Rumpus Original Poetry: Two Poems by Raena Shirali





Jodhpur, Jharkhand, Philadelphia

            after Cathy Linh Che’s “Los Angeles, Manila, Da Nãng”

The air is writ of ash and sand, though this is no memorial.
Camels buckle clumsily groundward        & I’ve forgotten

how to grieve. I was nowhere     when my grandparents
died, just like I’m nowhere

now, picturing Jain temples & carved
elephants & the faces

of so many monkeys     huddled
on eaves. I wish all women on earth

a day    of invisible. I wish      for no
trials, no catcalls, no      sound. Like how I am

on this dune—     transparent,        wondering
about power & numbers. Bodies

of accused daayani
go unreported    while I roast dough over dull

heat. This in the country            Empire left
behind. Here,

the flour-silted air. Here, the warm, dry scent
of pyre. I’m moving     now      through paved

streets—all old film, detergent—kept aloft
by gusts from subway grates, wondering

how the river smells when women
are dragged     into it, the Pink City turning

blue at dusk, sandstone    falling      into music.
At a wedding in the West, my great aunt celebrates

her sister’s death—spirits, she sings,
are all around us.      Good & evil & will

we lend an open ear. Here is my plea
on cue : country of drought

& several gods, country of waterfalls
wrung brown with soil’s unease, I’m not there

enough, not you        enough
& I’ve come to ask    what to do

with our dead. Rivermouth
& useless, reading up     on reportage, I’m by

a stream or in
the desert     or dragging my scent

through  the unwashed city—what good
is brotherly love, what good

is Empire      paving over
ground     bones, I don’t know why

my story    matters, I   don’t
know     why     this story—



no vendors or busted starfruit in my dreams
& i can’t tell my own shell from a tamarind’s. i know

not everyone is so lucky. not everyone’s a wingspan
of torn peacock feathers. it’s true i’m surviving

in the land of failed festivals, setting aside days
to pray & tricked into unwinding weeks

of fast & fast & give. i have offered what i can
& know : it’s not enough.


night did not fall with my heart in summer & i turned
toward smoke to feel less, spent my days discussing : is it possible

for a white partner to fully

see me. color : that spectrum : his eyes closed & groping
for what in the dark.


no violence in solitude : another self-induced mantra. i pace
the house followed by a cloud of mosquitoes.
i keep trying to reach you, sister. some would call that

endless searching love. you’re in the dark
or you are your own source of light & either way
it is dusk or not when you leave

home, lamp-light, shadow or glow
of yourself. if to be loved is to be seen,
to you i am holding out
                                          my hand.


i repeat : we glow darkly.
my love turns from me, won’t
say why.


nights i am closest to you : in
sobriety, making lists of our similarities,
a framed recipe of all

the clichés. the edges of everything
suddenly sharpen, guitar strings seeming
long thin knives, leaves harassed by wind

while they’re just trying to vine themselves
to something stable. it’s september & i wish
of this mind an eraser, september

& feet carry the body—unwilling—
to the pharmacy counter, september when i ask
to stop forgetting even as i pray
                                                    to black out.


other nights are a burrowing : into sheets
so white they’re transparent, the quilting underneath
visible. this : a poor metaphor

for reading up on your village. you’re there
being seen but only barely & for naught : i’m tracing
stitching with a nail, waiting to feel cut.


night & i walk down the street in the shadow
of him, protected. yes : security is an illusion.

yes : i feel secure, arrive home sometimes
unscathed. & of that, am ashamed.


no women are allowed to be
suns. no unfurling gold

behind a raindark cloud. no daayan
a metaphor, no goddess

for the sick. no woman in no country
is not fielding some nonsense

she didn’t ask for. & without
my summoning, nonetheless, here

it is, invoked : the question
of asking. who gets to. who answers.

who is free—and where
—to speak.

Raena Shirali is a poet, teaching artist, and editor from Charleston, South Carolina. Shirali is the author of GILT (YesYes Books, 2017), winner of the 2018 Milt Kessler Poetry Book Award. Winner of a Pushcart Prize and a former Philip Roth Resident at Bucknell University, she is also the recipient of prizes and honors from VIDA, Gulf Coast, Boston Review, and Cosmonauts Avenue. Shirali’s poems and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in American Poetry Review, Academy of American Poets, Blackbird, Diode, The Nation, Ninth Letter, Tupelo Quarterly, West Branch, and elsewhere. Shirali lives and teaches in Philadelphia, where she also recently co-organized We (Too) Are Philly, a summer poetry festival highlighting voices of color, and is currently an organizer for Blue Stoop, a local literary hub. She is a poetry editor for Muzzle Magazine and a poetry reader for Vinyl. Learn more at More from this author →