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2021 Hudson Prize Winner : Raena Shirali

 

We’re so pleased to announce that we have chosen a winner for the 2020 Hudson Prize. A big, heartfelt congratulations goes to Raena Shirali for winning the prize with her poetry collection summonings. Congratulations also  to this year’s finalists and semi-finalists. Thanks to everyone who participated in the 2021 Hudson Prize!

Raena Shirali is the author of GILT (YesYes Books, 2017), which won the 2018 Milt Kessler Poetry Book Award. Winner of a Pushcart Prize & a former Philip Roth Resident at Bucknell University, Shirali is also the recipient of prizes and honors from VIDA, Gulf Coast, Boston Review, & Cosmonauts Avenue. Her work has appeared in American Poetry Review, Academy of American Poets’ Poem-A Day, The Nation, The Rumpus, & elsewhere. Shirali holds an MFA in Poetry from The Ohio State University and is an Assistant Professor of English at Holy Family University in Philadelphia. She is also Co-Editor-in-Chief of Muzzle Magazine. (Author photo: Hannah Yoon)

 


Foreword


 

summonings investigates the ongoing practice of witch hunting in India—specifically, in Jharkhand & in migrant adivasi communities of tea plantations in West Bengal (though the phenomenon has also been documented in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, & Bihar). As recently as October 2020, the very month in which I am writing this précis, articles noting the pervasiveness of witch hunting are being published by organizations like Vice & BBC. Individual states have passed protective legislation as recently as 2015, but these crimes, nonetheless, often go unreported & unpunished, due to mistrust of law enforcement & villagers’ tendencies towards self-protection, among other factors. Some of the dynamics of the cultures of accusation that you encounter in this text will feel familiar; others may seem novel or difficult to fathom. But what ties them to you, reader, whoever & wherever you are, is the extent to which they are grounded in profound misogyny, & the fact that these incidents are current & real.

These poems explore how antiquated & existing norms surrounding female mysticism in India & America inform each culture’s treatment of women. More broadly, they ask: how do first- & second-generation immigrants reconcile the self with the lineages that shape it, in particular when those lineages are inextricable from misogynistic & violent narratives? My own parents immigrated from India to America four years before I was born; to that end—difficult as it is to navigate my two cultures’ combating pressures—I am fascinated by parallels between their cultural norms. Expectations surrounding women’s behavior coalesce in both countries’ conceptions of marriage & the household. Netflix specials are made to highlight each nation’s most horrific gang rape cases. As democracies, both nations purport to value equality, yet are sites of nationalist movements rooted in racist & colonialist ideologies—ideologies that, in both countries, have involved literally hunting women as a means of maintaining patriarchal order. And in my own life, my unifying experience with both of my cultures is that in neither am I safe—that is, neither one is safe for women. Accordingly, my vision for this particular collection crystalized upon encountering Thomson Reuters’ findings from June 25, 2018: [India is the world’s most dangerous country for women due to the high risk of sexual violence…according to a poll of global experts…The only Western nation in the top 10 was the United States, which ranked third when respondents were asked where women were most at risk of sexual violence, harassment and being coerced into sex].

Indebted to the docupoetics tradition, this book interrogates the shifting role of witness, & the political implications & shortcomings of writing Subaltern personae while acknowledging my Westernized positionality. Holding central that an ethical poetics must be grounded in the inevitable failure to embody the Other, this book grapples with a query that resonated throughout my research, articulated here by scholar Ayesha Matthan: [How do we make sense of the overall dismal condition of Indian women—measured in terms of the sex-ratio, life expectancy, literacy, income, subjection to violence, equality of opportunity, legal equality, and societal attitudes towards her—in a society that worships the all-powerful goddess in her many forms?]. I offer you here no answers, but attempts; my failed conjurings, faint summonings. The smell of ash in wind—I follow it.

 


Selections from summonings


 

at first, trying to reach those accused

 

i swallowed burnt matchsticks, her hair a tar tumbleweed

in the room’s south-facing corner. i did this to pray & i did this

to feel. & then i swallowed my old chant : his name, his name : like i’m not made

of my oppressor’s undoing. & then i swallowed theory. i swallowed

plantation politics, tried prying plantains from my lips, plump from sitting

on a velvet couch & touching them dry to my wrists while reading

about her body. strung up for slaughter, called names in the oppressor’s

language, covered in silt. & then i swallowed puddles. & then i swallowed sandalwood

& tried to cloak & cover & render her erotic, for the oppressor sometimes saves

the objects of his desire.

                                             & then i swallowed desire. i held the smoldering

cow dung patty at my core. i smelled like it. i was shit & wanted

to be shit. & then i swallowed pretense. swallowed countries. why try to get close

when you could become, i said, & then i swallowed myself, chased me down

with goat milk & shorn fur. & then i turned to the page

& swallowed it & i took it like a shot & took it like a man & took

the punches & still wandered through mazes of huts asking my people

what it felt like to be oppressed. & then i swallowed tea. i swallowed the fertilized

soil. & then i swallowed braids & locust shells & i wanted to smell like incense

because the oppressor values patchouli & cedar so i bought a candle

to smell like my heritage & then i swallowed wax & was viscous & suddenly

then i could not move. & my ankles were bound but they left my wrists

free. & i could not speak but still i mouthed a name i’d never heard & i felt her

like my own ghost. there was no magic : it was not profound.

 

 

daayan at gold streak river

 

       if at dusk the river’s peach trembles into soot : if hip-thick in mist i trace

petals on waves : if the ripple slurs on : past its outer limit : if the fact

 

       of my finger makes the sky gild : if from a distance i look like a ghost :

it’s because i’m out here with my ghosts : if the men yell [bongas] : suspect our flush

 

       places wax carnal : if plumes off the shoreline mean that’s our earth

killing again : & we know about killing : about twine binding ankles

 

       to a thin branch : if my ghosts tell me how they lived : morning

sizzling dew off the shrubs : the smallness of a tea leaf in a hand : the power

 

       to crush or fray a living thing : fiber by fiber : if i say to one it’s getting

dark : & she turns her head toward me : backlit by gold streak : says, but you

 

       are the matron of water : her eyes pepper-swollen : limbs thick

with sinking : if the castor plant grazed her skin nightly : if we float : if we

 

       float : if we float & soak the lentils & follow the field’s rows

& if we came here as brides & they threw us a feast : said welcome : sisters,

 

       i say, here we are at the end of the earth : if the sky immolates: magenta

rimming the day as it dies : if it looks hopeless : if it is

 

       hopeless : on the shore men jeer & hurl branches : if we don’t turn

back : if we wade out together : cursed women : & find mountains instead