Reading Warsan Shire during a Russian invasion

From Warsan Shire’s brand-new book Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in Her Head, a stanza from a poem called “Assimilation”:

The refugee’s heart has six chambers.
In the first is your mother’s unpacked suitcase.
In the second, your father cries into his hands.
The third room is an immigration office,
your severed legs in the fourth,
in the fifth a uterus–yours?
The sixth opens with the right papers.

I’m teaching Twenty-First Century Poetry to undergrads right now under the theme “Spacetime,” and we’re reading some Black British poetry next to Jahan Ramazani’s arguments in “A Transnational Poetics” that English Studies too often siloes literature by authors’ nationalities (and by period, as in “Twentieth Century British and Irish Poetry,” which I’m teaching next year). Plenty of people writing in English have deep affiliations with multiple regions and nations; they do hybrid and border-work through their powerful poetry, in conversation with other authors who do NOT write in English. Professors do have to carve the massive sea of writing in English into related chunks to design courses and curricula, but as Ramazani says, we don’t have to imitate immigration and border officials–might there be other ways of grouping books?

Yesterday we discussed “Our Men Do Not Belong to Us,” a digital chapbook made freely available here after Beyoncé’s collaboration with Shire in “Lemonade” brought the young poet’s work wider notice. Shire is Somali British, born in Kenya around the beginning of the Somali civil war, and she often writes about how war inscribes itself on women’s bodies. In “Conversations About Home (In the Detention Center)”, for example, a character says “my hair smells of war and running and running,” and in “Ugly” Shire writes:

Your daughter’s face is a small riot,
her hands are a civil war,
a refugee camp behind each ear…

I didn’t know, when I devised the syllabus long ago, how these poems would resonate within and against Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, but it’s also true that atrocities are always happening. Sometimes U.S. media covers them with insight, inspiring people to feel with and maybe eventually even help the victims–and sometimes it doesn’t, especially when the refugees are brown and black and poor and queer. I’ve been struggling with how to frame my response to that media coverage, because while what is happening to Ukraine’s people is heartbreaking, it’s not a country whose government I can admire. Check out what Amnesty International says, for instance, about Ukraine in the last couple of years: “Allegations of torture and other ill-treatment, particularly in police custody, continued. Security service officials responsible for secret detention and torture in eastern Ukraine from 2014 to 2016 continued to enjoy complete impunity. Attacks by groups advocating discrimination against activists and marginalized minorities continued, often with total impunity. Intimidation and violence against journalists were regularly reported. Domestic violence remained widespread…” (This is true of the U.S., as well: how many of the countries claiming to be democracies really are?) Russia is run by a dangerous lunatic, but there are other, insidious kinds of violence he and others have been perpetrating, without most people calling them emergencies.

Someone said to me yesterday, “I changed my syllabus to teach Ilya Kaminsky today, of course,” and I fell silent. Aside from receiving it as passive-aggressive–ah, academia–I found myself thinking that this was not the only right response to the invasion. I love Ilya Kaminsky’s work. It’s amazing and everyone should read it. But I was glad I was teaching Warsan Shire. And I’m so glad to finally have her first full-length collection in my hands. It looks amazing, too.

The last week or so has also brought a lot to process personally. I feel pretty haunted after going through my mother’s things last weekend, with my siblings, during a brief visit to Pennsylvania. Turns out she kept almost everything I ever wrote. And I came back home to a different kind of fun. After trying PT and some easier remedies for a 13-month bout of Achilles tendonitis, a doctor has now put me in a boot and I’ve consented to try oral steroids (ugh). I usually walk the half-mile to work every day, then run around among classrooms and meetings, then do some extra walking with my spouse–I didn’t even have an up-to-date campus parking permit–so I’m struggling to establish different logistics as well as to deal with the need for more rest and less movement. It’s relatively trivial, but still not easy.

Finally, I’ve been working hard on setting up some events to celebrate the May launch of Poetry’s Possible Worlds. I’m in the process of adding them to this site’s Events page, but they include the Gaithersburg Book Festival in May and a September reading in Charlottesville VA; I’m working on a local launch, too, and, I hope an online event somewhere in there. The very first presentation will be in just a week and a half at NEMLA, in a panel Anna Maria Hong has created on hybrid and feminist writing (something else to prepare soon!!). I’m uncertain about how many future conferences and festivals I should be applying to, though, as my body is already hitting the brakes. I’ll post some thoughts on book promotion 2022-style here soon, I hope–as tired brain and sore feet permit.

6 responses to “Reading Warsan Shire during a Russian invasion”

  1. You’re the second place I’ve run into Shire’s book this month. It must be calling to me, yet I’m so behind in everything.

    Oh, the task of going through a parent’s things! Even with six sisters to help, my associative mind made it like moving in a jar of honey.

    Sending non-inflammatory thoughts to your tendonitis.

    Liked by 2 people

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