Trigger Warning: Mentions of abuse and violence.
After releasing two chapbooks and collaborating with Beyoncé on two of her biggest multimedia projects, expectations were high for Warsan Shire’s debut full-length poetry collection. In “Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in Her Head,” Shire boldly weaves together a narrative of what it means to be displaced, disconnected from home, and incredibly vulnerable. She does so through vignettes of her own family and community members in a way that blurs the boundary between blood relations and a greater cultural history. While Shire’s presentation of powerful narratives can draw a deep reaction from readers, her straightforward structure and often disconnected tone makes the collection feel incomplete.
The work begins with two epigraphs — one by Hiromi Itō and one from a Somali children’s lullaby. Together, they lead readers into a feeling of unworthiness and abandonment. Positioning one above the other, Shire connects the sentiments of “I was an ugly child” to the sorrowful tale of when a mother “left the house and took her shoes.” The ache of these emotions creates the perfect entry into what will become a searing pain as Shire’s writing continues.
The collection itself is split into four parts: “What Doesn’t Kill You,” “This is Not a Love Song,” “Are You There, God?” and “Testament.” While the sectioning of her poems in such a way suggests a clear difference between or progression among them, Shire’s poetic style and the content of her poems are rather static until the book’s end. Only then does Shire provide her readers with several jarring accounts of violence, evoking more visceral reactions. She missed an opportunity to create a diverse and dynamic narrative, her message of resilience within the immigrant experience lost within the monotonous series of poetry.
Regarding the physical structure of the poems themselves, Shire doesn’t use forms that could further the feelings she’s attempting to disseminate through her poems’ content. Shire inverts the poem “Backwards,” forcing the reader to reorient themselves and their understanding of the piece. In doing so, she added another layer to the actual content and experience that was being shared within the poem. Aside from this poem, though, Shire doesn’t lean into such experimentation with shape and form in a way that enriches the poems’ contents.
Throughout the poems, Shire uses Somali words when referencing traditional familial, cultural, and religious subjects. These words bring feelings of spirituality and connectedness into the narrative. While she does provide a glossary for the terms, having to jump back and forth while actively reading can generate a disconnect for certain readers. And yet, this is to be expected for a work that aims to share the experience of a specific community with the world. Shire identifies the different ways in which the book may be read, commenting directly on the predicted experiences of her readers. The book can be read in a continuous manner by someone who already knows the Somali words, in a disjointed one by someone who has to reference the glossary as they read, or in a lacking one by the person who chooses to ignore it entirely.
In the poems “Drowning in Dawson’s Creek” and “Victoria in Illiyin,” Shire utilizes footnotes to tie the content of the poems to specific and devastating events. In “Drowning in Dawson’s Creek,” Shire uses the first-person voice of a murdered Somali woman, referring to “my carcass” and “my corpse.” Conversely, in “Victoria in Illiyin,” she embodies the voice of the community who has lost “our Victoria.” In this second poem, Shire implements spiritual and elegant language which disconnects the poem from the disturbing events actually being described. Perhaps she did so out of respect for Victoria herself, wanting to honor her after her death outside of the lens of her murder, but part of understanding and respecting her story could be found in acknowledging the deep injustice that occurred. This creates an irreconcilable difference between the language implemented and the content being referred to within the poem.
Shortly after Victoria’s poem, the collection comes to a close and does so underwhelmingly. Shire zooms drastically back out from her focus on individual stories with “Bless Grace Jones,” a reference to the cultural icon herself. In the poem, Jones gets blown up with titles such as “patron saint of the unapproachable,” creating a stark step away from the feeling of previous poems — one that creates an underwhelming close to the collection. The collection truly ends with the poem “Nail Technician as a Palm Reader,” closing with the image of a daughter “blossoming / out of a hole in my face.” Perhaps Shire is providing her reader with a visceral image of the continuous nature of intergenerational trauma, but at its culmination, the collection continues to lack a narrative which can carry its reader through these deeply harrowing stories. While it is by no means her job to make a reader comfortable with her work, she misses an opportunity to more fully portray these devastating events to her reader and, therefore, respect the poems’ contents.
While Shire presents stories that are deeply personal and rooted in an extensive family history, she doesn’t provide a structure which accentuates that narrative or an arc within the poems’ order that fully respects their content. This being said, these poems are clearly meaningful, and readers can see the grace with which Shire attempts to navigate an inherently striking narrative.