“To Break into Pieces” – Puncturing and Preserving the Feminine Self in Leila Chatti’s Deluge (2020)
The medical root “-rrhagia” at the end of a term signifies an urgent and abnormal rupture accompanied by a shocking burst of liquid, as in hemorrhage (blood loss from a damaged vessel), menorrhagia (excessive menstrual bleeding), or metrorrhagia (unexpected uterine bleeding between periods). These exact conditions of terrifying, bodily pooling lend themselves as titles for the poems in Leila Chatti’s debut collection, Deluge (2020), a work which charts her distressing experiences contending with the symptoms, diagnosis, and surgical treatment of several uterine tumors during the months in which she was writing.
Though much of Deluge locates Chatti in the midst of medical crisis—whether blood-soaked in the bathtub or thinly gowned in an MRI machine—we would be remiss in reading these clinical terms as mere indicators of Chatti’s illness progression. Language gestures toward the spiritual: while the terms’ medical root evokes bodily spurts, the stem “hagia,” from the Greek “hagios,”denotes that which is consecrated, saintly, or deemed holy.
Indeed, Chatti’s collection plumbs the chthonic depths of illness through the backdrop of her Muslim and Christian upbringing, exploring the complex relationships between womanhood, fertility, sexuality, sinfulness, and the unseen agency of both God and tumors. From hemorrhage to Haemorrhoissa (a woman with perpetual bleeding healed by Jesus) and menorrhagia to Mubtadiyah (Arabic for a beginner, or one who sees blood for the first time), Chatti’s persistent fusion of medico-religious language and imagery serves to “think literature, medicine, and religion together… and notice how different kinds of tools can be shared resources during times of emergency and pain” (Bezio and Reed 244).
One such concept bridging the pieces in Deluge is that of a medical and spiritual carving up of the self, often marked by the shedding of blood. In one of the first poems, Chatti reflects on a moment in her youth when she hid in a mosque bathroom stall to deal with “this first vermillion drip” of menstruation (Chatti 7). Even as she calmly notes her entry into the kinship of women, she is frightened, sensing that “my own was now opening” as “God’s reproachful / eye” zeroes in, casting lifelong sin as the visible scarlet stain of womanly existence (7, 8). Years before the wave of blood caused by uterine tumors, Chatti imagines menarche cleaving her from the embodiment of girlhood, figuring God as disappointed witness and, more subtly, as source of the moral shift in this split between “before” and “after.”
Then, in the titular poem, Chatti encounters a different kind of bloody separation. At twenty-two years old, gushing for more than six hours, she thinks, “surely I will die, so much of me / outside of me and still more // leaving, an exodus, the blood / rushing as animals do just before / the worst of it, as they must have // done before the deluge came” (10). Here, the mass pool of lost tissue is figured not as a sign of a changed body, but as a fracturing of the self, an event in which a life-substance exiting the body accumulates enough to represent a fully externalized “me.” The spreading, bloody self acquires a sense of agency via an applied preservation instinct, likened as it is to panicked animals fleeing a diluvial scene.
As the collection continues, this sense in which Chatti’s illness and its symptoms manifest a separate-yet-conjoined self persists, especially through imagery of tumors and children: each a growing force that relies upon and alters the body from within. During her diagnosis with sarcoma, we see Chatti cup her palms around her stomach, as if to comfort a (wanted) child that does not grow there (or a tumor that does). Elsewhere, enjambment enables her declaration that the cancerous growth is but herself— “… all that dejects / me: the first tumor budding / in the uterine wall, then the second” (42). Poetic form distances the lead-in phrase from the prior line such that the poet—“me”—appears to be defined as a tumor.
This sentiment is particularly clear in what is one of the most visually entrancing poems in Deluge, itself titled “Tumor.” In a large, circular spiral of descriptive words, Chatti narrates the experience of seeing a murky scan of her insides in both possessive and alienating language. The image’s “indiscernible material—my own, of course, but its intentions / opaque” ultimately requires that Chatti “speak on its behalf, determine its name,” this “unblinking oculus of my center” (23). The tumor is at once unknown and intimately known, both itself and herself. Continually rotating the page to read from the outside edges toward the core of the poem, the reader likewise becomes unmoored by these fluctuations, unsure whether the poem’s form resembles more clearly the “blank eye” of a patient viewing her worrying scans or the “knowing” eye of a tumor—Godlike, Chatti says—buried deep in the body (23).
Finally, the complex and simultaneous process of dividing and suturing the self in the wake of illness comes to a head in the surgical scenes. In a poem called “Morcellation,” Chatti writes:
the doctor says. To break into pieces.
Little morsels, little slits
(for me) to come out of
Morcellation is a technique in which a surgeon cuts uterine and fibroid tissue into fragments for laparoscopic removal. Inasmuch as this medical approach entails slicing the abdomen to allow for excision of malignancies—a carving up of the self—paradoxically, so too does it produce a newly healthy, tumor-less and intact body. During the procedure, which is outlined in another poem called “Myomectomy,” Chatti witnesses her body from above the operating table where it “lay reposed and bleeding / like the inverse of the child-/God” (59). The doctors expose the uterine growth, pulling it from its nest by splitting her womb “right down the middle” to retrieve the tumor, “fruit / of the dead—but it was not / dead, nor was I” (59). Again, the livingness of the undesirable tumor is detailed in terms reminiscent of an infant’s birth, the bloody surgery signifying both Chatti’s own continuity of life and the strange familiarity of a growth cut from its parent flesh.
Throughout Deluge, medical experiences constitute physical, emotional, and spiritual windows into Chatti’s understanding of which parts of her body are rightly hers, which feel God-determined, which are parasitic, and which manifest all of these qualities. Since a myomectomy is an operation in which fibroids are removed from the uterus while doctors attempt to preserve the reproductive capacity of the organ, Chatti’s poetic elaboration of her surgery invites discussion of the progenitive imperative of womanhood, especially in Muslim and Christian religious contexts. Given Chatti’s desperate pleas for future pregnancy alongside her urgent condemnation of rampant “misogyny—in faith, medicine, and literature,” we leave Deluge with conflicted feelings (Isokawa). On the one hand, she scolds the religious contradiction that women are expected to be pure/innocent and, after marriage, abundantly fertile, using blood as the consecrated image of flow from girlhood and womanhood, the tie between “-rrhagia” and “hagia.” Likewise, she critiques a similar vein in medical thinking about the value of maintaining the uterus as symbol of mothering potentiality. Mixing the pain of illness and misogyny with the pain of wanting but not having children (“my body one unchosen, vessel / of illness and ache,” Chatti laments), Deluge itself embodies a kind of split mentality, simultaneously puncturing and preserving the feminine self (Chatti 42).
Bezio, Kelly L. and Ashley Reed. “Guest Editors’ Introduction: On the Limits of Disciplinarity: Literature, Medicine, and Religion. Literature and Medicine, vol. 32, no. 2, Fall 2014, pp. 240-6.
Chatti, Leila. Deluge. Copper Canyon Press, 2020.
Isokawa, Dana. “A Life in Poetry: Our Sixteenth Annual Look at Debut Poets.” Poets & Writers Magazine, vol. 49, no. 1, Jan-Feb 2021, pp. 48+.