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) . . .
Thus begins Leila Chatti’s single-sentence “Confession,” which serves as the opening to Deluge, the Tunisian-American poet’s second full-length collection (Copper Canyon Press, 2020). Truth be told, I like Chatti all the more for daring to depict the adolescent Virgin sweating and swearing, “squatt[ing] indignant in a desert.” For all the emphasis on chaste conception in different religious traditions, little attention has been spent in detailing the process of birthing a divine child, though the Qur’an does allude to Mary’s anguish in the passage that Chatti takes as her epigraph: “Oh, I wish I had died before this and was in oblivion, forgotten.”
Some readers might object to the more graphic language and imagery that allows Chatti to share imagined tableaux as intense as the visions of crucifixion described by medieval mystics. Whether the poet is imagining Mary in ancient or contemporary settings (enduring contractions beneath a palm tree or fidgeting in a gynecologist’s waiting room), Chatti emphasizes “the overlooked humanness,” the “womanness” of “the Blessed / Mother” (“Arwah”). While some religious and non-religious readers may prefer to shy away from anatomically correct visions, preferring to maintain a blue veil between the sacred and the (supposedly) profane, Chatti’s poems leave us wondering about the original purpose of an immaculate birth scene. Some audiences would prefer to imagine the holy mother expelling Jesus from her womb as easily as she might release a held breath, but such elisions do not provide much comfort (or even recognition) to women who suffer from reproductive difficulties whether in childbirth or at other times as many do.
Even before Chatti developed a pathologically heavy blood flow, due to uterine tumors, in her early twenties, she recognized the exile, the restrictions, the punishment that culture inflicts on bleeding women. In “Mubtadiyah,” the Arabic defined in the epigraph as “one who sees blood for the first time,” Chatti recalls the consternation that accompanied her first menstrual period. Even without the emphasis that Christianity places on “original sin,” a Muslim girl would still be cognizant of her culture’s conflation of femaleness with uncleanness, defectiveness, and shamefulness. Variations on these words reoccur throughout the collection.
As a twelve-year-old, bleeding for the first time, Chatti knew “enough to be frightened,” not so much by the appearance of blood, but by the awareness of the impending surveillance to which all females are subjected. Although she admits that she “had not been good / all [her] life,” before “this first vermilion drip,” she had “lived unobserved, [her] sins not sins because no one looked.” Even outside of religious cultures, young females learn to expect judgment from those who know them and those who do not.
Still, at puberty, Chatti could not have expected the “deluge,” that personal overflow that she describes in the titular poem as “so much of me / outside of me and still more / leaving.” She would not have expected to find herself bleeding “like a can of cherries” at Christmas. She would not be prepared for “[c]lots sluicing down [her] thighs,” “[s]tains blooming on sheets like poinsettias” (“Menorrhagia”).
Illness and other tribulations are often linked to moral failings in religious ideology although motives for punishment may not be perceptible to sufferers. Not all who succumbed to the flood of scripture would have recognized or understood their contribution to the general transgressiveness that God intended to punish even if they were more mature (age-wise) than Chatti at the onset of menstruation. Chatti reminds us of the flood victims’ lack of awareness by citing Matthew 24:39 as the epigraph of her poem: “And they were oblivious, until the flood came and swept them all away.” If you don’t understand what you are being punished for, how can you learn from being chastised?
Many of Chatti’s poems detail efforts to come to terms with the impact her physical crisis has had on her spirituality. In “Angel,” she describes a voice, an inner tormenter, that says, “you deserve that which has happened to you.” Unable to offer an acceptable justification for the existence of pain, the voice insists, “God has plans for you,” then, expands. “I didn’t say they were good.” What is most poignant in this poetic autopathography is the sense of spiritual exile the suffering woman experiences as a result of her illness. “For two years I do not touch the word of God, do not enter His house, do not sing / His favorite songs, by which I mean pray,” she writes in “Awrah,” the longest poem in the collection. “What purpose now, if I was made to worship You / and You forbid me worship?” As Chatti explains in an endnote, menstruating women are excluded from praying, touching the Qur’an, and entering mosques.
