Warsan Shire is probably one of the most famous and successful poets in the world right now, and – perhaps uniquely among the poets with Shire’s level of fame – her work is not only popular and critically acclaimed, but it is critically and commercially successful poetry that is neither boring nor joyless. Yes, it can be done!
As I was quick to point out when I bought this book, I was a fan of Warsan Shire before she was a big deal. I and one of my literary friends (I can’t remember which one of you it was – if you’re reading and you remember, please let me know in the comments!) saw Shire perform a live reading somewhere in central London around a decade ago.
As you’d expect – if you’ve ever had the opportunity to see Shire live or encountered her writing on the page – the performance and poetry was incredible and I found myself a copy of her chapbook Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth as soon as I could.
That chapbook – wherever my copy of it is now (possibly still in a shipping container crossing the Atlantic, possibly somewhere in a box in my parents’ garage, possibly I sold it online a long time ago; I really hope it’s not the last one)—
That chapbook was, of course, excellent, and within a few years, Shire reached the level of big time poet success that is almost unheard of: Shire is a poet so successful at being a poet that she’s created ways of being a successful poet that never existed before.
I’m not trying to claim any kind of superior poetry knowledge for having known Shire’s name before the vast majority of the reading public did – because, obviously, my finger isn’t on the cultural pulse in a serious way: I got lucky with here – this wasn’t a case of me being so deep into the poetry scene that I was able to spot a future luminary, I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I’m sure if you too had attended that evening of readings – possibly in the Africa Centre before it moved south of the river? – you too would have scoped out this particular poet as someone demanding and deserving attention.
Shire’s writing is immediate, it is personal without being non-universalising, it is funny and sad, it is angry and melancholic, it is political, it is personal, it is about love and sex and grief and death and the immigrant experience and refugees and war and violence and horror and regret and pain, and it’s also about the importance of art/the Arts as a human necessity.
Shire is a Somali British writer, and her writing is reflective of both parts of this identity. References to 1990s British TV shows sit next to discussions of Somali musicians, and though some of the pieces here were published in Shire’s previous two chapbooks – though (as I mentioned) I don’t have my copy of Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth available to compare final versions, there is absolutely nothing about the writing here that feels staid, overdone or anything other than fresh and potent and powerful.
This is poetry to make one think, make one emote, make one aware of the differences and the similarities between lived experiences across the planet.
Shire discusses the fear and desperation of fleeing war and finding prejudice in a supposedly safe place, for example in the poem ‘Home’: “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark […] The insults are easier to swallow than finding your child’s body in the rubble”;
Shire explores feeling shame of disordered eating in ‘Bless the Bulimic’, contrasting the “Insolent youth” far away when there is “famine back home”;
In the piece ‘Assimilation’, the poet mourns people who are “dreaming in the wrong language”;
There is a harrowing yet beautiful poem called ‘Victoria in Illiyin’ about a murdered victim of child abuse, in which Shire writes a fantastical afterlife for the child whose real life was far from fantastical;
The collection closes with a beautiful piece about motherhood and new life called ‘Nail Technician as Palm Reader’
There are poems here about things that are lost and things that are found again, about illness and ageing, about movement and optimism, about fear, about pain but also about positive changes and growth towards contentment.
The only thing that the book seems to be missing is a prominent blurb from Shire’s most famous collaborator and advocate, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter.
It is Shire’s work with Beyoncé that made Shire the [“household name” is probably the wrong term, but the poetry equivalent of a] household name that she is, and so the vast majority of people seeing Shire’s name on a book cover will be initially associating her with Lemonade. The choice to only put a reference to this in the penultimate sentence of the back flap author bio seems to be – at best – a snobbish high cultural dismissal of what is without doubt one of the pinnacles of recent contemporary popular culture.
Surely publishers want to maximise sales of their books, and surely having Beyoncé’s name on the front – or at least the back – cover of any book would absolutely get more people to part with their cash for this poetry collection.
So, one wonders if this was something the publisher (Penguin, of course) was prevented from doing by one of the most successful musicians of all time , or if this was something they chose to do out of a deliberate attempt to try and sell the poetry on the poetry’s merits.
Which, of course it’s absolutely fucking capable of doing, because this is really great poetry.
But if I’d worked with Beyoncé, I’d want her name big on the cover of my book, probably much bigger than mine. I’d certainly want to have it in a more prominent position than a blurb from Pascale Petit, a British-based poet who is small fry enough to have aggressively responded in the middle of the night to my broadly very positive 2013 blog about one of her books. I’m nobody, Pascale Petit, I should be ignored!
Bless The Daughter Raised By A Voice In Her Head is excellent poetry collection, full of weighty, powerful, impressive poetry written by someone whose incredible success really doesn’t seem to have gone to her head (at least not in the writing: who knows how Shire behaves off the page! Maybe Pascale Petit does – if you’re reading TriumphoftheNow.com again then please let me know!)
This is human, humane, serious and incredibly emotional poetry about what it means to be alive in the world, and how the expectations of propriety and repetition need not always be followed.
Nobody deserves pain, but to (sometimes vastly) differing levels, we all receive it, however we engage with the world.
It’s great stuff, but it’s published by Penguin so you may as well order off Amazon instead of- oh no wait wait wait.
There’s a beautiful presentation edition published by flipped eye publishing, so [if you’ve got a few quid to spare and you’re willing to support independent publishing and you’ve already donated to TriumphoftheNow.com recently, then I’d recommend ordering it from them via this paragraph-long link.
(I have the Penguin version because I bought it when I was living in Canada.)
Ok, that’s enough for this one. Bye for now.