We Had Lost in the Summer

  • ‘I tore up and ate my own passport in an airport hotel. I’m bloated with language I can’t afford to forget.’ -Conversations about Home (at the Deportation Centre)

One-line summary: Anatomy and geography tell stories about each other.

Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth was published by flipped eye publishing as part of their ‘mouthmark series’. It is available for purchase here.

Lucy AllisonComment