Raena+BW.jpg

Raena Shirali

Women in India are still accused of being witches. Are shunned by their families and fellow villagers. Are tortured and murdered. I sit in an orange chair at a small table in my house in Philadelphia. The distance between author and subject is a preoccupation that I have been rendering visible in this manuscript, and is the thread I wanted to preserve, regardless of where this poem’s revision took it. The tension of articulation in this poem dictated its revision arc—I’m trying to implicate myself, interrogate gendered archaic constructs, allow the imagination to conjure image, and question that very conjuring. Overwriting, when dealing with these myriad goals, is a vital tool. This poem’s first draft was around the length of its most recent iteration; by expanding in revision, I arrived at an articulation of what was tonally and thematically missing from the original. Saying more is one way to find a poem’s pulse. I think the most successful poems beat without showing you their heart; it logically follows that you, as the poet, may have to spend a great deal of time learning the contours of the heart, hearing its subdued second thud, before trimming it—that visible muscle—out.

Bracketed and quoted text was sampled from Gender Relations in Forest Societies in Asia: Patriarchy at Odds.

*

This revision originally appeared in American Poetry Review.

< draft >

“Why are women considered more antisocial than men, who are never or seldom identified as witches?”

archetype : Jharkhand :

conjure a culture predating plantations, the myths
that shape a woman accused. before
maligning, what did it mean to sit
alone, or in groups? imagine : they forage,

cloth slings bursting
with nuts & berries & wound
around a length of bamboo. this archetype
predates blame : here, daayani are

but women. they sit together, feet dangling
over a roadside ditch, sharing stories of men
who stand almost too tall, craning their necks
skyward, as if to project

a peacock’s air—male bird : all preen
& chosen. there are warnings. of villagers,
instead, who make shadows broad
as buildings’. or this is a landscape

where a woman sits alone, cheeks red with sweat
& the color red doesn’t signal.
there is no metaphor
for her joy. imagine : i’m digging

in the old-world soil, trying to find
an archetype ungendered. solitude i don’t have
to interpret. a woman lights a candle
& my imagination is a failure. women rustle the brush

together, & i theorize about the politics
of accusation like turning on or against
one’s kin is natural. & if i am aligned with anyone
as archetype, anyone

in Jharkhand, how can i say it’s not
with men : shaded safely at a distance. making
observations. o, the art of exaggeration.
taking note.

< REVISION >

[It is true that the dominant value of social life in the indigenous communities is collectivism, and anything that threatens it is branded as antisocial. But why are women considered more antisocial than men, who are never or seldom identified as witches?]


before plantations, women rustle the brush together,


cloth slings bursting with nuts & berries, wound
around a length of bamboo. here, daayani forage, are
but women. they sit together,

feet dangling over roadside ditches, sharing stories of men
who stand almost too tall, craning their necks skyward
as if to project a peacock’s air—male bird : all preen

& chosen. there are warnings. of villagers
instead, who make shadows broad
as buildings’. what did it mean to sit alone

or in groups? a woman lights a candle
& my imagination is a failure.
or a woman sits alone, cheeks red with sweat

& the color red doesn’t signal, there
are solitudes i don’t have
to interpret : no metaphor

for her joy. & if i am
aligned with anyone,               anyone
in Jharkhand, how can i say it’s not

with men : shaded safely at a distance
making observations. here : the art of taking
note.