by Warsan Shire
Warsan Shire’s poem titled “Backwards” paints a heartbreakingly beautiful story of, what I interpret as, the disappearance of a father from one’s life. Despite my inability to determine whether or not this disappearance is intentional, I find that the language used creates striking imagery of helplessness and pain; the body, surrounded by surprise and desperation, grows into “smaller bodies” and the “breasts disappear.” It creates of the image of someone trying to disappear into the ground beneath them out of shame, pain or humiliation. In the case of the poem, the reason is one that ties to the disappearance of her father, who, she desperately wants to walk “backwards into a room,” the room being the household.
What strikes me most is the role of nature in creating the personification of a tree and other natural things. The “stumps for hands, and use of “sink” reminds me of sinking into the ground, the earth, the dirt. If we look at the theme of nature and “natural occurrences” as a prevalent voice within the poem’s narrative, one can infer that the father might’ve experienced something “natural,” like death, once he left home and can no longer return. Hence, the speakers desire to “rewrite this whole life.” After the biological father’s disappearance, or death, enters the “Step-Dad” who, if the speaker could rewrite history, “spits liquor back into glass.” This suggests that the Step-Dad suffered from substance abuse—the line before demonstrates the impact of this substance abuse on the family, seeing as how the line before states that “mum’s body rolls back up the stairs, the bone pops back into place.” In a different life, the speaker’s biological father would remain and thus the family would avoid any future abuse or pain.
While this poem’s connection may not be as obvious to our class, I believe it connects in ways that we are now starting to discuss. Warsan Shire, a woman of color and a poet, is writing about a painful familial experience. While the origins of this experience are unknown and left up to interpretation, I can’t help but make the connection to how in class—through the literature we’ve read and discussions we’ve had—we see the way in which societal conventions shape familial dynamic and experience. What are your thoughts on this notion? Is your interpretation of the poem similar or different to mine?