Reading Notes: Gilt by Raena Shirali

64º ~ another beauty of a spring day, all the trees are in full leaf, the wind goes gently, and the sun & clouds give & take the sky

Like most writers, my home office is in a perpetual state of being overwhelmed by the sheer number of books waiting to be read. I spend little on cosmetics and fashion, but books, oh the books (and journals) I buy. Here’s a glimpse at two of my “to-be-read” shelves.

In the new-found clock-freedom of my summer, I’m jumping into the fray. Today’s read is Gilt by my Home School friend Raena Shirali. I met Raena last August in Hudson, NY, when we were assigned to the same workshop cohort during The Home School. In that brief week together, I came to admire not only Raena’s poems but also her vital spirit.

Gilt is a book filled with wit and sarcasm, brilliant images and heart-wrenching truths, mostly surrounding how a young woman comes of age as the daughter of two continents. (I keep wanting to type Gilt as “guilt,” a play on words I’m sure Raena planned, and I can just see the quirk of her lips when she thinks about it.)

The speaker of these poems, like Raena, is the American daughter of Indian immigrants, in this case growing up in South Carolina, but often visiting India for family events. The speaker is concerned with finding her way beneath the weight of mixed messages from her family and from American pop culture & societal norms about body image, “successful” relationships, and how to be a “good” daughter. Amongst these more intimate poems, Shirali includes overtly political poems that tackle violence against women in India and violence begotten from religious & political differences there. Throughout the poems set in America, the reader can never forget that the speaker is growing up in the South as a person of color, with all the covert & overt racism that includes. Gilt is complex and multi-layered. I cannot sum it up or do it justice in this small space, except to say, I am changed for having read it.

My heart ached for the speaker many times, as I read lines like “I wasn’t a fragrant bouquet / of anything but a thing without roots to put down in this field” from “Engagement Party, Georgia” or “look at the beast // you’re becoming, pulling yourself in two / directions, one with each hand” from “feet planted.”

Yet, subject matter alone cannot sustain a book; there must be compelling writing as well. My test for this is how much underlining and dog-earing I do. Here are just a few phrases that caught my eye & my pen:

  • “your small thicket of mistakes”
  • “uselessness: limp knees // unshackled from our brains”
  • “i have run / my fingers over jagged men with light skin & come out raw”
  • “o america, i too, have a stash / of sashes”
  • “barnacles stud my knees as i sink deeper / into pluff mud”
  • “The moon’s nerve / is pinched outside the barred window”

Finally, given my recent admonition to myself to write the truth, I have to thank Raena for the poem “DARE I WRITE IT.” In this poem, the poet lays it all bare and ends with a phrase I’ll be tacking up on my wall.

“dare i chameleon. dare i write. dare i girl.”

Yes, Raena Shirali, please dare all of this and more. I’m looking forward to the new poems and the next book.

Posted by Sandy Longhorn