If you have been following new, exciting African poets, you have surely heard of Warsan Shire. My introduction to her poetry came in 2013 when she became the inaugural winner of the Brunel University African poetry prize. I had applied to that prize so I followed it keenly. Also, the fact that it was an African poetry prize initiated by Bernadine Evaristo “to draw attention” to poetry from Africa, gave me more than a little joy. Warsan has moved on in leaps and bounds since winning that award.
Warsan Shire was born in Somalia in 1988. She became popular in 2011 when her poem “For Women Who Are ‘Difficult’ to Love” (video with voiceover by Warsan) went viral. She moved to London with her family when she was still young and has traveled extensively for her poetry.
Warsan’s poetry is very simple yet very deep. Many of them, if not all, portray a woman who is fundamentally feminist. I have tried on countless occasions to review a poem of hers but much of her poetry’s depth makes it difficult to do full justice. She is the first poet I will review, whose poetry came to me as so beautifully difficult and this work is one of the easier ways to introduce her to anyone who has not read her work. It has taken a couple of days to decide on which of her works I can comfortably review. Not to be taken wrong, her poetry is very simple to read on the face but when you try to review, to interpret or to translate, you find that you are dealing with layers, layers and layers of meaning and thought. She became the first young poet-laureate of the city of London in 2013. In my previous post about the depth of Somali poetry, I have reviewed her in the same lights as Hadraawi, Gaarriye and K’naan; the first two, classical, the latter two contemporary poets in a glittering Somali poetry culture. Read here my review of The Kitchen published in 2011 by Flipped Eye in her chapbook with the title Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth.
The title and setting of this poem by Warsan are a sort of deflection from a deeper story that is woven throughout the poem. How many great poems have been written about kitchens and cook books? I have seen few. But as the poem opens, your mind is cast unto delicacies of the palate, what with ‘Half a papaya and a palmful of sesame oil’ (line 1). In the second line, the poet sharply turns to address a woman whose ‘husband’s mind has been elsewhere’.
The third line, like a forgetfulness of the second and a reminder of the first, tells of ‘Honeyed dates, goat’s milk’, before it continues to address our woman in line 4 about her wanting to ‘quiet the bloating of salt’.
Our addressed woman’s husband has come to or has always been in the kitchen because in line 6, he kisses the back of her neck at the stove and in line 8, she offers him the hollow of her throat. There is some romance going in the kitchen interspersed with the preparation of what sounds like a coming romantic dinner with coconut and ghee butter (line 5) and cayenne and roasted pine nuts (line 7).
In line 10, Warsan gives us a hint of our woman’s suspicions; she has decided that her husband is seeing another woman but she doesn’t ‘ask him her name’. She lets him lift her by the waist (line 12) and lay her down on the kitchen counter (line 14). The melody of food continues interwoven with this woman’s story like a story sandwich with a hint of saffron and rosemary (line 9), vine leaves and olives (line 11), cinnamon and tamarind (line 13).
The poem winds down and the woman is told her husband is hungry (line 16). He had forgotten the way she tastes (line 18) but upon all his infidelity and wanderings, his other mistress could not and ‘cannot make him eat, like you’ (line 20) his wife. There’s some intertwining in these last lines that makes the poem endlessly complete. The man is in the kitchen because he is hungry. In the kitchen, he does not taste the woman’s food but seeks out pleasures of her body. He has forgotten how the woman tastes, not her food. The other woman could not cook him a better intimacy than his wife does and that is why he is back to his wife, whose ‘food’ is better. The fact that this poem takes place in a kitchen is just a subtle cover for something deeper that brewed underneath – underneath every line of this poem that reads food, every line staggered away from the edge of the page like an afterthought.
Do one thing for me before you’re through reading this review. Go back up and read every even-numbered line of this poem only. Forget the first lines and read the second line of each couplet. That is the story Warsan has been trying to tell us. Beautiful poem, isn’t it?
Edit: This post is quoted here on The Guardian UK.