Warsan Shire’s prayer for the unmourned
The British-Somali poet Warsan Shire’s audacious yet uneven volume of poetry captures the quiet loneliness of African immigrant lives in the West.
Warsan Shire’s first full-length poetry collection, Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in Her Head, is a kind of a prayer for losses unmourned. The collection tackles a wide range of subjects from mental health issues in immigrant communities, to botched sex education, to femicide. It creates an environment of a young poet eavesdropping on private outrage and public shame, walking in unannounced on family secrets and immigrant dreams transported in the wrong language. It is as if in this act of unsanctioned witnessing that the young poet also discovers her voice—the poet as not only the one who looks but she who names and addresses what gazes back.
Shire is a British-Somali poet born in Nairobi and raised in London. The inaugural Young Poet Laureate of London and the youngest member of the Royal Society of Literature, she became widely known for her collaboration with Beyoncé. Yet, Shire was one of the early poets who had become famous within the “pop poetry” or “Instagram poetry” scene—featuring either short videos of original poems read by the poets themselves or social media posts quoting pithy verse. Although Shire herself is barely online these days, there remains an unsatiated eagerness for her online persona, evidenced by the fact that most reviews of her new book are profiles on her rather than critical engagements with her work. Shire first published her poems in 2011 as a chapbook called Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth. With this volume Shire’s poetry enters a new, more adult phase, experimenting with longer, formally inventive poems that cannot easily be accommodated by an Instagram caption or a refrigerator magnet.
A phenomenon this collection defiantly and repeatedly engages, or more accurately, blesses, is the quiet loneliness that plagues immigrant lives. There is the loneliness of those who never learned how to properly leave a world behind. One of my favorite poems in the collection bears the somewhat awkward title, “My Loneliness is Killing Me,” which captures the loneliness conveyed in the melancholic reminiscences of an older Somali man living in London. The speaker “observes” her uncle on a rainy afternoon as he chain-smokes, drinks strong Somali tea, and recalls a childhood spent on the beaches and streets of Mogadishu to the tune of Hassan Aden Samatar. He is waiting for a sign. I put “observe” in quotation marks because while the poem is told in the third person, the reader is nonetheless acutely aware of the presence and the look of another; a sense of loneliness intruded upon. In the last stanza, the absent presence of the poet is made explicit. The stanza begins with the line “cidlada ka aktaw, Abti,” which, in an unfortunate tendency of the text, translated as “be stronger than your loneliness, Uncle.” But this is only one of two possible translations as it is much more ambiguous in Somali. The noun “abti” can be used to address the niece as well as the uncle, so the line can be uttered by either party. And so, the first translation (where the niece instructs her uncle to be stronger than his loneliness) lends itself to a reading of a poet—and by extension a reader—repulsed by the scene into whose witness she has been conscripted. In the second translation, (where the uncle is addressing the niece), the uncle’s shrine to ghosts of dreams past is not necessarily a site of lament, but a source of refuge. Here, loneliness is neither denied nor medicated, and therefore has the potential to be temporarily alleviated.
Throughout the volume, loneliness trails people like ghosts; it is unspoken though often shared, intimate, familial, corporeal, sticking to the skin like monsoon mosquitos. Girlhood, for instance, is first and foremost characterized by abject loneliness, a loneliness born precisely out of knowledge encountered too soon and language acquired too late. The collection opens with a poem entitled “Extreme Girlhood,” a sort of an ode to what it means to live with the noisy solitude of girlhood unheard. But my favorite on the subject is “The Abubakr Girls Are Different,” which relays the quiet violence through which girls come to see themselves as girls whose presence is, consequently, always contested and often unwanted. In the poem the girls observe each other as observed, becoming aware of their changing bodies and how the world around contains and disciplines such bodies. The last two stanza witness the girls’ circumcision and worth quoting in full:
After the procedure, the girls learn how to walk again, mermaids
with new legs, soft knees buckling under
their raw, sinless bodies
We lie in bed besides each other, holding mirrors
to the mouths of our skirts,
These extraordinary lines stage what Natalie Diaz borrowing from Berger termed the pre-verbal, “as in the body when the body was more than body. Before it could name itself body and be limited, bordered by the space body indicated.” Shire’s verse captures the bewilderment of bodies dwelling in the border between recognition and cognition.
