Arts Poetica: Witches & Warsan

By Marina Oliver, Arts Columnist

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When I sat down to write a Halloween or other vaguely seasonal column, my biggest priority was making sure I could pull it off without being (candy) corny.  Ba-dum-ch! Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, welcome back to Arts Poetica.

Halloween has always meant “witches” for me. When I was younger, I couldn’t pinpoint exactly why I wanted to be a witch every single year from age four through age twelve. Somewhere along the line, I upgraded from the pointy-hat-and-green-face model of kindergarten to fourth grade’s glittery-cape-and-glamorous-black-wig outfit, but the point remained the same. Something about the power and mystery of witches attracted me back again and again, no matter what modern costumes were available to portray them.

I truly think it stemmed from their enigma, their self-sufficiency, their refusal to bend to the limitations of a (let’s face it) sometimes-stifling society. I assume that’s why little me was so excited to rep these oft-misunderstood figures on October 31every single year without a break.

That being said, I would like to highlight a contemporary poet whose work I feel is nothing short of modern magic—Warsan Shire. She is a Somali poet, born in Kenya in 1988, who just served a prestigious term as London’s Young Poet Laureate where she resides. Within the realm of her poetry, she pays homage to women with their own brand of magic.

“For women who are ‘difficult’ to love”

You are a horse running alone

and he tries to tame you

compares you to an impossible highway

to a burning house

says you are blinding him

that he could never leave you

forget you

want anything but you

you dizzy him, you are unbearable

every woman before or after you

is doused in your name

you fill his mouth

his teeth ache with memory of taste

his body just a long shadow seeking yours

but you are always too intense

frightening in the way you want him

unashamed and sacrificial

he tells you that no man can live up to the one who

lives in your head

and you tried to change didn’t you?

closed your mouth more

tried to be softer

prettier

less volatile, less awake

but even when sleeping you could feel

him travelling away from you in his dreams

so what did you want to do love

split his head open?

you can’t make homes out of human beings

someone should have already told you that

and if he wants to leave

then let him leave

you are terrifying

and strange and beautiful

something not everyone knows how to love.


There’s a lot going on in this single-stanza poem. As for characters, we have the speaker who seems to be Shire herself, speaking to the idea of a women that owns the label of “hard to love,” and the “she” is positioned against a generic “he.”

A lot of contemporary poetry aims to explore identity as it relates to another being. In this case, we find the “he” as an oppressive force against the autonomy of the protagonist. It takes the premise of modern “happily ever after” narratives and sheds some light on what happens when two people aren’t positive forces upon one another. I mean look at those quotes around “difficult” in the title. This alone foreshadows the journey we are about to embark on to flip the conception of what constitutes a “difficult” woman.

This poem tells us to proudly own the traditionally “difficult” parts of our identities. Just look at running thread of descriptors that winds through the backbone of the piece: “alone,” “impossible,” “burning,” “blinding,” “dizzy,” “unbearable,” “ache,” “unashamed,” “volatile,” “strange,” etc. These words send chills down my spine. They have fortitude. They talk too loudly in coffee shops. These words aren’t ashamed of flaring emotions or to go to a party by themselves. I see these words come to life in my friends, my role models, and myself. These words present the unabridged version of a human. They say I am here, I am this, I will not change. They’re ultimately empowering in a personal and artistic sense.

This brand of unapology is Shire’s strong suit. Considering how many times society expects an apology or sense of shame for a woman asserting herself or merely existing, this poem’s refusal to do so makes it both electric and necessary.

Certainly, language such as “unashamed and sacrificial” conjures up imagery and an attitude that I always attributed to witches growing up. Actual technical magic practices or lack thereof aside—that’s more of a Wikipedia thing than an Arts Poetica thing, but dig in—haven’t women been sought out for this exact thing throughout history? The normative narrative under the patriarchy almost expects an accommodating if not blatantly apologetic attitude from women for the way they exist, even if it’s not operating on the conscious level. Shire here refutes that entire problematic premise in an ache of a poem. Certainly there are consequences (“and you tried to change didn’t you? / closed your mouth more / tried to be softer / prettier / less volatile, less awake”) but in the end, there’s something tragic about changing yourself to suit another person’s expectations. As Shire declares toward the end, “you are terrifying / and strange and beautiful,” and the protagonist must ultimately continue to make her way in the world holding this in mind. Even if that means people leave. Even if that makes her an outsider. She is free to begin her legacy of proud self-love. How’s that for some modern magic?

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