In 2013 I was amongst around twenty poets long-listed for the first Young Poet Laureate for London prize. I remember meeting Warsan Shire that day; she seemed quiet, perhaps nervous, yet confident and bold. We performed one piece to a panel of judges, and I was either before or after Shire. Although she prefers writing to performing her work, I remember being blown away by not only the words, but the delivery of her poem Ugly. I remember that I had already heard lines quoted by Kayo Chingonyi from a workshop he was leading for students at the school where I work. It was no surprise when Shire was shortlisted, much less when she won.
To have the power to write poetry that sticks in the mind is certainly a gift that Shire bestows in much of her work. I have since had the pleasure of seeing Shire again at the launch of the first Podium Poets anthology, by Spread the Word, and attended workshops lead by her on an Arvon retreat. As an aspiring poet, she is an inspiration to many as a writer and as a human being.
The book is divided into sections, the first of which is titled ‘I’m writing to you from the future to tell you that everything will be okay.’ The language is simple, yet strikingly beautiful. This sentence in itself encompasses what much of Shire’s work is about; although she addresses dark subject matter, and these pieces increasingly delve into unexpected corridors of language and subject matter, there is an underlying positivity there. These are poems that heal, that remind you of what it is to be human, and the strength it takes to endure some of what life throws at us.
Linked to the pamphlet title, the opening poem Our Blue Bodies immediately seems to draw together a collective ‘we’. It does so in a way that is not exclusionary, but allows each reader to feel part of the group that is being spoken about. We hear the voice of a man, we’re given the familiar shock of cancer, so this could be describing a pain we are all familiar with, but to me it speaks of women, with its references to the womb, the idea of being ‘tied together at the naval,/umbilical cord and all its length tugging/at me’ drawing on ideas of motherhood, or sisterhood, and the connotations of femininity with the ‘hair fanned out’. What is even more striking about this collection, compared with Teaching my Mother How to Give Birth, is the humour that is contrasted with the darker imagery, such as Gregory Porter’s voice entering the scene through the verb ‘climbing’. Her use of language is intricate and unexpected, yet simple enough for all to understand and feel the emotions of each piece.
She presents the idea of carrying past pain and oppression through life with Souvenir’s ‘I think I brought the war with me/on my skin’. She goes on to personify it, similar to the poem Mermaids, placing it in a familiar Western setting of TV and pills. The latter poem focuses on Female Genital Mutilation, as a confession from a contestant on America’s Next Top Model is placed alongside the suffering of a lineage of women, ending with two girls ‘holding mirrors/under the mouths of their skirts,/comparing wounds.’ Such tales of women’s sexuality and bodies continue into the next section, with First Time, where sex is combined with violence, where blood is ‘spun… into ribbons’ and sorrow is drawn ‘out from between her legs.’
This leads to one of Shire’s most poignant poems: The House. Through this prose-poem, again, we are drawn into an idea of sisterhood, as we are told ‘Mother says there are locked rooms inside all women’. Divided into numbered sections, we are guided through corridors, drawing painful parallels between women’s experiences as the body is described in the metaphor of a house. Again, there is this unexpected humour in between:
‘Are you going to eat that? I say to my mother, pointing to my father who is lying on the dining room table;
his mouth stuffed with a red apple.’
These elements perhaps draw inspiration from writers such as A.L Kennedy and Ali Smith, both of whom Shire cited as prose writers she enjoys. These influences make Shire’s work incredibly innovative and engaging. There is a raw honesty within her work that moves beyond the confessional, as she writes not only her own stories, but those of other people, playing with truth in a way that makes the reader draw parallels between themselves and the work. We are told the names of characters like in stories, but they are more like snap shots from documentaries, and lines and circles can be drawn between poems as speech comes in at the end of Sara, a Hussein describing how through the pain of sex, she begged ‘make me normal, please/make me normal, open me up.’
The collection is filtered through the colour blue, whether through personified grief in Grief Has Its Blue Hands in Her Hair, or the image of a brain scan in St Thomas’ Hospital. The collection concludes in a circular motion as it describes cancer spreading ‘deep sea blue inside/her body’ and in some way it speaks of pain and healing in one breath.
Her Blue Body is available in limited edition from Flipped Eye Publishing Limited and part of the flap series (2015)