Poetic Exploration of Illness Conveys Trauma

14 September, 2020


Del­uge by Leila Chat­ti
Cop­per Canyon Press (2020)
ISBN: 9781556595899

India Hixon Radfar

I am wait­ing for the Tunisian Amer­i­can writer Leila Chat­ti to tell me, in her own words, in her debut col­lec­tion of poet­ry, Del­uge, about women in Islam, but she is telling me about blood instead. More and more blood. As the blood flows out of her, she tells me about it and I lis­ten. “I keep mis­tak­ing blood for song,” the poet writes. But I do not like blood, do not like talk­ing about it, have made sure nev­er to write about it myself. I lis­ten to her because it turns out she has got­ten to know blood, she had to get to know it for a while, and she writes well about it. As for Islam and wom­en’s place in it, tra­di­tion­al or mod­ern, “I do not speak for God and He does not speak to me,” Chat­ti writes at first. 

And then some­thing changes and she is talk­ing about Islam, and her­self in Islam as I had hoped. I don’t know what that some­thing is that has changed, but she has stopped talk­ing about blood and is talk­ing about women in Islam now. The sub­ject is a des­per­ate one and is as much about life and death as the blood was. The words flow out of her, flow past the flow of the blood, and I catch them and hold onto them.

In Islam, a woman can­not pray if she is bleed­ing. She also can­not hold onto the Qu’ran or open it. But for two years this poet bled with­out stop­ping, and now that she has stopped all that bleed­ing and lived, the prayers that she could­n’t pray before are now pour­ing out of her. What do you do with a prayer that can­not be prayed when you real­ly need to pray it, when you might be dying of can­cer, when your life depends on it?

You turn the prayer into a poem, and the blood into a poem, and death into a poem and your need to live instead of dying into a poem. And then you go back and write anoth­er poem about prayer, about blood, about the pos­si­bil­i­ty of dying but of liv­ing instead, and soon the book gets writ­ten. The two years pass. For two years, she is a woman who can­not pray liv­ing with a man who is not her hus­band but loves her best, loves her bet­ter than God. Could that be? Loved her bet­ter than God when she could not pray to God and ask God to love her, ask God to help her. God sees all, but for two years she could not talk to Him, could not draw near to Him in prayer.

The oth­er one holds her, bathes her, sleeps by her side, watch­es vig­i­lant­ly for the flow of her blood, the blood flow­ing out of her, and I, as her read­er, imag­ine him lis­ten­ing as well to the poems she forms with what is left inside of her. The love of this human part­ner, his ten­der­ness, makes the poet weep. It makes the female read­er weep, too. What can a woman say to that? What does a woman say to God when, for the two years that she is almost dying, He can­not be there for her? Can­not be or choses not to be? It is an impor­tant dis­tinc­tion. The poet is a lit­tle fright­ened of His pres­ence and at the same time sur­prised at the man who does not want to leave her. Sur­prised and hope­ful, as hope­ful as it gets.

When she sur­vives, she prays again. And this time she says of God, “And God knows best. If He calls a curse a blessing/ then so it is. And He said she was/ clean – she nev­er knew a man. I’ve known a man but nev­er a god/ that bled and lived. But I did.” Chat­ti is speak­ing here first as the Vir­gin Mary and then as her­self. She does this some­times. There are sev­er­al poems in the col­lec­tion enti­tled “Annun­ci­a­tion” which refer to the moment Miri­am is told by the angel that she will have God’s child. “May it be done/ to me I said, and it was done/ so quick­ly.” Some­times you can’t tell if it is Chat­ti or Mary speak­ing, or if they are one and the same.

You may be sur­prised to know, if you are not Mus­lim, that the only woman in the Qu’ran who has a name is Mary, the Prophet Miri­am, the Vir­gin Moth­er. Be like her, she is pure, the poet was told as a child, told as all girls were told, and the poet believed that, too. But then the poet began to think, how can I be like her? I am a woman who loves a man and I have no son, I may nev­er be able to have any chil­dren now. I am also no longer a vir­gin. And I bleed, I think I’ve bled too much, bled it all out of me.