Yet, language is not universally priced in Shire’s text, for to acquire language is to acquire shame, which is to say, to know less. This is the case for “Bless Maymuun’s Mind,” where a woman is prescribed antidepressants as she sits suspended in between two worlds, neither of which sees her. When she calls home, they remind her “how blessed she is, how proud they are, how all their hopes depend on her.” And the doctors, unable or unwilling to probe beyond the symptom, up her doses. Language fails her once more, this time because it names a little too specifically. She listens. “She imagines she will die here, alone, far from home.”
Shire is at her best when she does not over-explain but holds back and trusts her readers to take the interpretive leap. A brilliant example of this is “Bless This House,” a dark funny poem that exploits aphorisms—“are you going to eat that?” and “oh, this old thing”—for an irate meditation on the ubiquity of domestic violence and rape culture. In the poem, patriarchy is represented as a form of death drive, where men inflict violence on women as a mode of self-annihilation. The poem ends with: “At parties I point to my body and say/ Oh this old thing? This is where men come to die.”
But sometimes the collection falters as the tone becomes more didactic, and the form less inventive. For instance, reprinted in the volume is one of Shire’s most frequently circulated poems, “Home.” Despite its popularity and the formidable passion with which it addresses forced migration and treacherous journey to refuge, the poem lacks any substantive formal sophistication. It is hard to find poems like “Home” or “Hooyo Isn’t Home” wanting given the gravity of their subject matter. But, instead of distilling the truth, the prodigious literalness of these indignant verses have the undesirable effect of making the readers’ eyes gloss over, becoming numb to the text.
Shire’s predilection for over-explaining makes me wonder who exactly are her imagined or intended audience. There is an awful lot of translation and transliteration in the volume. Non-English words and phrases are almost always translated in the poem, and in the few instances where they are not, the translations are provided in a glossary that comes at the end of the volume. The insistence on translation as well as the tendency to italicize non-English phrases so as to visually mark them as a linguistic “other” might signal not only an awareness but also a certain capitulation to the gaze of a white reader (and perhaps to the demands of a white publisher). The work of linguistic translation is only but one part of the cultural translation that is demanded of the minoritized, racialized artist.
But how might we reassess the politics of translation when the artist herself inhabits an in-between space, and where linguistic and cultural translation are compulsory for everyday survivance? In Shire’s text, dark humor becomes a way to enunciate the struggle to reconcile the incommensurable demands of belonging to more than one culture at once. Consider “Bless the Bulimic,” in which the speaker seeks God’s forgiveness for her eating disorder: “forgive me please,/ famine back home.” The absurd humor of drawing parallels between her compulsion to forcefully eject food from her body to the epidemic of famine and mass starvation in the ancestral homeland is demonstrative of the perils of translation. As a result, she is unable to exercise self-compassion or recognize her bulimia as a legitimate medical disorder precisely because she equivocates the incommensurable. Translation, then, is at once a symptom and a remedy for a certain linguistically mediated diasporic schizophrenia.
In interviews, Shire speaks about the predominance of poetry in her Somali community in London. But this influence, at least at the level of form, is virtually indiscernible in her own poetry, which shares no formal characteristics with Somali poetic tradition and whose strict adherence to metrical scansion stands in sharp contrast to Shire’s stream-of-consciousness style. Instead, her free verse has more in common with the genre of hees or Somali ballads, an affinity to which the volume itself concedes in its invocation of great Somali vocalists, such as Hasan Adan Samatar and Magool instead of, say, Hadraawi or Hassan Sheikh Mumin.
Regardless, the collection has something to offer for Shire fans and skeptics. There is a certain unflinching truth in her verse, that while not always formally interesting is always daring, even accusatory. Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in Her Head is a tender offering for the bulimic, the lonely, the homesick, the depressed, the abandoned, the misfit, the paperless—an audacious uneven volume from a talent who might just be getting started.