by Leila Chatti
Copper Canyon Press, 2020
In this stunning debut collection of poetry, Leila Chatti, a citizen of both the United States and Tunisia, brings together a variety of topics that, historically, have not oft been talked about—not in public and not in poems—and when they have arisen, they have often come bearing shame. In this book, Chatti looks this shame right in the eyes, exploring both religious and cultural taboos surrounding women’s bodies, sexuality, and bleeding. In highly personal poems, broadcasted through the lyric “I,” she shares her experience of a uterine tumor that develops in her early twenties and the subsequent “flooding,” as physicians refer to it as, that occurs. Chatti uses this to explore flooding in the Qu’ran, and specifically as it pertains to women and menstruation. The sexism present in both religion and the U.S. medical system are scrutinized in this book—and how dangerous, and even fatal, the presence of this sexism can be—within these two institutions that are often crucial and life-saving.
This is a big, beautiful book of poems—brave, defiant, honest, and generous. However, while it is defiant, it is also devotional—the first acknowledgement at the end of the book going to God himself. This is not an energy-force God or an American transcendentalist “God is in everyone” type God, but a patriarchal, male he-God, God with a capital G, that many of us grew up with. Chatti writes in “Litany While Reading Scripture in the Gynecologic Oncology Waiting Room”:
And God said, highly favored
And God said, condemned
And God said, I will blot out man
whom I have created, for I am sorry
that I have made them
And God said, listen
And sunk a boy
in her like a stone
Though Chatti appears strongly connected to her Islamic faith, this faith is not without complications and questions, as are expressed throughout the book. Mary, who appears in both the Bible and the Qu’ran, and who is the only woman to be named in the Qu’ran, is an important figure in Deluge, and serves as the conduit for some of the most compelling poems. The presence of faith and religion in the poems (Chatti grew up in a household with a Muslim father and a Catholic mother) perhaps separates Chatti from many of her contemporaries, who write poems of secular spirituality.
Words, A Sanctuary
However, what Chatti is most devoted to are words themselves. In what feels like the most candid section of the book, she writes: “When the word of God came down it came down to a man. I will not accuse God of lacking imagination, but I will set the accusation down where He can see it. Nevertheless, I take great care to respect the Word, and words generally, the only place I have ever encountered God, thus something of a sanctuary” (from “Awrah,” p. 74; awrah means nakedness, taboo; that which is prohibited from public view, and has evolved in multiple languages to mean woman, she tells us). Chatti is generous but not overly hand holding in providing definitions and access points for the many religious references and medical terminology found in the book.
One of the things that makes this book so exciting to read is that, in addition to a compelling narrative arc (what’s going to happen next? what will be revealed?), the poems look so wildly different from one from one page to the next. You might find a poem that mirrors the shape of a tumor (p. 23) or a traditional form like a ghazal (p. 34) or a cento (p. 84-85). The innovative forms of the poems align Chatti with some of the best writers of contemporary poetry, ones who write books that can’t be categorized as “hybrid,” as they are definitely poetry, but that use a variety of innovative structures and forms—both created and traditional (I’m thinking of Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas). The forms are expressive of the content and are apt carriers. “Deluge,” the final poem in the collection, feels like a rushing onslaught of voices—in sync with the title of the poem and the book. Say it. Deluge. There are multiple poems in the collection with this title, offering different possibilities for where the word can lead.
One poem with a particularly interesting form is “Etiology” (p. 30). This poem explores an adolescent sexual experience (adolescence, this formative period, is a place the book keeps going back to in order to explore the speaker’s current views and beliefs, and to provide context for the situation she finds herself in and the shame that surrounds it). The repeated redacted word indicates, I think, the ongoing censorship of female voices and bodies. We are invited to guess what the missing word is, which has the effect of engaging a collaborative readership, and as the redacted word takes on different meanings in the poem, it has the effect of emphasizing contradictions. This book is filled with (and maybe even loves) contradictions—the contradictions of self and the contradictions that appear in relationships, specifically the speaker’s relationships with men, and the illumined contradictions, too, of religion.
One of the most striking features of this book is that the poems do not forsake language for emotion or emotion for language—they are able to have both, together, married. The poems are filled with lyric grace and intensity but also have a clear storyline, narrative, or through-line (though some poems are more lyric than others); these are not poems that purposefully obscure or that become lost in language. They retain their emotional resonance. One comes, as well, however, for the masterfully employed images, metaphors, and similes, as in this excerpt from “Waking after the Surgery” (p. 60):
my self unlatched for a while as if it were
a dog I had simply released from its leash
or a balloon slipped loose from my grip
in a room with a low ceiling, my life
bouncing back within reach, my life
bounding toward me when called.
