The “isness” of the Agony of Displacement – Part One – A Poem by Warsan Shire from Her New Poetry Collection

Somali British Poet Warsan Shire


We never unpacked,
dreaming in the wrong language,
carrying our mother’s fears in our feet—
     if he raises his voice we will flee
     if he looks bored we will pack our bags
unable to sleep through the night.

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 can’t get the refugee out of my body.
I bolt my body whenever I get the chance.
How many pills does it take to fall asleep?
How many to meet the dead?

The refugee’s heart often grows
an outer layer. An assimilation.
it cocoons the organ. Those unable to grow the extra skin
die within the first six months in a host country.

At each and every checkpoint the refugee is asked
                                   are you human?

The refugee is sure it’s still human but worries that overnight,
while it slept, there may have been a change in classification.

Warson Shire from BLESS THE DAUGHTER RAISED BY VOICE IN HER HEAD, Penguin Canada, 2022

In her blood, and the blood inside her words, sings Warsan Shire’s refugee experience. You can feel it, taste it, smell it in the poem above, ASSIMILATION, from her recently published collection BLESS THE DAUGHTER RAISED BY A VOICE IN HER HEAD.

Warsan is a thirty-four year old Somali British poet, born in Nairobi, raised in London and now living in California with her husband and two children. She may not yet be a household name around the world but she might be getting close! And her new collection can only add to her public profile. To see my previous blog post on Warsan in 2020 please click here.

She first became a literary sensation on Tumblr and then her following grew as she became London’s youth Poet Laureate in 2014 but especially because of her collaboration with Beyoncè on the album Lemonade in 2016. According to a recent February feature in the New Yorker she has eighty thousand followers on Twitter and fifty-seven thousand on Instagram and those numbers are likely growing! But for me, I am less interested in the social media numbers than I am about the power and impact of her poems. How her poems, like ASSIMILATION, based on a foundation of fierce integrity and personal experience, give a crafted voice to experiences of war and dislocation that too many people all over the world are having!

One of the reasons ASSIMILATION jumped out at me yesterday was how it speaks to what more than one million Ukrainians are now experiencing. The devastation of displacement. I wanted to feature it in recognition of the devastating war in Ukraine. But Warson indirectly cautions me in a quote from the New Yorker article. It is a response to how her poem Home in 2015 became a viral sensation. Feel the impact of the first stanza, especially the phrase you only repeated twice and left hanging with a line break:

from HOME

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.
The boy you went to school with who kissed you dizzy behind the
old tin factory, is holding a gun bigger than his body. You only
leave home when home won’t let you stay.

Warsan Shire, ibid

Referring to Home in the New Yorker piece and how it was often used to highlight the tragic deaths of Middle Eastern refugees she says: I wrote those words for Black immigrants, and the most I’ve ever seen those words used was when the immigrants and refugees were lighter-skinned with lighter eyes…., Obviously, you want your work to be used in any way to raise funds for all suffering people, but I want people to know who I wrote that about.

Warsan’s voice is a hugely important voice right now. In the New Yorker article the interviewer quotes the celebrated black American p0et Terrance Hayes: Shire possesses a Plathian kind of ferocious truth telling.The interviewer adds that Hayes teaches at New York University, and is struck by how many of his students are devotees of her work. Here is Hayes again: Her reach is not just people who are watching Beyoncé,…It’s also people who want to be poets and are studying what she’s doing.

An important and well crafted poem can take the personal and make it universal.  I think ASSIMILATION is a text book example. How it starts with a simple declaration: We never unpacked. This haunts the poem.  Leaves for me a question: can you ever unpack from a county of origin?  And what long-term agonies if you can’t. And then the use of the words wrong and fears. Sums up for me, in a visceral sense, the isness of a refugee’s reality. The wrongness of it. The fears from it. And the horrible beauty of the line: carrying our mothers’s fears in our feet. Not to be a punster but how feeling the fear in the feet grounds this poem. Makes it embodied.

The second stanza wallops me. In six lines she captures with punch-like lines the essence of a refugee’s experience and especially a woman’s. The surprise of the uterus opens up the possibility of so much chaoes and confusion and the particular plight of female refugees. Does this suggest pregnancy, the perils of that; childbirth; being a mother; or rape?

The startling percusion of the end-stopped lines in stanza three captivate me. Two declarations. Then, two questions. How, so quickly she embodies the agony of not being able to get the refugee out of the body. Using the pills to suggest sleep and a mind so quieted the dead can visit.

Stanza four adds to the sense of peril of a refugee’s  inner dying. First the pills in stanza three but now a skin to cocoon or deaden the heart. And the horrifying declaration that without that protection, that deadening you will die. Believe it or not, this gives us an isness of the dislocation of displacement. The issness of the poems’s title: ASSIMILATION. And notice: only one abstraction here: refugee. Then, only gut-wrenching images and metaphors!

Stanzas five and six seem out of place They are shorter with longer line lengths. Broken up into two lines each and the fifth stanza is broken up with lots of white space in its second line before the awful question: are you human? Bang. The heart, so to speak, of this poem. How a refugee is dehumanized. And then the embodiement of that dehumanizatrion captured in the final stanza. Out there, in the cold, on its own (only you). Here, abruptly, we find the abstraction refugee repeated for the sixth time but this time it has become an it! Before that the refugee had a heart, many chambered, and a body. Now it is an it, referred to as an it twice in two devestating lines.. And now the full and horrible impact of assimilation is delivered by Warsan and her poem.

I offer the blog post in tribute to Warsan, the Somalian people devestated and displaced by war and to the people of Ukraine fleeing for their lives on day eight of the Russian invasion.

If you were impacted by ASSIMILATION I rfecommend you buy Warsan’s new book. It is a stunner. I will feature a few more poems from it in the weeks to come. And next up, in part two, another poem by Michael Rosen that has huge echoes with Warsan’s  ASSIMILATION.


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