I really dislike poetry. Give me an essay any day. But I make an exception for Warsan Shire because her poetry is so beautiful and raw and because she articulates the nature of being Somali in diaspora in a way no one else does.
I have followed Shire on her blog (http://warsanshire.blogspot.com.au/) for a few years now and was really excited to hear she was releasing a book. So when it was published a month or so ago I bought a copy and have been pondering over it ever since. I think it is a beautiful collection of poems, each of which I thought were fantastic and difficult at the same time. I was pleased to see one of my favourites, ‘Old Spice’, which I had seen on her blog a while ago and which I have used in my thesis. The last stanza of this poem sums up beautifully what it means to grow old in a country not your own and to never hope to return home.
Your grandfather is dying.
He begs you Take me home yaqay,
I just want to see it one last time;
you don’t know how to tell him that it won’t be
anything like the way he left it.
While the majority of her poems are centered around the experience of women and women’s bodies there were some in here that explored otherissues such as the meaning of home, and of being isolated. Two sections out of her poem ‘Conversations About Home (at the Deportation Centre)’ have stuck with me.
Well, I think home spat me out, the blackouts and curfews like tongue against loose tooth. God, do you know how difficult it is, to talk about the day your own city dragged you by the hair, past the old prison, past the school gates, past the burning torsos erected on poles like flags? When I meet others like me I recognise a longing, the missing, the memory of ash on their faces. No on leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark. I’ve been carrying the old anthem in my mouth so long that there’s no space for another song, another tongue or another language. I know a shame that shrouds, totally engulfs. I tore up and ate my own passport in an airport hotel once. I’m bloated with language I can’t afford to forget.
I hear them say go home, I hear them say fucking immigrants, fucking refugees. Are they really this arrogant? Do they not know that stability is like a lover with a sweet mouth upon your body one second; the next you are a tremor lying on the floor covered in rubble and old currency waiting for its return. All I can say is, I was once like you, the apathy, they pity, the ungrateful placement and now my home is the mouth of a shark, now my home is the barrel of a gun. I’ll see you on the other side.
While the content of the poem is very heavy, I think there are vivid and beautiful images within them, being bloated with a language so that nothing else can get in, home as the mouth of a shark, being covered in a redundant old currency that only serves to remind what has been lost.
Another that I find desperately sad and that never fails to catch my breath and make me cry is ‘In Love and In War’.
To my daughter I will say,
‘when the men come, set yourself on fire.’
One thing I find so interesting about these poems is the fixation on the visceral and brutal nature of the war which I have seldom heard repeated elsewhere. I’m not too clear on her background, but I do know that she was born a year or so before the beginning of the civil war. This makes me think that these weren’t events she witnessed herself, but stories she has received from friends and relatives and, more importantly, has imagined about Somalia. She is so important, I feel, because of this imagining of a home that has been lost and can’t be retrieved as it was before. One of my enduring questions is about her preoccupation with these images of violation, of women’s bodies being raped, of the betrayal of a nation of people, of innocence lost. When she speaks of shame it makes me feel as though she wears the burden of being Somali very heavily. While my work is attempting to find the experience of hope and joy in the Somali past and identity it is easy, if not expected, of me to do this as an outsider. I have never, and probably will never, have to contend with this kind of grief, of seeing my home ripped inside out and turned in to something so ugly. Imagine your home being a place used as a textbook example of catastrophic state failure and all that implies?
Overall I think this is a beautiful collection of poems and I still find it amazing that she was only born two years after me and still has such incredible empathy and knowledge of those outside her experience. Just to remind myself that Warsan Shire’s poetry can also be uplifting and nurturing I’ll end with my all time favourite (not in the book, but found on her blog at Saturday, 6 June 2009) which has been on my fridge to remind myself that I’m not all that bad.
poem to self. and other insecure women.
look at you
you’re so beautiful when you laugh
at night i swear you look like you could swallow the stars
or at least swallow the scars
and stories of the women who came before you.
see how your hair torments the sky
thick curls that blot out the sun
eclipsing the city into the hue
of your grandfathers
your father wanted to name you
after a wet season
he wanted to explain
why the rain falls;
just so that it can taste your skin
dip into your collar bone
drip down your shoulder blades
and on rare occasions when no one is looking
and your head is tilted back,
rush into your open mouth.
for women like you
death comes in the body of a lustful man,
and the earth can’t want to bury itself
look at you,
cloaked in god’s skin.
only in his name could you exist so bright.