#SummerReads #5: Teaching My Mother To Give Birth by Warsan Shire

This summer, my goal is to read ten poetry collections. Click on the summerreading2015 tag to chart my progress.

warsanshireteachingI can’t remember how I came across Warsan Shire, but whatever person, website, or blog caused her name to cross my eyes deserves a plate of chocolate chip cookies.

Shire is a Kenyan-born Somali-British poet with a sharp pen.

In Teaching My Mother to Give Birth, her voice dances between repulsion and reverence for her subject matter, which is often the body. Her own, yes, but also those of her relatives.

I love that the body is inseparable from the places it inhabits. Each person is rooted in the context of place and the way that place has accumulated meaning to the subject and the poet (who don’t always have the same viewpoint or opinion, something Shire never shies away from).

In my favorite poem from the collection, the reverence/repulsion dynamic is hard at work.

Beauty

My older sister soaps between her legs, her hair
a prayer of curls. When she was my age, she stole
the neighbor’s husband, burnt his name into her skin.
For weeks she smelt of cheap perfume and dying flesh.

It’s 4 a.m. and she winks at me, bending over the sink,
her small breasts bruised from sucking.
She smiles, pops her gum before saying
boys are haram*, don’t ever forget that.

Some nights I hear her in her room screaming.
We play Surah Al-Baqarah* to down her out.
Anything that leaves her mouth sounds like sex.
Our mother has banned her from saying God’s name.

*haram = legally forbidden by Islamic law
surah al-baqarah = chapter in the koran used to ward off evil

The narrator describes her sister’s pubic hair as “a prayer of curls” but “anything that leaves her mouth sounds like sex.” This puts a delightful spin on things, as one might expect the sister’s mouth–something almost never covered up–to be pure and her genitals–something almost always covered up–to be described as dirty or unpure.

But instead of going for the easy cliche, Shire dives into the narrator’s deeply conflicted view on sex and sexuality. She is repulsed by it, by fascinated by the effects it has on her sister’s body. Even though sex is clearly forbidden in the poem, the speaker has replaced the most holy word, God’s name, with the noises associated with sex, elevating sex to holiness.

The rest of this collection is just as strong, with images that evoke all five senses and get at the primal heart of our nature.

Even if your local library has a copy of this collection, it’s worth buying.