She gets the impression that “God didn’t / want to hear about” her tribulations from the men who offered translations of His intentions. At the end of “Exegesis,” she writes,
. . . God knows best. If He calls a curse a blessing
then so it is. And he said she [Mary] was
clean—she never knew a man. I’ve known men but
never a god
that bled and lived. But I did.
The final line of this poem may remind some readers of stigmata, the marks of stigma as well as the mystical, recurrent bleeding from wounds that recall the crucifixion. (Born to a Catholic mother and Muslim father, the poet often reflects a nuanced understanding of the teachings of both Christianity and Islam.) In studies of menstruation in various cultures, women’s ability to withstand recurrent blood loss may be cast as frightening, but also as miraculous. For those who suffer from chronic illness, martyrdom offers little, but at least some solace. When asked her religion, Chatti answers, “surrender” (“Testimony”). This acceptance offers some “reassurance / that one can truly suffer, can bleed / and bleed as if gutted” and “still be loved by God / and, more importantly, love Him back” (“Awrah”).
This epiphanic reconnection derives, in part, from her imaginative connection with the only female to be named in the Qur’an. In the final poems in the collection, Chatti explores her fascination, applying intellect to “ascertain a name for [her] condition—not the illness but / the subsequent obsession with the Mother of Sorrows.” Chatti does not practice Mariolatry. That is, she does not worship the Virgin. Instead, she admits to studying the resemblances between the venerated figure and herself. Chatti “probes” not with an aim to degrade an icon, but as a way of uncovering what has been “obscured” by cultural mystification. In this way, she discovers that she does not “resent” the “ingénue who yielded / to God’s impossible request,” but, instead, finds “a sister” in this “favored girl, exemplar / of the lesser sex.”
Elsewhere in the collection, Chatti acknowledges other sisters in suffering. She pays tribute to poets who also came to celebrate their uteri; lines from Lucille Clifton and Anne Sexton are quoted directly in one segment of “Arwah.” Chatti also references feminist scholars such as Susan Sontag and Simone de Beauvoir. While much credit is due to these foremothers’ efforts to speak openly of sexual health issues such as hysterectomies, abortion, menopause, and breast cancer, a number of chronic gynecological conditions are less frequently acknowledged in public conversations so that women who suffer disabling symptoms may not seek medical assistance, fearing accusations of melodramatic fragility. Recent nonfiction prose has brought attention to endometriosis (Abby Norman’s Ask Me About My Uterus, 2018) and to vulvodynia (Susanna Kaysen’s The Camera My Mother Gave Me, 2001). The poets Bettina Judd and Dominique Christina draw upon historical accounts of gynecological experimentation on African American women in their recent collections (Patient, 2014, and Anarcha Speaks: A History in Poems, 2018) with Judd connecting the past with her modern-day experience as a patient, though she does not divulge as much detail on her oophorectomy (ovarian removal) as Chatti does in gazing straight through her navel to the tumor she describes as a “chthonic pomegranate,” a “Pompeian fig cocooned.” In “Myomectomy” (fibroid removal), she describes the tumor being lifted out of her “split” womb like a Caesarian-born infant (“bald creature with no father / and no future. Savior of no one”).
Deluge is likely to be found on my reading list the next time I teach a course on literature and medicine at the college level, partly because of the way Leila Chatti’s work reveals complex intersections between gender, race, religion, disability, and medicine. The subject matter is enough to merit attention, but individual poems offer even more to the student of prosody as Chatti makes skillful use of traditional conventions (anaphora, fragmentation, ekphrasis) and form (the prayer, the ghazal, the nocturne, the image poem, the prose poem, the grid poem). She also engages in innovation that invites interactivity, employing redaction and enumeration so that the reader is compelled to supply missing words or work out how to read lines when numbered phrases do not abide with sequential expectations.
“Sometimes,” Chatti acknowledges,
I distract myself with language, as though I might find God in the lacunae between letters, in the ink of the letters themselves. Pain does not have a language, but God is where, in language, pain grew from punishment like a woman from a rib. What else can you call it but divine, the way ill stems from evil’s root, patient from suffering, blessing and blood on the same dark vine—
Chatti, Leila. Deluge. Copper Canyon Press, 2020.