Updated: Mar 16, 2022
Review: Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in Her Head by Warsan Shire. Pub date 01 Mar 2022. Written By: Cy Pacht
“No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.” So begins “Home,” which has had the widest political appeal of any Warsan Shire poem to date; this quote (and others from the poem) has figured on protest signs from Omaha to Jerusalem. The poem proceeds relentlessly from there. “No one would choose to crawl under fences, beaten until your shadow / leaves, raped, forced off the boat because you are darker, drowned, sold, / starved, shot at the border like a sick animal, pitied.” After a string of phrases which sum up a callous European’s bile toward immigrants in general, and Black Africans in particular, comes a point few would contest: “The insults are easier to swallow than finding your child’s body in the rubble.” And, to drive the point home, “No one puts their children in a boat, unless the water is safer than the land.”
These lines might prepare a reader for some of the more emotionally clamorous heights of Shire’s just as often ironic, softly melancholic, and arresting first full-length poetry collection, Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in Her Head. These poems are thorough in their account of the fate of people who leave one country, war-torn, only to be poor or degraded in another. Without setting foot in her parents’ native Somalia, she knows their stories well enough to generate a (one hopes) lost world, made of pulled-out teeth and nails and burning women and guns and getaway ships. This ability to tap into cruelties one has never seen firsthand explains much of her resonance.
But the gentler sorrows of the refugee experience abound here, too, as when the speaker notes the loneliness of her uncle, whom she sees standing in the “foreign food” aisle, after years of dating women who were “unable to pronounce your name,” and who is now “prostrating in front of the halal meat, praying in a / language you haven’t used in years.” Shire’s mother, or Hooya, fills these pages, and one senses it’s her recollections—or what she attempted, and failed, to forget—that inspired the images behind these poems. Her Hooya is the “patron saint of / my children have different passports to me”; she grieves things Shire has never possessed:
I don’t recognize my own children they speak and dream in the wrong language as much as I understand it may as well be the language of birds.
The stepwise indentation of these lines, like that of assimilating generations, reflects Hooya’s children seeming to run away from her. So much fleeing, so little time. (With the exception of the occasional scattered phrase in Somali or Arabic, Shire even wrote this book in the wrong language—English.) And the mother embodies womanhood, the inevitable endpoint of “Extreme Girlhood,” as the first poem of the collection is titled. Hooya is stoic when she isn’t reminiscent; she is
an olm born without eyes thriving in the dark rare and translucent sustained by so little.
All refugees share this “thriving in the dark” quality, too many of them “sustained by so little.” But women refugees, and their daughters, must reckon with the more mundane obstacles of misogyny and repression, on top of their displacement.
It’s telling that Bless doesn’t begin with “war flaying Somalia alive”—that comes later. It starts, “A loop, a girl born / to each family, / prelude to suffering.” Shire’s poetry operates on this premise, where the female body is the grounds for betrayal. Her juxtapositions of the body with imagery of religion, eroticism and war disturb at the same instant they delight and amuse. In “The Abubakr Girls Are Different,” a more developed girl’s nipples are compared to “minarets / calling men to worship.” In a liminal world that is neither fully U.K. nor Somalia, sexuality in women is always shunned. It is placed where “there are locked rooms inside all women,” and men are always approaching, knocking, sometimes bearing keys, other times hammers. (“Bless This House” is as stirring an anthem as “Home”; about as graphic, and darkly funny, too.) Qumayos (cruel people, sometimes witches) threateningly eye the girls and try to discern “whose hymen fizzes after dark, / pink fading to black.” Everything the speaker’s hickied teen sister says “sounds like sex,” so “our mother has banned her from saying God’s name.” Shire pithily ‘blesses the Qumayo,’ giving the boot to all internalized misogyny: “we pray you find healing, bitch.”
While the language never ceases to sparkle, the tone can be as varied as the immigrant experience itself. There are lyrical ‘odes’ of sorts, like “Bless the Moon,” which hover high above the geopolitical frenzy of the other poems. There are imagistic nightmares like “Trichotillomania,” which depicts “a dead thing clinging to life,” a mass of yanked hair which talks and then burns, channeling similar horrors to the heart-eating creature in Stephen Crane’s “In the Desert.” “Bless the Blood” recounts a woman faking virginity on her wedding night with pigeon blood, to her husband’s praiseful delight, and is told in a perfect mocking deadpan. More often the tone is nostalgic, sweet, brim-full of guava and mangos and turmeric, in more poems than I could name. The sudden variations in tone save the collection from running the risk, common to spoken word poets when they write for the page, of being too singable. “Bless Grace Jones,” for example, is a little bit cutesy, like a whimsically honed class presentation listing the reasons the speaker admires Grace Jones. The last poem, “Nail Technician as Palm Reader,” takes cutesiness—of which cultivated serendipity is a form—as its starting point, but uses a technician’s remark to envision the future of her lineage of women, bookending the thread of a “loop” of womanhood which began in “Extreme Girlhood.” It is an ending full of relief, after so much blood and tears, with the image of a daughter being born, “a flower, blossoming / out of the hole in my face.”
The publication of Bless has turned out to be timelier than Shire could have anticipated. The new poems alternately warm and chill us, and the older ones can assume new meanings. While “Home” has been around for a while—it began in 2009 in the form of “Conversations about Home (at a deportation center)” and has gone through various revisions—its famous lines will no doubt grow in relevance as the Ukrainian refugee crisis unfolds. Shire’s verse’s contained energy will often be useful. Saying “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark” should slice through the blather of many a border security fundamentalist. Still, there are subtler, more mysterious, and (dare I say?) more optimistic treasures to be found here, and it is worth the dig. And (again, dare I say?) you may find healing, bitch.
You can purchase your copy of Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in Her Head here, or find it at any other participating retailer!