Friday, March 8, 2019

Poetry Review: Leila Chatti


In late 2018, I conducted a survey about the Northfield Poet Laureate program, soliciting feedback on previous programming and suggestions for additional programming. One suggestion was that I post occasional reviews and recommendations of poetry books. I read poetry slowly, and even more slowly find the words to talk about it. But here's a first attempt. 

Leila Chatti. Tunsiya/Amrikiya (Bull City Press) and Ebb (Akashic Books/New Generation African Poets). 

In October 2017, Leila Chatti drove up from Madison, where she was spending a year as a fellow at the University of Wisconsin, to give a reading in Northfield.  Leila is not only one of the most brilliant young poets I know, she is also incredibly generous and kind and receptive to the people and the world around her. I had the feeling, when I was with her, of being with someone who was more awake than I was, and who metabolized experience more easily and naturally into words.

From time to time a poet speaks to me from somewhere outside my own experience and makes me fall head over heels into a new world. This happened in 2014 when I read Leila’s first published poem. The poem was called “14, Sunday School, 3 Days Late.” The poet’s voice, her experience, her world, her use of language—all of it captivated me, and left me wanting more. Fortunately, there was more. 

Going back to that first poem after reading more of her work, I realized that that small, seven-line poem displays much of what I love about Leila’s poetry. She is physically present in her poetry as a woman who feels pleasure and pain, who bleeds, who often has to push back against a culture that tells her to feel shame. Leila is Muslim, Arab, a dual citizen of Tunisia and the United States, and her poetry reflects those complex identities and conflicted histories in a way that is—here comes that word—accessible. What I mean is this: her poems open a door, and provide access to an intimate space in which difference is what we share and the distance between us is what draws us together.

In “Dressing Before a Mirror in Morning,” she begins—

I look at myself
because it is what you would do, it makes me
feel close to you.

Here she summons the other through contemplation of the self. The line endings shift from “myself” to “me” to “you”—from the first person reflexive to the second person. The line break in the second line (“it makes me”) acknowledges that we are in part a creation of the gaze of others. But in this case, she imagines her own gaze as the other’s. The poem is a mirror that makes us see identity as difference, self as other.

Similes abound in Leila Chatti’s poetry—the word “like” that implies similarity but also admits of difference. In “Khouya,” which she glosses as Tunisian Arabic for “my brother,” she writes:

I just don’t see it, how anyone could
look through hate like a scope at boys
so like my brother…

First, notice the complications of the gaze: she can’t see how anyone could look through hate. Second, notice the repetition of the word “like,” first in a simile (“hate like a scope”) and then in recognition of the similarity between her brother and the boys who become victims of police violence. Likeness is complicated: the difference between the poet’s recognition of the familiar and beloved and law enforcement’s racial profiling is a matter of the lens through which the gaze is filtered. The poet makes a strong case for love as the filter through which we should see those different from ourselves.

In another poem, “Homophones,” she explores the resonances of different words that sound alike, both English homophones and words in Tunisian that sound like unrelated English words. She begins—

In English, alter
and altar are so similar
they are easily confused.

Again, what interests her is the coexistence of similarity and difference, the creative tension between like and unlike out of which her poetry arises.

America is both her home and a place where she is often looked upon as a stranger. She belongs and doesn’t belong, is both like and unlike the people around her. This is the hook on which her imagination catches and weaves itself into poetry.

Leila Chatti’s first full-length poetry collection, Deluge, will be published in 2020 by Copper Canyon Press.

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2019 Poetry Reading Tour