Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth

by Warsan Shire
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Analysis

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The works in Shire’s Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth generally have an informal tone, which is sometimes explicitly conversational. The characters come to life as they speak directly to an unspecified addressee, with many titles using first-person perspective—as the title does—or second-person direct address. In just a few dozen pages, Shire assembles a complex arrangement that is rich with the voices of numerous distinct personas whose aspirations and memories seem as genuine as they are powerful.

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The poet reminds readers over and over of the power of language, even when unspoken. “Maymuun’s Mouth” presents a woman’s fading “accent” and “her new tongue” to indicate her adaptation to a new culture and new relationships. The prose piece “Conversations about Home (at the Deportation Centre)” seems to contain actual testimonies or oral histories. In it, one speaker bemoans her inability to fit “another tongue, another song, another language” into her mouth. Language stands for the ways she thought she left behind but realizes she cannot because she fears the consequences: “I’m bloated with language I can’t afford to forget.”

Shire addresses the ways that devastating events at every scale affect people, who emerge both as emblematic of shared humanity and as individuals with distinct experiences. As personal and universal ideas alternate within a single poem or even a single phrase, Shire’s gift for imagery is evenly matched with her insights into human behavior. She shows how everyday violence, often within intimate relationships, may create greater damage than a war. For the person affected, interior conflict may constitute a war—as in “Ugly,” where a girl’s “hands are a civil war.”

The images have their sources in both natural and cultural worlds. Foods evoke flavors and colors as well as the nurturing power of home. In “The Kitchen,” for example, readers are presented with “honeyed dates” and the spices cinnamon and tamarind. In “Tea with Our Grandmothers,” grandmother Noura has a “honeyed laugh” and breaks “cinnamon barks,” while another grandmother, Warsan Baraka, has flesh that is the color of tamarind.

The figurative devices that the poet employs include comparisons of unlike things for effect. Similes are such comparisons using “like” or “as.” Metaphors are direct comparisons; the poet includes conceits, or extended metaphors.

Similes in “You Were Conceived” include “he had me in his mouth like a promise,” a comparison which suggests what the speaker inferred from their sexual relationship. Another is “I stayed like a secret in his bed.” Some similes make comparisons with material objects: in “Things We Had Lost in the Summer,” the speaker states, “I open my legs like a well-oiled door”; in “Snow,” the mother “spread her palms… like the wings of a plane.” In “Tea with Our Grandmothers,” one woman’s dark skin is “like tamarind flesh.” In that poem, two similes describe the way another grandmother poured tea: she

pour[ed] it like the weight of deeds
between bowl and cup, until the steam
would rise like a ghost.

Metaphors are used throughout the different poems. In “My Foreign Wife is Dying and Does Not Want to Be Touched,” a poem about cancer, the speaker’s “wife is a ship docking from war,” and “her body is a flooding home.” Her body is also “a burning village, / a prison with open gates.”

Shire’s use of metaphor, often involving the human body, extends to conceit, or extended metaphor. This is most apparent in the comparison of bodies and geography in “Grandfather’s Hands” and “Ugly.” In “Grandfather’s Hands,” the comparison extends into cosmology and is accompanied by reference to colonialism. The mapping metaphor is made fully explicit at the end in reference to the grandparents’ sexual appetites: the speaker describes them as

… mapping out
each other’s bodies,
claiming whole countries
with their mouths.

Throughout the poem, individual body parts are compared to geographic elements—an island in the palm of a hand, an ocean along a wrist—and the moon, but they are also compared to the climatic aspects of the seasons—a heatwave or a rainfall. The colonial aspect involves mention of these as “places to own” and “claim.”

In “Ugly,” the daughter’s body is initially presented as having the scope of a country: she “carries whole cities in her belly.” By the end, through an ironic rhetorical question, the speaker asks if she does not “wear the world well.” She has “a refugee camp behind each ear.” The marks of the world on her body—which may be understood as physical or emotional scars—are presented using parallelism in a set of questions. This initial structure echoes Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If—,” and “colonies” are mentioned, so there is a clear allusion to colonialism:

If she is covered in continents,
If her teeth are small colonies,
If her stomach is an island,
If her thighs are borders?

A more extended use of parallelism occurs in “Questions for Miriam,” in which the author uses repeated questions to express her curiosity about the life of the singer, who achieved international fame but was exiled from South Africa during the apartheid era. Most of them begin with the words “did you,” posed directly to Makeba; the same structure, but asking about other people who knew about her, serves as counterpoint: “Did they know you were only human?”

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Themes