Austin Segrest | Contributing Writer
Copper Canyon Press, 2020
Leila Chatti’s Deluge issues from a place of confinement, enclosure, and conclusion. Consider the hortus conclusus, scripture’s enclosed garden that represents Mary, virginity, the womb, the nuptial chamber—in short, the female body. Scholar Hannah Lucas writes that “situating the female body within the enclosed garden is a way to manage its messy implications.”
The speaker’s experience with a uterine tumor shows her the extent of her female enclosure. But if we have an exposure of enclosures, we also have an opening of/to that which she wants (en)closed. She comes to see that health, safety, and control were never secure; that she’s more exiled than protected from the prying eyes and instruments of men, from God’s terrible plans, his punishment and judgement. The result is a fear of—an ambivalence about—both limitation and indeterminacy.
Constantly waiting, being seen, being told, recumbent, legs splayed in stirrups, the speaker finds herself in the position of “grotesque and absurd” womanhood: the vulnerable object, the passive recipient, the susceptible vessel. The paradox, contained in the homonyms “bear” and “bare,” is brought to a head in her “unbearable” experience, in which nothing but (potentially) death is born, and which threatens to leave her barren.
Enfolded rhymes echoing off the walls, “Mubtadiyah” begins,
Hidden in a dim stall as the muezzin called
all worshippers to prayers, I touched privately
the indelible stain. And watched, with a nascent sense
of kinship, the women washing
through the interstice of the door,
their veils slipping off like water, water
spotting their clothes like rain.
The poems of Deluge fill and overflow, define and defy, boundaries—proprietary, formal, syntactical. Chatti’s heady music is headlong, baroque with wordplay and far-flung diction. A sparkling verbal intelligence and keen ear yoke and extend a culmination of ironies:
Flew home for Christmas, plane niveous as a dove. The window’s bleed hole haloed, a nimbus of tinselly frost. Leaned feebly against the pane. The cities rutilant, scarred by streets. The lakes spattered black and viscous. The sky blushing as if shamed.(“Menorrhagia”)
As her condition spirals out of control (one poem is in the shape of a spiral), the poems burst at the seams with her body’s “mess,” overflowing the boundaries of female subordination and silence. “I fuck men,” the speaker declares in “Immaculate or Otherwise,”
and receive the punctual mess.
Always they think I should be grateful
for the stain like a petal pressed
between my legs, think this a miracle
against their clumsiness, the wilted
condom leaking in the dark.
She can’t help but see the garden’s double-standards and veils as delimiting, can’t help but hear “wedlock’s / lock click shut.” Can’t help but imagine the
number of lives my size, billowing specters(“Hymen”)
of dresses on a line
of possibility . . .
Yet enclosure proves to be everywhere compromised. In “Mubtadiyah,” the women in their stalls are “spotted” with figurative “rain.” The speaker isn’t fully “hidden,” but rather subject to gaps, through which to spy and be spied upon. Furthermore, the poem’s epigraph, a passage from the Holy Qur’an, assures us, and the speaker, that God’s “keepers . . . know whatever [she does].” This is not a protection, but an exile: others are being protected from her.
. . . God’s reproachful
eye turned my way, a searchlight eternally
searching, and seeing and seeing . . .
The speaker’s medical condition manifests this faulty enclosure. Once seemingly bound, her body is “suddenly” (as she likes to say, with high drama) out of bounds, unruly:
And so it was—twenty-two and suddenly(“Deluge”)
gushing, as if a dam had burst or a thundercloud
deep inside the storm of me, the flood
like a horse loosed from its stable, blood
racing down my thighs . . .
Her hidden and supposedly harmful “vermilion drip” is writ large. For two years she gushes, pours, and leaks, the legendary “sealed fountain” within the garden bursting forth. The cause is a uterine tumor that grows large, threatens malignancy and barrenness, and is eventually removed. “[B]are / under paper, a bright bulb,” she’s constantly being examined by doctors. Her hospital gown is paper-thin and gaping in the back; she’s always trying “to hold / closed where [she is] exposed.”
