What Washes Away, What Remains: Reclamation and Revelation in Leila Chatti’s Deluge

Leila Chatti’s Deluge is a dispersive prism of a book, refracting an illness the author experienced in her twenties—excess bleeding referred to as “flooding” by physicians—into examinations of faith, misogyny, desire, and shame. These themes have animated poems and prose across centuries, and in a lesser poet’s hands this collection might have suffered in its retread of such ground. But Chatti is no lesser poet. The lyric and narrative work of her first full-length collection coruscates against the dark of intersecting crises, one medical, one of faith, as she finds herself in a place where neither God nor doctors, whom we often confuse for gods, offer any reassurances. 

I say Ive read
this is dangerous. He says, impassive, of course, 
everything has risks.
Already checking the time on his wrist.

This is a collection wrapped in the aesthetics of obsession, demarcation, transformation. Chatti challenges us to re-examine all that divides — divine/flesh, child/woman, health/illness, faith/doubt, until the line feels water-logged, permeable, uncertain. Only then, Chatti knows, can we begin to build anew. At its center this is a work of reclamation and recovery where even the very body the author inhabits is lost and found again. 

Chatti fashions the narrative bones of the book with a series of interspersed poems that center the medical and personal experience of illness (“Intake Form,” “MRI,” among others). These poems draw the reader forward in narrative time as witness to a young woman’s journey from the kingdom of the well to the kingdom of the sick, and eventually back again.

he says something about life expectancy but of 
course I expect my life, so plain I thought nothing would ever take it

While these poems create in the reader a type of witness to the devastation that sudden illness brings, the strongest poems of this grouping go further. They are immersive, almost suffocating in their verisimilitude, and I felt myself slide through the looking glass several times while reading them. “Portrait of the Illness as Nightmare” is as vivid and heartbreaking a rendering of the terror and delirium of serious illness as any I have read. Chatti writes:

wander lost in a city of scalpels where everything glitters
and pills fade like moons on your tongue. You sidle through
sterile labyrinths and piss in a cup. 

My chest aches and I am a medical resident again. It is 3 a.m. and I am caring for my sickest patients, delirious, suffering under waves of illness. This is the poem I wish someone had handed me in medical school, before I had ever placed the cold bell of stethoscope to chest. It’s the type of poem that can make you a better doctor, or human, if you let it.

If the narrative-illness poems provide the bones of the collection, Chatti layers on flesh with poems that unfurl to new depths. In the trio of poems “Mubtadiyah,” “Hymen,” and “The Blood,” she returns to the understory of the present-day medical illness, the pathology that has always surrounded a woman, bleeding. But Chatti deftly subverts this message, even as she crafts it, when she writes, 

I fit inside my mother
when she fit inside her mother, and so on and so
forth, and further, a nest of matrons, mise en
abyme in which to be female is to be something
like infinity

Here, I found myself nodding, physically leaning forward, as if to greet the revelation on the page. Yes, I thought, yes. Take the shame of illness, the weight of religion, the “curse” of menstruation, take it all. Here is force that reclaims even these battered bodies we have and asks us to see them anew—see them as infinite, powerful, even, perhaps, divine (for what is more divine than cheating death?) As Chatti writes later and more directly, “I’ve known men but never a god / that bled and lived. But I did.” 

The collection also contains a series of poems centering Mary, a figure of deep obsession for the speaker before and during her illness. Mary is, of course, the perfect foil for the transformations that form the beating heart of this collection, as a figure who, just by existence, blurs the line between divine and flesh. “Mary in the Waiting Room at the Gynecologist’s Office” is my favorite of the series, for its humor and quiet but devastating gut punch. In it, Chatti evokes a veiled, traditional Mary, robed in blue, and humorously places her next to clinic water-coolers and medical diagrams of female anatomy. But it’s the moment when Mary “smooths / her blue skirt, glances / at the ceiling. Whispers, / One was enough” before fingering the crucifix around her neck, that provides the poem’s emotional denouement. Mary — the divine mother, only woman mentioned in the Quran — is just another girl with an unwanted pregnancy. How then to understand her? How then to understand ourselves?

Chatti’s skill in pulling together a cohesive and emotionally resonant expression of the many themes in her collection is on full display in the long, multifaceted poem “Arwah”. This poem, which greets the reader near the end of the book, is discursive, wide-apertured, almost hungry in scope. It is a measure of the poet’s skill that the procession of poems to this point has provided the reader with the tools to situate and appreciate this ambitious poem within the collection. In “Arwah,” we see plainly how the violence of language

In the dark, I search an Arabic dictionary for vagina by the glow of my phone — touch and touch to keep / 
it from dimming. But it’s irrelevant: the word’s missing 

can be placed alongside the paternalistic failures of medicine,

It could be cancer the doctor says, but you are very young.
Does young mean less
likely, in this circumstance? I ask.
The doctor is exasperated. The doctor is an expert
in his field. He sighs
so that I’m aware. I am bare
under paper

while leading back to the soft misogyny of Sunday school and religion.

Sister teaches us
we are sweet, are sweets,
bonbons, good goods
unless we’re unwrapped—
forbid) kissed
—who wants a sucker that’s already been licked?

Through this tour de force Chatti reveals to us the actual overstory, what binds all our received shames together. “Arwah” feels revelatory, not unlike the moment in a woman’s life when she might finally see each catcall or unwanted sexual advance as not a personal failing but the visible structure of a vast interconnected system of repression that holds us all hostage. 

While most of Deluge reads as propulsive and energetic, there were places where that movement is less sustained. I felt this in the midsection of the book, particularly in the poems “Testimony,” “Prayer,” and “Zina.” These felt less existentially critical than other nearby works, such as “Annunciation,” which dealt more deftly with similar themes of abandonment, faith and doubt. Sometimes repetition dilutes rather than concentrates, and because these three poems follow each other, one wishes they were perhaps spaced out across the collection to allow for some reflections before reappearance.

And yet, the book ends with a singing surfeit of voices appearing, reappearing, reflecting prismatic with little room for pause. In “Deluge,” Chatti takes what could be cacophony and delivers us an orchestral arrangement of words reclaimed from sources as disparate as the Quran, Anne Sexton, and Rumi. I felt the end of the collection almost physically, as the sense of waves crashing over a shore, power in the force of repetition but also reclamation. Only here, instead of erosion, there was edification. Words building towards something new and untried, a reclamation after recovery of the self; divine, flesh, woman, child, faithful, faithless. These divisions wash away, the whole made back out of the multitudes.

Rachel Mann Smith is a physician and poet living in Atlanta, Georgia. She holds a BA in English literature from the University of California, Berkeley. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in the Atlanta International Review, Atticus Review, and A3 among other publications.