At Home, In the Empire (2018 Contest Runner Up)

The patio at this bar births brown ladybugs

& I’m burning my mouth for fun. On the edges


          of desi women’s lips : milk souring, some liquor


to help us forget. Cities in America & I

am tired. Villages back home—I squint


          & almost belong—& train cars rattle, peopled,


my god, limbs everywhere. Call this day scant & hear

the letters wrong. Call me foreign


          & god have I complied. Women I’d call sister,


I see you. There’s soot coating rails & the heat

is our house & I can’t rid this book


          of my life, & we’re all coins left in fountains


making language of strife. Alina’s name is a song

& she knows it, & I’m veering political


          over cardamom at the bar, I gesture with my hands


& it is universal, I ask : what are we stained by

if not our love of men?


          Where do we go at sunset? Who sees us


on the ground in the dark, clouds of dust

in our wake, shuffling to or from ourselves? My mouth


          is on fire & I light the thing backwards


& Alina says today is the day of three-hundred hugs

just between us. She’s got a bottle


          in her hand & the posture


of an immigrant & I won’t rid this book

of our lives. This poem is about


          recognition. This poem is about wishful


thinking. Women, I want it to be

believable : that we leave the bar, the sky stupid


          with gold. That no one follows us home.



Raena Shirali is a poet, teaching artist, and editor from Charleston, South Carolina. Raena is the author of GILT (YesYes Books, 2017), winner of the 2018 Milt Kessler Poetry Book Award. A first-generation Indian American, Raena is the recipient of prizes and honors from VIDA, Gulf Coast, Boston Review, & Cosmonauts Avenue. Winner of a Pushcart Prize & a former Philip Roth Resident at Bucknell University, her poems & reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in American Poetry Review, Academy of American Poets, Blackbird, Ninth Letter, Diode, The Nation, West Branch, Tupelo Quarterly, & elsewhere. Raena lives in Philadelphia, where she recently co-organized We (Too) Are Philly, a summer poetry festival highlighting voices of color. She serves as Poetry Editor for Muzzle Magazine & Poetry Reader for Vinyl. Read more at