Hemmed in by threat, by death, harm, shame, failure, exile (an enclosure of exposures), Deluge verges on the macabre. The book’s tone acts as the antitype of the feminine ideal (purity, modesty) the speaker was raised under. A fetus “latches in the hollow / of a woman like a leech” (“God’s Will”). Bathtubs brim with blood-black water. In a nightmare, a bleeding woman is forced to eat “her clots, round as peas” (“Portrait of the Illness as Nightmare”). Mother Mary, the “One Who is Most Clean,” is
unclean, her incarmined(“Awrah”)
hellward crown slicked
as if with lust, her mouth opening to howl
. . .
a wretched two-headed creature
. . .
the offal of God’s
will sloughed as if onto an abattoir’s floor . . .
But even as they exceed enclosure, the poems long for it. Hence, Deluge’s scripture-esque rhetoric of determination and explicit interest in etiology. Poem after poem pivots, “and so . . . and so . . .” From “Immaculate or Otherwise”:
There’s a reason, my halfhearted
mantra against all that dejects
me . . .
Tongue-in-cheek, the speaker asks her hymen (the “[s]econd blood” she “never knew”),
. . . did you speak(“Hymen”)
with God and conclude I hadn’t
use for you?
The need for conclusion even leads her to flirt with the idea that her illness is divine punishment, something determined and self-centering. From “Awrah”:
I understand the blood as exile and cry out from the island it makes of me. I cry out in the way I am allowed, which is in puling, plaintive sounds. Why, O Lord, have you punished me . . .
Her medical condition and its effects—all the mess, exclusion, a sense of uncertainty—leaves the speaker only too aware of how dependent she is on the futile desire to control her body: “What I wanted, always, to be: / in control” (“Mother”); how dependent she is on occupying the center of attention, where she locates herself in most of the poems (the phrase “in/at the center” recurs). For example, “Myomectomy” begins,
At the center of the dark
room an aureole: there,
pricked at the wrists
by IV cords, robed except for
the waist, my body . . .
And as she admits in “Odalisque (Polaroid Taken One Day before the Surgery),”
The scene, lacking
distraction, concedes me inordinate
importance, this is how
I see myself,
and how I wish to be seen—
She’s forced to confront how dependent she is on the feeling of being wanted: “I’m anxious as the moon gnawing through a day’s haze to be seen” (“Awrah”), and on not being left out: “in the bad dark / no one will let you in” (“Portrait of the Illness as Nightmare”).
Of course, we’re all like this. But only occasionally do we recognize the extent of our vanity. For the speaker, it wasn’t “until the blood surged,” until she realized “I will die.” Before her disease, she had it “easy.”
The paradox of exposed enclosure leaves her caught in-between—wanting both out and in. No surprise, then, that Deluge’s ekphrastic and persona poems show the speaker never quite able to fully embody herself or others. From “Landscape with Bleeding Woman”:
I won’t be the last
to look into a painting
like a mirror, to ignore
the glutted world in order
to better scrutinize the self . . .
Dwelling in Keatsian uncertainties proves challenging. In “Haemorrhoissa,” inquiry is a facade for comparison: “Did she, like me . . .”; and for certainty: “She was the kind to need and need, like me . . .”
However, the poem ends by asserting a telling difference between the speaker and her subject. Said to have been bleeding (also possibly from uterine fibroids) for twelve years, Haemorrhoissa, or “the woman with the issue of the blood,” features in several New Testament gospels. When Jesus comes through town, the woman endeavors to reach out in a crowd and touch his garment, as she’s heard that his touch can heal. When Jesus asks who’s touched him, having felt “the power go out of him,” Haemorrhoissa falls at his feet and is granted her wish. But it would have been different if it had been our speaker in the crowd:
. . . So when that god walked by, all boyish good
looks and not looking her way, she didn’t, for a moment, hesitate, she did
what I couldn’t do—a miracle within reach, she took it.
Haemorrhoissa’s ability to “[take] it”—both in the sense of enduring twelve years of being shunned, and in the sense of having the resolve to touch God, though she herself is untouchable—is unimaginable for the needy speaker of Deluge.
What, after all, was this speaker, at thirteen, to make of womanhood: hidden yet always seen, “highly favored,” yet “condemned,” a wound that wounds? How could she not internalize the sense of harm that
followed me(“Etiology”). like a strange dog into the house
How could such suspicion and hypocrisy not twist her sense of worth? “Did your worship falter once you knew you were good?” she asks in “Questions Directed toward the Idea of Mary.” How could she not feel like a “beast” inside, cursed with a latent dark power? In “Mother” she wonders,
. . . what else
skulked in me unseen, stirring in secret
vats with milk yet untapped, and blood,
the strange, new wellspring?