The poet­’s can­cer is an unknown quan­ti­ty behind her blood. And God is an unknown quan­ti­ty behind her can­cer, behind her life, behind her dying. Will he let her live? She writes anoth­er poem because she can’t pray now, is not allowed to pray. She sees anoth­er doc­tor because she can’t pray, and that doc­tor becomes anoth­er kind of god to her. Then she is tak­en care of for anoth­er day by the man who is bet­ter to her than God.

All this time the poet won­ders if she is still accept­able to God. She won­ders was she not accept­able because she had bled or because she had been with a man whom she had not yet mar­ried? Or maybe it was that she bled because she was with a man she had not mar­ried first and that is why God would not talk to her any more. It was not that she did not believe. All this time she had believed. It was not that.

In the end we do not know. We do not know why Miri­am is so loved and why the rest of us women think that maybe we are not. We do not know why a woman can’t pray while she bleeds. But the poet has come back to us, thank­ful­ly, with all the ques­tions still alive in her, and we wel­come her back. The ques­tions were there when she was a lit­tle girl, too, read­ing again and again that one sura in the Qu’ran. Any time she felt sad or like she did not know who she was, she read it, the sura, the verse in the Qu’ran about the Vir­gin Mary, and she iden­ti­fied with that oth­er rel­a­tive­ly young girl, the one that God Him­self talked to and sent a baby to and entrust­ed to have his next prophet be also her son.

All the ques­tions are back now but the poet is old­er and she had almost died but she has instead lived, and her ques­tions are stronger now than they ever were before. Why, why, why… for a while she had felt like a rebel, dis­tant, dis­owned, but it was not that she did­n’t believe, she had nev­er stopped believ­ing. And here the poems pick up their tem­po as Chat­ti fur­ther tries to under­stand her shame and the for­mer pain, wor­ry­ing also about some innocu­ous future pain and how it might have all been taught to her. “I don’t under­stand your dis­tinc­tions,” she tells God about His role in her inner life. Towards the end of the col­lec­tion, Chat­ti asks her beloved Miri­am these ques­tions in a poem enti­tled Ques­tions Direct­ed Toward the Idea of Mary: “Did you long for His touch or was suf­fer­ing enough for you/ to know He was there?” and “Did your wor­ship fal­ter once you were sure you were good?” Tru­ly the two iden­ti­ties, Chat­ti’s and Miri­am’s, have merged. But Chat­ti is not always so pos­i­tive about Miri­am. At one point Chat­ti says only, “I can­not bring myself to resent her.”

Chat­ti’s poems come to this, I think: “I walk between mir­a­cle and con­fu­sion.” She answers some of our ques­tions through­out, and the Notes at the end of the book answer oth­ers. Then there is an Acknowl­edg­ment that answers a few more, fol­lowed by an About the Author that answers many. For some rea­son, the book has wait­ed a long time to tell its read­er these things. 

Chat­ti was only in her twen­ties when she start­ed bleed­ing and did not stop. But she is recov­ered now. One thing is unde­ni­able, Leila Chat­ti needs to keep writ­ing, she needs to keep think­ing about the sub­ject of women in Islam because she will most cer­tain­ly be able to help forge a new path for­ward for women in Islam. This new path will include a new kind of mar­riage, a new kind of prayer, a new kind of man and woman, a new kind of sis­ter­hood and broth­er­hood, a new kind of respect. Some of this vision is already detailed by Chat­ti in Del­uge, her tremen­dous new book of poems.. Islam can absolute­ly do this. It can see women as they are. It can name them. Thank you, Leila Chat­ti, for let­ting me see this. Thank you for your vision.

India Hixon Rad­far is a poet whose books can be found on Pir Press, Ten­der But­tons Books, Shiv­as­tan Pub­li­ca­tions and Sta­tion Hill Press. Her father was com­par­a­tive reli­gion philoso­pher Lex Hixon who con­vert­ed to Islam in 1979 when she was thir­teen years old.