Collection of docu-poems searches for the truth about modern-day witch hunts.



Raena Shirali

Black Lawrence Press 

October 31, 2022

Paperback, 122 pages 



In summonings, Indian American author Raena Shirali describes violence against women in rural India as “current & real.” Her collection of docu-poems searches for the truth about modern-day witch hunts. She bases her poetry on actual events detailed in news and legal reports, first-person accounts, and nonfiction publications.  


The book focuses on occurrences within migrant communities on tea plantations. Colonial owners don’t provide adequate living conditions and healthcare, so it works to their advantage when workers are distracted by beliefs that females contain destructive evil spirits that harm them. Droughts, illness, hunger? A witch must have created their misfortune.  


The village men complain that with the tea plantation system, they are “not in charge of much else.” They feed on stories of evil female spirits with backward feet chewing out the hearts of husbands. Perhaps burning witches is an Indian male’s version of cutting oneself to release emotional pain. 


What ties these acts of violence to women is that they are “grounded in profound misogyny.” The parallels between India’s and America’s cultural norms and violent narratives fascinate the writer. In both democracies, which supposedly value equality, gang rape cases surge and men abuse women to maintain patriarchal order. Global experts identify India as the country where women are most at risk of sexual violence. The U.S. ranks third. 


The book opens with a poem in the voice of a murdered daayan, an accused witch, in a community shuttered with superstition. About India, the author says, “here, men wield village secrets / like weapons, catapult accusations / through the field. When children get sick, famine and floods strike, cattle die, the well dries up, men attack women.  


Shirali sees herself, a single Indian American woman, telling a story “…to which I’ll never know an end.” She laments that women never teach each other how to escape from the accusations by the Ojhas, community religious leaders with the power to trap daayan.  


Childless widows are most at risk; after their deaths, their land passes on to their closest male relative. In “daayan, feet facing forward,” the poet writes from the point of view of an accused widow savoring life and determined not to die: “there’s too much else out here / to love: the air smells bright; shells of pepper / twirl with abandon….” Being alone means being in danger. The writer says, “without warning, we turn on ourselves.” She adds, “I’m telling you / all she did   was exist.”  


The author speaks to women, asking them to resist destruction as a group and to remember the fallen. In “the voice of the accused,” she says, “o goddess of lust & violence, I tire of trying to find peace. / I want to unleash. To unearth / rage, kali, we lived & our bodies were / trespassed. release us from this cage.” Her anger rises like the mist over the tea fields. Shirali says, “even in such / privileged space / I’ve seen / what men can do.”  


In “one red thread through the middle,” the writer laments “governments fully in the know / passing laws for the cow & laws for their gods / no space in between for a woman.” She continues, “I declare I’m here / to investigate   but this field is one of ash....”  


One section of the book is written as correspondence, addressed to others by their first initial or a blank. In the letters, the author wrestles with nightmares, mourns the women, and struggles to understand the brutality. Her obsession with the ghosts and her desire to understand where she fits on the continuum of witches drive her reflections. She wonders, “who is free—& where—to speak.” Later Shirali says, I don’t know why / my story matters, I don’t know / why this story.” She’s not fully at home in either country, and she admits, “peace is illusion / everywhere” but “women are worth” our own saving. The author is told to go home, that she’s not safe in India, but she recognizes she’s also not safe in America. “I am foreign & so nothing has ever made sense. I’m domestic & so expected to understand.” 


Unexpected imagery enhances her poems, like when she describes village men as a “loose crescent approaching.” Some of her repeated images are of fire, mud, sharp teeth, and white painted faces (the Hindu color of mourning). She also uses shifts in point of view, all-lowercase words, and placement of words on white space with great skill. 


Throughout the collection, brackets indicate language from anthropological research, which can occasionally be intrusive. At the back of the book, summonings contains end notes. They require much flipping back and forth from poetry to end pages, especially for readers unfamiliar with the culture; it would be helpful to include that information next to the poems. 


The end notes also include an extensive list of resources. The glossary was helpful, but a number of words unfamiliar to English-speaking readers were not included. Even English words may have multiple meanings. “Auspicious,” a word defined as “favorable or being given a sign of success,” may have another layer of meaning in India, one we can’t fully translate, as suggested when the author says, “auspicious, auspicious / that the sun won’t come.” 


Anger fuels Shirali’s words in “coldplay goes to india during holi.” Cultural appropriation in a world where Indians are in the background, “an extra in someone else’s weekend,” infuriates her. Her last line reads, “romance something of your own.” She admits, “anger is a form of grief.” In her final poem, the author says, “I won’t rid this book / of our lives, this poem is about / recognition.” She hopes for a world where “no one follows us home.” 

Raena Shirali is the author of two collections of poetry. Her first book, GILT (YesYes Books, 2017), won the 2018 Milt Kessler Poetry Book Award, and her second, summonings (Black Lawrence Press, 2022)won the 2021 Hudson Prize. 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. Formerly a Co-Editor-in-Chief of Muzzle Magazine, Shirali now serves as Faculty Advisor for Folio—a literary magazine dedicated to publishing works by undergraduate students at the national level. She holds an MFA in Poetry from The Ohio State University and is an Assistant Professor of English at Holy Family University. The Indian American poet was raised in Charleston, South Carolina, and now lives in Philadelphia.