by Tryphena Yeboah
Written as a part of our Tiny Review Series
The poems in Warsan Shire’s Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth explore the weight of a generation’s past, fraught relations as well as the pleasures of intimacy. Shire’s writing offers a vision of a woman’s body occupying many spaces of beauty—or the lack of it; she portrays abuse, insecurity, rebellion and ultimately a deep longing to be seen, to be accepted. The collection is almost like an extension of the narrator’s family portrait, tracing impassioned stories of members leaving, revealing themselves to one another, and approaching moments of reckoning. All this Shire creates with stunning detail and captures the readers’ attention almost immediately. That’s what happened with my reading of “Your Mother’s First Kiss.”
The lines of the poem are a harsh reality, and its illustration no less daunting:
The first boy to kiss your mother later raped women
when the war broke out. She remembers hearing this
from your uncle, then going to your bedroom and lying
down on the floor...
In just the first stanza, the writer movingly and vividly opens a brutal chapter of the past but also lays bare a world of violence, a recurring theme in the book. In the absence of flowery language, unrhymed verses offer clarity that abounds in imagery, metaphors, and a linguistic sensibility to the subject at hand. The piece, like many of the poems, progresses in a confessional tone when the mother, after many years, finds the man who looks exactly like her child. The secret of the poem is held in the lines until the very end, when one finally exhales, bringing awareness of the tension that had been subtly building the whole time.
Many of the poems run deep on references of cultural identity, including “Things We Had Lost in the Summer” and “Maymuun’s Mouth.” The latter focuses on one’s transformation when relocating to a different country: the family learns a new, sophisticated accent and has to bear what is common among immigrant families—the idea that foreign experiences will alter one of your own.
In memorable poems ‘Birds’ and ‘Beauty,’ the author measures cultural norms against defiant girls who substitute pigeon blood on the wedding night rather than be defined by cultural standards of chastity. The juxtaposition is layered with meanings when the sister describes boys as ‘haram’—forbidden by Islamic law—yet goes ahead to defy it:
Some nights I hear her in her room screaming.
We play Surah Al-Baqarah to drown her out.
Anything that leaves her mouth sounds like sex.
Our mother has banned her from saying God’s name.
A pleasure of reading these poems is witnessing how Shire portrays complex notions of home and belonging, the continuous grieving of past wounds and even more, a balm of remembrance, a compelling reflection of what it means to live an exiled, fragmented self while reconstructing wholeness at all costs.
Tryphena Yeboah is a fellow in Creative Writing at Chapman University. She grew up in Ghana. Her fiction has appeared in Narrative Magazine, and her poetry chapbook was selected by Kwame Dawes for inclusion in the New-Generation African Poets series from Akashic Books.
32 pages | $7 (paperback)