A poet’s ability to conjure sprawling yet intimate worlds in a few words is an enviable skill. One such poet who hems you into their world is Warsan Shire, demanding attention from her first line of her to her last line of her.
Bless the Daughter Raised By the Voice In Her HeadShire’s first full-length collection of poems, thrusts readers back into a story she began about 10 years ago with her chapbook, Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth.
“It was always an extension of my chapbook. My chapbook was almost like this peek into the world I grew up in – secret, violent, but also glorious lives that are usually invisibilized, overlooked or underestimated,” she says over a video call.
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This compounding of cultures and languages is apparent throughout the book and creates a textured and informative narrative, mottled with Muslim traditions, Arabic sentences, news headlines and pop culture references. This device is Shire’s way of showing that we are all amalgamations of different cultures, influences and experiences.
One of the people who appears in many of the poems is Shire’s mother. It’s clear that their mother-daughter relationship is tumultuous in the way she conveys both a gaping frustration with and fervent adoration for her mother de ella in poems such as Bless the Real Housewife and Hooyo Full of Grace.
Shire explores the bond between mother and child by querying what happens when that bond isn’t strong. “The mother and child rejecting one another is so unnatural it could create a monster. If it’s fractured in some way, you feel what they call the mother wound. That’s my biography, my memoir – that’s my life basically.”
‘The consequences of parents’
In Bless the Daughter, there is an acknowledgment that she considers her mother beautiful and fascinating, but her mother’s struggles with being maternally affected her deeply. Even through this wounding, she remains empathetic, understanding her mother’s childhood of her.
“But with my mama, I knew her inability to really be nurturing was completely linked to her trauma and giving me language to that for her and for myself and her mother and her mother before her is freeing it up, so that my children and their children do not have to struggle with the consequences of parents,” she says.
Since becoming a mother herself, she has an extra level of empathy for her mother. And because Shire wanted to be a mother, she accepts the possibility that maybe, in an ideal world, her mother would have chosen to be child-free. “In Islam they say after God, it’s your mama. I’m constantly thinking about God, I’m constantly thinking about my mama, I’m constantly thinking about my children. It’s this thing of what comes before you, what comes after you.” In this way, the book becomes a memorial of the past, a clear-eyed look at the present and an instruction for the future.
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As in the title, Shire uses the word “bless’” across the book. It appears in many of the titles and verses. Sometimes it sits alongside macabre descriptions and this feels intentional, too. “This book is a book of blessings for the blessless or unblessed or those that are usually forgotten out of people’s prayers,” she says.
Her most special poem is Victoria In Illiyin. The poem is about Victoria Climbié, an Ivorian child raised by her extended family. Her great-aunt and great-aunt’s boyfriend de ella tortured and murdered her in a London flat. She died aged eight with 128 injuries to her body. “That poem means that every time somebody reads it or I read it out, it’s all of us constantly blessing her. In a way, she is a saint and we all pray for her.” Shire wields the transformative power of poetry throughout the book to “turn the grotesque, inhumane things we do to one another. We can still find a sliver of hope or beauty.”
Bless the Daughter Raised By the Voice In Her Head may be tiny in size but it delivers emotional carnage, seen after seen. It’s work that is moulting, inventive and that feels like “notes on survival”. In writing it, Shire not only cements herself as an archivist for her community but also establishes herself as a translator of feelings, experiences and thoughts from a clearly defined particularity into the universal.