In September last year the mass movement of refugees, from Syria to Europe, was widely covered in global news. All too predictably this caused a widespread panic, and was linked to the rise of far-right wing parties in Europe. In response to this, across social media, many users shared lines from ‘Home’ by British-Somali poet Warsan Shire. She writes, ‘No one leaves home unless home unless/ home is the mouth of a shark.’ Shire’s words ring with a truth which she doesn’t let you forget. It is no wonder that she has proved so popular with a generation of young people who are becoming increasingly politicised. Shire has a large tumblr and twitter following, and in 2014 she became the first ever Young Poet Laureate for London. The lines from ‘Home’ appeared in an earlier poem in her pamphlet Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth (flipped eye, 2011). This pamphlet is an arresting exploration of the lives and struggles of those displaced by war, and women.
The pamphlet begins with an epigraph which contextualises the poems within a subjective and personal experience. It reads: I have my mother’s mouth and my father’s eyes; on my face they are still together. This indicates the primary themes to follow: family, love, homelessness, and by extension hints at the other prevalent concerns of sexuality and diaspora. The small scale event of a parental separation has wide-reaching consequences: heartbreak which will inform the rest of the volume. The broken home of the speaker parallels the broken homes on national levels.
The voice of the speaker is often frustrated by a lack of action. In ‘Your Mother’s First Kiss’ the mother is passive while others act upon her. ‘The first boy to kiss your mother later raped women’ suggests that she was not raped by him, and yet ‘[o]n waking she found her dress was wet and sticking/to her stomach, half moons bitten into her thighs’. Her friend ‘plunged a hand between [the] mother’s legs’, and we are not told the mother’s reaction. The laughing friend is callous. There is (perhaps misplaced) anger towards the mother, that the only action she took was ‘to let out a deep moan/when she saw how much you looked like him.’ The second-person singular is used to invoke a tone of accusation, ostensibly directed toward the mother’s child. By addressing the child, the speaker places a responsibility on him/her as if they are to take action, but the child is in fact the product of inaction. The anger is never directed towards the rapist but instead internalised or projected. Shire’s work takes harrowing subject matter and in her treatment of it exposes the complexity of emotion which lies beneath.
At times, the sharp tonal shifts are jarring. In the three part poem ‘Fire’ the perspective moves from an abusive husband whose wife has kicked him out, to the memory of a wife who immolates herself and her husband as revenge for his infidelity, to a seemingly inane interaction in a hotel elevator. The second part is recounted at a distance: a male character remembers attending the funeral of the couple as a young boy. The degree of separation elevates into myth the couple’s story. The final part is alienating. The last ‘you’ is never characterised and the young man in the elevator’s observation implies the previous part was only a dream: ‘Last night in bed I swear I thought/my body was on fire.’ It is as if this observation reduces the martyrdom of the wife to a passing fancy of another man.
The concluding two line poem ‘In Love and In War’ encapsulates the brutality and strength of the female experience explored within the pamphlet:
To my daughter I will say,
‘when the men come, set yourself on fire’.
There is a great anger expressed in these final lines, which are not hopeful for a better tomorrow. Yet there is a strength and endurance implied by the imagined future where the speaker is a mother. The representation of female relationships throughout exemplify a community which is honest, brutal, and brave. Shire has been working on her first full collection since 2012 and it is due for release this year. Few contemporary poetry volumes can have been so widely anticipated.