“Questions Directed toward the Idea of Mary” ends by naming this power:
How long did you live before yielding to your inevitable shame?
And how long before you realized (did you realize?) shame was a blade
you turned against yourself
and once you knew it
you could use it—
Shame’s blade is this speaker’s—and almost any girl’s—inheritance. Always scrutinizing, comparing, “dissecting” herself, she’s inscribed with distinctions and conclusions concerning desirability and permissibility. She harbors a perfectionist’s need to “be sure,” to find “success in determinable things”—sharpened all the while by deep-seated rage at her restriction. To be sure, it can be weaponized against herself and others. But could it also prove useful?
Like the surgeons who perform her myomectomy, maybe what the speaker is doing in the Mary poems is taking shame’s blade to the root of the problem.
The only woman named in the Holy Qur’an, the impossible standard against which Muslim women are compared, the example of the Virgin initially shames the speaker. After her illness, however, something gives. She starts to see the “One Who is Most Clean” critically. She starts to see herself in terms of the Blessed Mother: her uterine tumors are a kind of immaculate conception; visitations by male doctors are like Mary’s angelic messengers; her lack of choice in bearing an awful burden leaves her as feckless as the Virgin must have been.
At the same time, she comes to see Mary in terms of her own imperfect humanity. The means for this leveling is an improbable depiction in the Holy Qur’an of the Blessed Mother giving birth. Braced against a palm tree, Mary cries, Job-like, “Oh, I wish I had died before this and was in oblivion, forgotten.” “Same,” the suffering speaker says, in effect:
Truth be told, I like Mary a little better(“Confession”)
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) . . .
In “Awrah,” the speaker compares her obsession with Mary to a teenage girl “dissecting pictures” of her mother. Downgrading idealized worship to a more realistic, complicated relationship proves fortifying, empowering—bringing “the miracle” “within reach.” Her probing and possessing of Mary reverses her own patriarchally mediated and measured position. Objecthood is projected onto Mary, who had little say in “the Word” becoming “incarnate / once it slipped in her / sleeve” (“Annunciation”). In the position of the traditionally male agent, the speaker, then, gets to be the one to enjoy—by writing Mary persona poems—“slipping / into” the woman like “a bed with fresh, cool sheets.”
. . . But what I like best is not her adolescent acquiescence
or established chastity, not her being plucked by God’s hand
like a daisy from all the others in the field, but her overlooked
humanness, her womanness. I probe the image of the Blessed
Mother as often I have dissected pictures of my own, parsing her
as if to possess her, deciding what of hers is
Laying claim to subjectivity feels as important as finding a common “womanness” with Mary here. There’s a kind of iconoclasm at work. Maculating Mary, finding commonality through individuation, through imperfection, Chatti’s speaker makes, we might say, an authenticating mess.
Chatti reminds us that love is flawed, and that shame is a control mechanism, an enclosure that rules by threat of exposure. Its blade—internal, internalized—does its insidious work on the inside.
Like the disease that brings it into sharp relief, there’s no escaping shame and its legacies—not for the speaker of these poems. “When asked my religion,” she attests in “Testimony,” “I say surrender.” The will that she’s surrendered to has given her a dis-ease, an awakening. There’s no going back from this gendered, mortal knowing. Her annunciation is a calling, which goes against all she’s known, to speak out about shame, “to determine its name” (“Tumor”). To, like Mark Antony, “put a tongue” in its “every wound.”
“I’ve learned the words,” the speaker of “Awrah” cries, “let me put them to use.”
Austin Segrest’s book Door to Remain won the Vassar Miller Prize and will be out next year. His long essay on Carl Phillips just came out in APR. He was Fine Arts Work Center Fellow in Ptown in 2018-19. Other review essays appear in Southern Humanities Review and 32 Poems, among others. He teaches at Lawrence University in WI.
Leila Chatti is a Tunisian-American poet and author of Deluge (Copper Canyon Press, 2020), and the chapbooks Ebb (Akashic Books, 2018) and Tunsiya/Amrikiya, the 2017 Editors’ Selection from Bull City Press. She is the recipient of a Barbara Deming Memorial Fund grant, scholarships from the Tin House Writers’ Workshop, The Frost Place, and the Key West Literary Seminar, and fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation of New Mexico, and Cleveland State University, where she is the inaugural Anisfield-Wolf Fellow in Writing & Publishing. Her poems appear in Ploughshares, Tin House, The American Poetry Review, and elsewhere.