Bethany W. Pope casts a critical eye over the latest poetry collection from Warsan Shire, Her Blue Body. Available from flipped eye publishing.
Warsan Shire’s new pamphlet Her Blue Body is a prolonged meditation on the twinned natures of sex and death spoiled only by an introduction (written by the Head of Arts and Culture for The Queen Elizabeth Park and London Legacy Development Corporation) which seems more interested in praising the sagacity of the funding bodies than it is in the work presented by the poet. Adriana Marques writes, ‘It is hard to write any words that feel adequate in preface to those that follow by Warsan Shire, so the least we can do is tell one story of how they got here.’ What follows this exceedingly awkward sentence are nearly two pages of thank-you’s to various business, corporations, and (occasionally) people who helped fund the park.
Once the reader has maneuvered through (or, preferably, skipped) the introductory mire s/he is greeted by a series of rather lovely poems which centre around relationships, friendships, sex, rape, and the sorrowful blue shadow of brain-cancer. ‘Midnight in the Foreign Food Aisle’ is written in the form of a letter to an uncle who has sacrificed his connection to his culture for sex with exotic blonde women:
Love is not haram, but after years of fucking
women who cannot pronounce your name,
you find yourself in the foreign food aisle,
beside the turmeric and the saffron of mothers’ hands,
pressing your face into the ground, praying
in a language you haven’t used in years.
This poem is angry, visceral, and a little redemptive. There is a special kind of loneliness in going to bed with someone who cannot be bothered to learn your name, a certain desperation in trolling supermarket shelves for siguls from home, and Shire captures both perfectly.
The most engaging poem in the pamphlet was ‘The House’. The idea of a house as a symbol for the body is both obvious and old, but Warsan Shire manages to swerve admirably away from cliché. Each section of the sequence represents a take on the trope of body-as-dwelling and while some of them are tender, a great many are startlingly violent. In ‘viii’ the speaker incorporates the men who touch her, literally trapping them in miniature inside of her body. She writes, ‘I treat them well enough, a slice of bread, if they’re lucky a piece of fruit.’ But those fed, kept men were all encouraged, or at least invited. One is different:
Except for Johnny with the blue eyes, who picked my locks and crawled in. Silly boy chained to the basement of my fears. I play music to drown him out.
There is a lot of sex in this book, but almost all of the love is played out through female friendships. In ‘St Thomas’ Hospital’ the poet writes about receiving a terrifying diagnosis:
The doctor points to a small dark spot.
We found blood in your brain
right here. I think of Yosra’s hand in mine
walking out of this life together,
like two friends should.
The spectre of death is less terrifying, with a friend by your side, than the most vigorous sex with a body who will always be a stranger to you.
There are flaws in Warsan Shire’s work. She could use a better editor; there were a few rough sentences, a few superfluous lines, but her potential is extremely strong and the things she does well are powerful. Currently, she’s working on her first full collection. I look forward to reading it.