The body as neither altar nor afterthought; the spirit as neither savior nor specimen. These are the relations that define much of Leila Chatti’s debut poetry collection, Deluge (Copper Canyon Press, 2020), in which the poet dissects her perception of what is considered sacred and profane. A thorough exercise in simultaneity and juxtaposition, Deluge attends to the removal of distance between the holy and the mundane, between the perfect and imperfect.
Delineating a first-person, loosely chronological narrative, Deluge begins with a reverent exclamation, “From the depths I have cried out to you, O Lord.” Yet it is immediately followed by the poem “Confession,” expounding on the hesitation, and later, regret that Mary—the mother of Jesus—must have felt in agreeing to “[bear] His child / like a secret she never wanted to hear.” In the poem, the speaker admires Mary’s defiance, however transient, however unsuccessful it was in preventing the pain of childbirth. Together, these lines construct a window to the female experience, its beauty and suffering and everything in between.
Leila Chatti was raised by a Muslim father and a Catholic mother, in the intersection of two religions with fraught histories of feminine oppression. In these traditions, the flood, sent by God to drown the earth, is a punishment for human wrongdoing. The act of bleeding, in certain forms, is also looked down upon and branded as sin. Chatti experiences an amalgamation of both abnormalities: a tumor in her early twenties, the cause of her regular and profuse hemorrhages—what her doctors referred to as a flood—as well as menstruation. Deluge upon deluge of blood.
What does it mean, then, to occupy a body while under the gaze of the spirit? Deluge traces the history of blood in the speaker’s body and challenges itself to be freed of self-imposed constraints. From her first period at age twelve in “Mubtdiyah,” where she “lived unobserved, my sins not sins / because no one looked,” to her stays in the hospital after diagnosis, surgery, and recovery: “…my life / bouncing back within reach, my life / bounding toward me when called,” Chatti is dedicated to removing shame from menstruation, from the failure of the body’s systems, because she allows for its failure. Embraces it, even. Writing from an immensity of exile, Chatti reminds me of the fragility of my own body—how it has broken down, how it has built itself back up. How I have emerged where I have struggled.
And despite all that has happened, Chatti very much exerts ownership over the narrative, not letting the flood swallow her words but choosing to tell her story. The result is a lyrical, visceral account. She is bold in the way that she is honest and self-aware. She is deliberate and steadfast. She is devotional and defiant. Chatti’s words impart an unspeakable beauty that reverberates in my mind, my unbroken body, time after time.