God of Mary/Mary of God
So which is it—God of Mary? or Mary of God? Some of the most compelling poems in the book are ones that speak to or invoke Mary, including “Immaculate or Otherwise” (p. 42), “Mary in the Waiting Room at the Gynecologist’s Office” (p. 11), “Mary Speaks” (p. 16), “Questions Directed Toward the Idea of Mary” (p. 68), which might be my favorite, and the startling “Confession” (p. 3), which opens the book and sets the tone:
Truth be told, I like Mary a little better
when I imagine her like this, crouched
and cursing, a boy-God pushing on
her cervix (I like remembering
she had a cervix, her body ordinary
and so like mine)
The role of Mary is one of complexity. Sometimes Mary appears as both friend and confidante, but perhaps a friend one is more than just a little jealous of, so blessed by God as she is, chosen, inhabiting the coveted role of motherhood (Chatti expresses not knowing if she will be able to conceive, because of the illness), and giving birth to none less than the son of God, while also maintaining purity. It was interesting to read this during the same time period as watching A Handmaid’s Tale,with both addressing the ways the worth of women’s bodies has been determined by their ability to bear children.
But Mary too is a woman who has something unwanted, unasked for, happen to her body: conception, immaculate. We are shown the divine in Mary and also the human, and we are shown the divine in each other and also the human (doctors who have the tremendous power to save lives but who also put their patients at extreme unnecessary risk through very “casual” sexism, such as the recommendation of a highly dangerous, life-threatening procedure that later becomes banned, to “look good in a bikini”).
What Is It About…
Men populate this book; at times, tender, loving, sincere, “benevolent” (accomplices)—other times, obtuse, ignorant, problematic, damaging. They come in the form of lover, partner, father, God, doctor. The male doctors appear in sharp contrast to the female doctor who appears in the back of the book in the notes section: “with deep gratitude for Dr. Amy J. Reed for her activism on the dangers of power morcellation…Dr. Reed died of uterine sarcoma in 2017.” This is a book of binaries, and of tension. Between new and old. Men and women. Eastern and Western. It is also a book of confrontation. Clear looking. And questioning.
Threaded throughout is a critique of the U.S. medical system and the biases toward women that are perpetuated by this patriarchal, male-dominated system that often takes the power away from people and their own bodies, and that is often found to be lacking in empathy and listening, and is particularly damaging to women, young women, and, as is pointed out in this book, attractive young women, whose pain may not be taken as seriously. This reminds me of the quote by Hildegard of Bingen (one of the voices that is part of the choir of voices that appears in the final poem “Deluge”): “We cannot live in a world that is not our own, in a world that is interpreted for us by others. . .Part of the terror is to take back our own listening, to use our own voice.”
A Voice in Exile
Chatti very much claims her own voice in this collection and ownership over all that has happened to her, as she exerts power over her own story by choosing to tell it—this book seems the result and ordering of the deluge of all that has happened. This is someone’s sense-making (of what can often feel senseless), and we are generously let in to the experience. I am reminded of the Margaret Atwood quote: “A word after a word after another word is power.” Through vivid documentation, exploration, and questioning, she is able to transform this crisis of the body and of the spirit, and to move beyond it. The inclusion of the story of Mary (and by challenging the narrative most commonly told about Mary) and the ancient tellings of the Qu’ran add depth and richness. Chatti importantly adds to the ongoing literary conversation about Mary, speaking to poets like Marie Howe in “Magdalene—The Seven Devils” and Mary Szybist in her book Incarnadine. The collection ends with Chatti’s spiritual arrival, where she is delivered to a more complicated state of being, full of nuances, but also celebratory and resplendent, most fully expressed in “Sainte-Baume” (p. 83), the second to last poem in the book.
Her voice too, is a voice that speaks to us from the wilderness of exile, and, as many of us have entered our own exiles recently and been reminded of the fragility of our bodies, collectively, this collection resonates even more deeply. “I understand the blood as exile,” she sings (p. 74), as there are strict rules in Islam about what women can and can’t do while menstruating, which, in this years-long sickness, deeply affects her. She speaks to us from the other side of illness, of someone who has been there and came through. “We don’t have bodies; we are bodies,” I remember Mary Szybist saying after a reading at Yale University. This powerful first collection contends with just that: what it means to be a body, while honoring the triumphant gaze of the spirit.
- Devotion and Defiance:A Review of Leila Chatti’s DELUGE - September 19, 2020