Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth
flipped eye publishing
Perfect bound, 38 pgs
Reviewed by Kelly M. Sylvester
The very title, Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth, ought to prepare readers for the juxtaposed and topsy-turvy world they are about to encounter, when entering the poems in this gripping collection by Warsan Shire. Shire, at times, utilizes a voice of child-like innocence to deliver shocking blows from content, which included sex, rape, incest, inequities of gender roles, war etc. She also seamlessly mixes in various languages and cultures.
The blending of culture and language highlights how these trials are not the burden of one religion, one nation, one ethnicity, one gender, instead through her use of words, she demonstrates how these are trials all could, at any time, impact anyone within society. This point is so clearly expressed in her poem, “Conversation About Home (at the Deportation Centre)” and the final prose stanza summarizes it best:
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, the 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.
Even within this stanza, the reader witnesses the confusion of Shire’s use of “you.” At first the “you” could be her and her experience, or an address to the audience; but then it is quite clearly the “them” and “they” from earlier, and lastly, is it still an address to “them” or is it being directed to the reader? There are several poems where the “you” is clearly a character talking to the poet, or the poet addressing a definite character. Other times, the “you” seems to be not a direct index pointing toward a specific person or a result of the poet’s unwillingness to use “I.” This at times is jarring and other times it invites the reader deeper into Shire’s world.
The “you confusion” has a significant impact on the reader and definitely demonstrates the line in “Conversation About Home (at the Deportation Centre)” when Shire writes, “Sometimes it feels like someone else is wearing my body.” Sometimes she lets the reader wear her body in her pleasantly, unpredictable poems.
Wearing Shire’s body and seeing events through her eyes of innocence, like in her poem “Beauty” where she comments about her sister, “Anything that leaves her mouth sounds like sex. / Our mother has banned her from saying God’s name.”Or through her eyes that have suffered years of hardship, like in her poem “Ugly” where she writes, “Your daughter’s face is a small riot / her hands are a civil war, / a refugee camp behind each ear, / a body littered with ugly things. / But God, / doesn’t she wear / the world well?” is an eye opening experience for Shire’s readers. The experience is like the last phrase in “Maymuun’s Mouth” (which is a poem about how Maymuun “lost her accent with the help of her local Community College.”) where readers are “learning to kiss with [a] new tongue.”
Kelly M. Sylvester is a writer and freelance reviewer. http://kellymsylvester.com