Saturday, December 3, 2016

Poetry Review: TEACHING MY MOTHER HOW TO GIVE BIRTH, by Warsan Shire

Warsan Shire


Through Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth the empowerment of women becomes like a burning tempest kindled up by the rawness of Warsan Shire’s words. The poems are also about reality, the horrors that some people have to face in a word driven by war. They carry with them such human depth, none more so than the poem In Love and In War. 

“To my daughter I will say
‘when the men come, set yourself on fire.’

The poem is only two lines, but it establishes the tone for the rest of the work; it acts like a summary for one of her strongest ideals, that of personal and cultural integrity.

Shire does not compromise. The idea of setting oneself on fire is tangible to suicide. The men are coming, the soldiers and sons of war, so let us end it before they can touch us. This can be read as an act by a woman burning herself to avoid the objectifying effects that are coming her way. Historically speaking, the women of an invaded country often become the greatest victims. We all know what humans can do when in a blood frenzy. By committing suicide these daughters can avoid the worse of such possible crimes. But the act of setting oneself on fire can be read in a different way, a much brighter way.

Like all great poetry, multiple readings come out of Shire’s words. I like to think of the fire as a metaphorical flame of individuality. When the invaders come, set your hearts ablaze and remember who you are; remember your culture; remember your language: remember you. When the men come do no lose this sense of you to the superimposing of another’s beliefs. Become angry, fight against it, rage at the injustice and learn how to beat it. But at the very root of it all, never ever forget. In such an idea Shire establishes the authority of the individual’s voice.

How about love? As a woman entering a relationship set yourself on fire in the same sense, do not become meek and docile: do not allow him to take over. This reading feels like one of the strongest. If you compare this to the ideas that are manifested in the spoken word poem For Women Who are Difficult to Love it becomes more evident. The ideas empower women and suggest that if you are volatile, if your personality is like that of a fire, do not quench yourself: carry on. Be yourself, he is not worthy if he cannot love you for you: keep that fire burning.

There’s also another reading that comes here, tangible to the first instance of suicide. When men are near and love is close, set yourself on fire and avoid heartache. But, I do not overly belief in this one; it can be read in the poem, but when comparing it to Shire’s body of work it seems far too pessimistic. Shire is about empowering women not destroying life. She is a humanist; thus, there is much to be taken from her words. They are words that need to be heard now more than ever as the world becomes increasingly multi-cultural and transgendered, understanding the perspective of others is vital for the development of a more accepting world. This is a very powerful collection of poetry.


Bookworm Sean is a book obsessed English student who can usually be found over on Goodreads raving about his latest read. Recently, poetry has become one of his favorite literary forms of expression; thus he has started to read more and more of it. Look for Sean on Facebook, as well!

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