Raena Shirali

we don’t belong      :

in rooms with family spirits / central on blueprints

near rivers where one could be caught / submerged

with our teeth sunk in thighs

with our thighs visible to a flash of teeth

licking milk off our mouths’ edges

near gold / paint / pearls or oysters

straight-backed & sure

close to the horizon / drop-off point

in classrooms / learning about the end of the world

contemplating heat

dipping ring fingers in turmeric & slaked lime

asking about symbols / patterns in sand

asking but do we worship the violent goddesses?

calling each other queen like it undoes the fact of their stares

next to our husbands

together in rivers

baring our teeth at the stupid sun

calling it blood lust killing us across oceans

blessing durga’s foot on her man’s neck, tongue thrust out—

                                      even our idols were made to feel shamed


daayan after a village feast

any way to the bottom of a bottle is one the men
             will pioneer. moonlit paths through the pale green
                         growth. they trade tea leaves, tobacco, ghee. they trade

what we women toiled. naturally, we sneak sips, dilute
             the remainder like kids—slinking on packed mud, careful
                         not to step too heavy. i’m the only one who takes

full flasks like this. that’s not why they want
             my pasture. they don’t know their own skin
                         glows amber—we all sweat it out the same.

our teeth slump against gums & all our bones
             whittle down. maybe they feel bright yellow
                         in their lungs, the unsung chakra, & think it’s my fault

their feet slur the dirt. they pull me in with spindly
             arms, kiss me flat on the forehead, brandy
                         breathing their half-lie : how capable they are

of love. moments before the blackout, all their limbs
             ablaze, the whole world must seem possible & warm
                         & fused. it must be intoxicating to survive.

they pass out unarmed, sloughed against fences,
             & i slip bottles from loose fists, tuck them into our
                         baskets. we become mist, shift groveward, flee.


Artist’s Statement

Since before the publication of my first book, I have been researching the ongoing practice of witch hunting in India, generating poems engaging with that landscape, and with personae and myths associated with the treatment of women in Jharkhand. The two poems featured here engage with that subject matter uniquely. “daayan after a village feast” is written in the persona of a daayan (a woman accused of being a witch). While our daayan’s particular voice is imagined, the scene this poem paints is not, recalling some of Jharkhand’s present-day systems.

If “daayan after a village feast” engages traditionally with persona writing, “we don’t belong : ” subverts it, asking more broadly: how do antiquated and existing norms surrounding female mysticism in India inform this culture’s treatment of women? This poem derives its grounding lines from anthropological research related to the politics of accusation; the poem’s first line refers to the superstition that women are more likely to become (or be called) witches if they enter the rooms in a home where family spirits are thought to reside, where there are altars, or in rooms that happen to be in the very center of the dwelling. The poem juxtaposes the way women are allowed to move through that (& this) world with imagery grounded both in Indian and American culture.

Finally, “we don’t belong :” refers to patriarchal interpretations of Hindu mythology surrounding the goddess Durga, often depicted with her tongue stuck out, presumably in shame, as she accidentally tramples her husband while killing demons. This notion—of shame from denying our “domestic duties” while manifesting and experiencing raw power—is central to discussions about women’s “safety,” and what women are at liberty to do in public spaces.

Raena Shirali is the author of GILT (YesYes Books, 2017), winner of the 2018 Milt Kessler Poetry Book Award. Shirali’s honors include a Pushcart Prize, the Philip Roth Residency at Bucknell University’s Stadler Center for Poetry, and poetry prizes from Boston Review, Gulf Coast, and Cosmonauts Avenue. She currently lives in Philadelphia, where she is a co-organizer for We (Too) Are Philly—a summer poetry festival highlighting voices of color. She also serves as Poetry Editor for Muzzle Magazine, and is on the editorial team for Vinyl. Find out more at raenashirali.com.