Girls That Never Die
Penguin Random House, 2022
Review by Erin Wunker
“But what if I will not die/ What will govern me then?” These lines anchor the big, beating heart of Safia Elhillo’s most recent collection of poems. The book’s arterial system is organized with poems all entitled “Girls That Never Die,” and they employ a kind of blues refrain in their repetition and difference. These poems, which share the title of the book, weave around other poems of differing titles and styles. Together, they form a poetic organism that breathes reverence for Muslim women and girls.
Girls That Never Die is a dexterous example of a poet pushing the boundaries of language. The question, “But what if I will not die/ What will govern me then?” refuses the oppressive structures of patriarchy and serve as examples of the vital, difficult work happening in this book. There is no “inevitability” in Elhillo’s triumphant refiguring of the world for the subjects and stories in this work. Rather, there are women who hold each other’s lives and experiences, and in so doing, weave a different future built on something more expansive and life-giving than shame.
Elhillo is an award-winning author who works across literary genres. In addition to her first collection of poetry, The January Children, her second publication, Home is Not a Country, is a young adult novel written in verse. Girls That Never Die likewise employs tools that come from a wide range of literary cultures and traditions including orality, slam, the epic, and the projective. As a whole, the collection works to build a world that honours the experiences of Muslim girlhoods, difficult family histories, and the multiple cultures of violence perpetrated against women. Although the poems themselves address excruciating experiences, each line works to cradle those experiences gently. The effect, much like the epigraph that opens this review, is one of respect and refusal.
Reverence is offered to the stories gathered in these poems where “in memory, we are a single organism.” The poet, often appearing as a lyric “I,” endeavours respect and duty over and again while recognizing “& even if i am not tender i must tend.” In tending to the stories of many, Elhillo’s Girls That Never Die creates an archive of memory in the same moment that it gestures towards a collective future for the women in its pages. The collection ends with another of the eponymous poems. Here, a girl is rescued from stoning by myriad birds who come and carry the stones away: “& the minutes pass & the girl is untouched/ & each bird in its beak tongues a stone.”
In Elhillo’s poetic landscape, girls are protected by birds, by story, by memory, and by the reverence of the poet. Like the repetition of poems that share the book’s title, Elhillo employs the ampersand, line break, and negative space to refigure the page as a sacred horizon for these girls and women to meet outside the boundaries of time. Here, women and girls care for one another. Here, Elhillo has forged a new line of flight and possibility.