A double review today of two shortish poetry books, both written by Black women about gender and racial oppression, among other things, each including a very famous poem, one published a good 30 years before the other and both saying similar things. The Maya Angelou was part of the box set I’ve been reading along with Ali and Meg, and the Warsan Shire came to me via NetGalley. Even though I’ve got an English degree and should be good at this stuff, I don’t read much poetry and am not the best at writing about it, so forgive these short reviews and go and read the books!

Maya Angelou – “And Still I Rise”

(April 2021)

You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I rise. (“Still I Rise”, p. 41)

This book was originally published by Virago in 1986 and collects the two books, “And Still I Rise” (1978) and “Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing?” (1982) which were published in the US. There are themes of womanhood, violence against women, resilience, music and power. “Men” is a heart-wrenching description of how a man can be gentle at first with a young women, moving to violence and pain by degrees; “Phenomenal Woman” celebrates women and reads like a jazz song (and is mentioned in “I am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter” in a bookish serendipity moment). “On Aging” is funny but relatable: let her age and let her still be strong, and it was interesting to read “A Caged Bird” and think of the first volume of her autobiography. “Still I Rise” is the famous one here, and stands out, readable and understandable; where the poems became more opaque and metaphorical, I got a little lost, as I tend to do. I’m glad to have read this collection.

I read this book in March. This one rounded up my read of the Virago boxset along with Ali and Meg: I now have a pictorial celebration of Angelou’s life and three volumes of her essays to read. It was also TBR Challenge 2021-22 Quarter 3 Book 1/41 – 40 to go.

Warsan Shire – “Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in her Head”

(21 December 2021)

No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark. You only run for the border when you see the whole city running as well.

[…]

No one puts their children in a boat, unless the water is safer than the land. (“Home”)

Like Angelou so many years before, Shire addresses issues of violence against women and racial violence, although in her case the context is a British one and around immigration. Some of these poems are hard to read (again), some are funny; some interact with Somali culture, some with Islam, some with British popular culture; all are thought-provoking.

Here, “Home” is the famous poem; who hasn’t read that and if not wept, at least had a hard think? Many poems are addressed to “Hooyo”, defined as “Mother” in the glossary, and cover different aspects of a young woman’s and an immigrant’s life, creating her own way through the world in the absence of a tangible mother figure. I did love the glossary, which includes entries for, for example, “Baati: Somali house dress […] Buraaanbur: A traditional poetic form composed by Somali women, accompanied by dance and drumming, performed as a celebration. Crimewatch: British television program that reconstructs major unsolved crimes in the UK”.

Poems talk about Victoria Climbié, the Ivorian child who was murdered in London, and unnamed victims of violence and hatred, but the whole collection rises above tragedy with its power and clear eye. Highly recommended.

Thank you to Random House / Vintage for selecting me to receive this book via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in her Head” was published on 10 March 2022.