Friday, June 23, 2023


by Leila Chatti
(Copper Canyon Press, 2020) 

Reviewed by Melody Wilson

The poem “Tumor” appears about a third of the way through Leila Chatti’s Deluge. It’s a concrete poem that takes the form of a spiral, or in this case, a grapefruit-sized tumor. The spiral begins with an MRI scan and takes the reader through all the challenges a woman faces when dealing with such tumors. The description, the definition, the process of acceptance, the question of naming the mass—of deciding how to deal with it—are all present in this poem, taking us from the “indiscernible” to the ultimate betrayal. As the spiral winds tighter, the font diminishing, the speaker—working to understand—tries on the various images, a chthonic pomegranate, a Pompeian fig, “the dark countenance of the moon,” but by the center of the spiral the tumor is a “motherless stone” bestowed upon the speaker by a “God of No” and “Never.”

Still, the tumor must be dealt with. The speaker introduces us to the process of morcellation in a poem of the same name. We learn “little slits” will be cut so it can be broken into pieces, “little morsels.” But it is also possible that the tumor could be “malignant, could already be / everywhere and all / at once.”

Eventually we learn the tumor is benign, but it has influenced every part of the speaker’s life. Deluge unreels in a body of poems in which the ramifications of this disease, if not the tumor itself, have metastasized, broken into shards. These shards infiltrate the speaker’s past, her confidence in both medicine and the medical community, her understanding of religion—both Islam and Catholicism, her ability to become a mother. The speaker’s long and arduous medical interval opens all these wounds. 

The deluge is manifested in literal bleeding, but also in a flood of perceptions that must be reconsidered. One such perception is her experience of growing to adulthood as a woman: menarche, sexuality, and the loss of her virginity. The proem to the book is “Confession,” in which Mary laments her plight in the Holy Qur’an, but the first poem in the book proper is “Mubtadiyah,” which we are told in the epigraph means “beginner; one who sees blood for the first time.” This meditation on a first menstrual event sets the stage for what follows. Initially, the speaker, having started her first period in the stall of a women’s restroom, feels kinship with the women she watches “washing / through the interstice of the door, / their veils slipping off like water.” She believes her first blood a “summons … a scarlet membership card slid from [her] innermost pocket.” But the anxiety of womanhood arises soon after when she takes stock: “I had not been good / all my life but until this first vermilion drip / I lived unobserved, my sins not sins / because no one looked.” This poem, first a celebration of this rite of passage, immediately turns to an ominous reminder of social and spiritual ramifications.

Several poems later, we revisit this experience in “Haemorrhoissa’s Menarche.” This spare poem echoes the speaker’s experience, that she “wanted to be a woman” until she became one. The speaker claims the pain of her cycle, and her belief that she might die. After the bleeding subsides, Haemorrhoissa believes she is “cured,” that she could “go back / to being a child.” Unfortunately, it begins again the next month. Menstruation has been couched in euphemism or glossed over entirely since women could read, but Haemorrhoissa’s experience is as relatable as breathing. And the decision to frame it as a persona poem serves not just the idea, but the arc of the collection. 

We see her again in the poem “Haemorrhoissa,” this time an adult. She is now presented as a character from the Bible known as “the bleeding woman.” Chatti uses her to describe all the indignities of difficult menstruation—the shame, the work of managing it. The speaker aligns herself with this Biblical figure. Many women can relate to the experiences in the poem. But unlike other women, Haemorrhoissa finds herself in the right place at the right time, the day the “god walked by, all boyish good / looks,” and she “did what [the speaker] couldn’t do,” recognize “a miracle within her reach [and] took it.” She throws herself at Christ’s hem and is relieved of her affliction.

One of the genuine pleasures of this book is the affiliation forged between poet and reader by decentering language. Beginning with Mubtadiyah and Haemorrhoissa, but moving along through hemorrhage, nulligravida, morcellation, myomectomy, postdiluvian, and back to exegesis, annunciation, odalisque, menarche, and of course the critical distinction between menorrhagia and metrorrhagia, a change of two letters in a word that meant everything to the speaker, the reader is kept off balance, trapped in the arc of the narrative. Is this a medical term? A religious term? What is external to this experience? 

During the course of reading, we accompany the poet in a world so private many of these words have never been uttered in our presence: an innocuous oversight when we encounter the names of religious figures, or the medical and religious terminologies over which we have glossed, but the description of blood on underwear, on sheets, seeping through gardening pants had been our secret, and seeing it exposed on the page is surprising and, as a woman, gratifying. It’s an incredible experience, and I could not put the book down—except to get the dictionary.

In a 2022 Rumpus interview, Chris Abani said: “the architecture of a book [of poetry] is … like building a cathedral, which direction to orient the building for light, dome or no dome, chapels off the main church to saints and Mary; it’s about guiding readers in subtle ways such that any order in which they read yields a narrative of meaning.”

Chatti’s Deluge beautifully fulfills this vision. I have left the poems that tell Mary’s story for the reader to discover, but from Mary lamenting her plight in “Confession” (the first poem in the book) to “Questions Directed Toward the Idea of Mary” (one of the last), we trace at least five arcs through the collection—the speaker’s illness, her sexuality, her treatment by the medical community, the representation of women in religion as a whole, as well as the Virgin Mary’s representation. We hold them all in the air throughout. Each poem is beautiful, each occupies its own space in its particular arc and in the collection as a whole. Deluge is a masterwork of writing about this most intimate edge of the female experience, and Leila Chatti is the perfect poet to have handled it.

Melody Wilson’s work appears or is forthcoming in The Mantle, VerseDaily, The Fiddlehead, Kestrel, Crab Creek Review, and Archetype Magazine. She received 2022 Pushcart nominations from Redactions: Poetry & Poetics and Red Rock Review, and was semifinalist for the Pablo Neruda Award. Her chapbook Spineless: Memoir in Invertebrates comes out in August 2023. She’s pursuing her MFA at Pacific University. Find her work at

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