REVIEW: Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth 0 Comments

REVIEW: Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth

Warsan Shire

Flipped Eye Publishing, 2011


Trigger warning: discussion of poems concerning violence and sexual assault.

Warsan Shire is a Kenyan-born Somali poet based in London. I got to know her work through Tumblr — but don’t let that make you apprehensive. Shire is the Young Poet Laureate of London, with publications, editorships, international tours and translations under her belt — at the very Voiceworksy age of just 25. (Also her Tumblr is pretty great.)

I picked up her first collection, Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth, at Avid Reader in Brisbane. Being a special import, it was pricey for a chapbook ($24.95) — but I wasn’t going to let it just sit there, unthumbed. Beyond the thrill of reading her work on paper, Flipped Eye’s “mouthmark” series has a velvety cover and weighted paper, beautifully bound for something so slim.

Then there are the poems — 21 of them. This writer’s hand is deft and dignified — visceral, tender, uncompromising. The first thing to strike the reader is Shire’s assertive voice; “Your Mother’s First Kiss” begins: “The first boy to kiss your mother later raped women / when the war broke out.” Shire illustrates violence with a restraint and a roundaboutness that is all the more disturbing; in that same poem, the mother’s friend laughs with a “mouth bloody with grapes.”

In other poems, Shire writes of women’s coming-of-age — “swollen / with the heat of waiting”, “waiting to grow / into our hunger” (“Things We Had Lost in the Summer”). Her women are vulnerable, sensual, intelligent, forthright. In “Beauty” she writes, “Anything that leaves her mouth sounds like sex. / Our mother has banned her from saying God’s name.”

My two favourite poems in the collection sit beside one another: “The Kitchen” and “Fire”. The former is plainly delicious — a food-and-sex poem that really, really gets it right: “Almonds soaked in rose water; / your husband is hungry.” “Fire”, on the other hand, is a triptych of poems unrelated except by repressed passion — often rage. In their silences, they are resonant enough to burn.

“Conversations about Home (at the Deportation Centre)”, a series of prose poems, is amongst the collection’s strongest works: “They ask me how did you get here? Can’t you see it on my body? The Libyan desert red with immigrant bodies, the Gulf of Aden bloated, the city of Rome with no jacket.”

These four poems cover so much, and so intimately: the horror of home, limbo, and the horror of the destination —  “all of this is better than the scent of a woman completely on fire, or a truckload of men who look like my father, pulling out my teeth and nails.” It’s not comfortable reading, but (especially given present Australian debate regarding the plight of refugees) it is essential.

But there’s light, too. In contrast, hopeful poems (like “Tea with Our Grandmothers”) are buoyed up even more:

“the woman who cooled your tea
pouring it like the weight of deeds
between bowl and cup, until the steam
would rise like a ghost”



Zenobia Frost is an editor, poet and critic who edits with Cordite Poetry Review and Voiceworks. She has performed nationally with the Arts Queensland Touring Poets Program and Queensland Poetry Festival Regional Roadshow.



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