Warsan Shire—Kenyan-born Somali poet—is the best kept secret in the African poetry scene. I discovered her work a few months ago when she won the first edition of the Brunel University African Poetry Prize.
Her poems are blistering, beautiful, bewitching. They are suggestive of violence and a deep sense of loss and longing. And they smell of woman. I think of some of her poems as anthems to femininity.
The gorgeous and melancholy “For Women Who Are Difficult To Love” is probably her most popular and one of my favorites. What I take from the poem is that sometimes being woman means being “terrifying,” “strange,” and “beautiful”—“somethingnot everyone knows how to love.”
The 24 year old poet lives in London and was recently named the first ever Young Poet Laureate for London.
The two poems below—one titled “Beauty,” the other “Ugly”—are part of the collection of ten poems she submitted to the competition for the 3000-pound Brunel University African Poetry Prize.
My older sister soaps between her legs, her hair
a prayer of curls. When she was my age, she stole
the neighbour’s husband, burnt his name into her skin.
For weeks she smelt of cheap perfume and dying flesh.
It’s 4 a.m. and she winks at me, bending over the sink,
her small breasts bruised from sucking.
She smiles, pops her gum before saying
boys are haram, don’t ever forget that.
Some nights I hear her in her room screaming.
We play Surah Al-Baqarah to drown her out.
Anything that leaves her mouth sounds like sex.
Our mother has banned her from saying God’s name.
Your daughter is ugly.
She knows loss intimately,
carries whole cities in her belly.
As a child, relatives wouldn’t hold her.
She was splintered wood and seawater.
She reminded them of the war.
On her fifteenth birthday you taught her
how to tie her hair like rope
and smoke it over burning frankincense.
You made her gargle rosewater
and while she coughed, said
macaanto girls like you shouldn’t smell
of lonely or empty.
You are her mother.
Why did you not warn her?
hold her like a rotting boat
and tell her that men will not love her
if she is covered in continents,
if her teeth are small colonies,
if her stomach is an island
if her thighs are borders?
What man wants to lie down
and watch the world burn
in his bedroom?
Your daughter’s face is a small riot,
her hands are a civil war,
a refugee camp behind each ear,
a body littered with ugly things.
doesn’t she wear
the world well