blackbirdonline journalSpring 2021  Vol. 20  No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Review | Deluge by Leila Chatti
Copper Canyon Press, 2020

spacer Deluge (Copper Canyon Press, 2020)

Truth be told, I like Mary a little better
when I imagine her like this, crouched
and cursing, a boy-God pushing on
her cervix, (I like remembering
she had a cervix, her body ordinary
and so like mine)

This opening gesture of Leila Chatti’s debut full-length poetry collection, Deluge, is one of confession, as the title of her first poem suggests, and, given the often-used religious tonality of the book, deals aptly with the re-imagining of the Virgin Mary and her body. “Confession” establishes the prominent tone of vulnerability for a collection that goes on to explore themes of womanhood, desire, illness, shame, and pain. Throughout the book, Chatti employs a multitude of lyrical, formal, and narrative structures—in addition to unique and variant forms—all of which remain authentic to the voice of this ever-shifting but intensely focused body of poems.

Chatti’s first poem also begins the journey to understand her own body afflicted with illness, described in the collection as “flooding.” In a later appearing poem, “Deluge,” she writes, “And so it was—twenty-two and suddenly // gushing, as if a dam had burst or a thundercloud / deep inside the storm of me, the flood.” She reckons with her startling illness—of severe bleeding, and pain—by attempting to understand the depiction of Mary in religious texts such as the Qur’an, in which Mary is only named once. The poet admits her comfort in imagining Mary as an ordinary woman:

(oh Mary, like a God, I too take pleasure
in knowing you were not all
holy, that ache could undo you
like a knot)

This comparison between poet and Mary through a shared experience of pain places them in direct communion with one another. It functions to humanize Mary, and in doing so, exalts her into a place of god-like significance in her own right.


It is in these re-imaginings of Mary and god that I begin to place Chatti in the poetic lineage of Larry Levis, the namesake of the Levis Reading Prize at Virginia Commonwealth University, of which Leila Chatti is the twenty-fourth winner.

In his poem “Linnets,” Levis tells the story of a linnet that was shot and killed by his brother. The poem moves through scene and narrative, simultaneously reckoning with his brother’s life, his own life, his writing, and a god who seems as ever-present as the linnets.

As my brother walks through an intersection the noise from hundreds of thin wings, linnet wings, becomes his silence. He shouts in his loud clothes all day. God grows balder.

The notion of god growing balder, similar in its intention to Chatti’s demystifying of Mary, humanizes god within the fraught world of the poem, a world that Levis is trying scrupulously to understand. In a later section of “Linnets,” the speaker must witness himself, his life, then make an immediate turn toward a poisoned god:

You divide yourself in two and witness yourself,
and it makes no difference.


You think of God dying of anthrax
in a little shed, of a matinee
in which three people sit
with their hands folded and a fourth
coughs. You come down the mountain.

Chatti’s poem “Portrait of the Illness as Nightmare” takes on this witnessing as well. God is ominous—almost threatening; the nightmare that embodies the illness is unnervingly real, a dark medical dreamscape. There “The horizon bleeds,” and our speaker “sidle[s] through / sterile labyrinths.” The speaker becomes, for a moment, a performer, and witnesses herself on stage like Levis at his matinee. The speaker in Chatti’s poem is whisked around almost puppet-like, “writhe[s] on a bed on a stage, the strings reaching / toward heaven.”—where god seemingly holds the strings—of the nightmare, of the illness. But in the dream where speaker and illness are blurred, the speaker must endure by grappling with god:

Either way, you think
something will save you, you believe this the whole fearsome time.

Your god comes and he is ordinary and terrible. He confers
with the doctors at your kitchen table and tells you to eat

your clots, round as peas. You want dessert. You want to
deceive him, but he, like you, has eyes, and uses them.


The affect of Deluge often resides where narrative, lyric, and imagination move fast enough to blur. The poems in the collection seek to question, re-invent, and reclaim—to understand, through poetry, the body of a woman experiencing illness.

“The Blood,” merges the idea of womanhood and blood, starting at the poet’s childhood understanding of bleeding:

She had the blood, too. . . .
. . . As a girl, I thought being
a woman meant your life spilling from you
like a cup of juice you kept knocking over.
I was young enough to think anything
That bled was a wound.

Chatti tenderly contemplates her life as a young girl, attempting to reconcile that girl with where she eventually ends up:

I remember
that distant self like a daughter
I gave up or lost in a bustling
food court and never saw again,
the remembering painful.
And sometimes I wonder if she knew
why her blood came angrier
than any other’s, blood like my blood,
which now seethes and conspires and appears
on MRI scans like a black eye or a crop circle
or the earth’s eager void.


Leila Chatti’s ability to seek poetic understanding of her illness, of womanhood, of religious and medical landscapes through vulnerability is what initially drew me to make the comparison of Deluge to Levis. In his work, Levis himself often engages in similar acts of poetic juggling, and like him, Chatti in Deluge is able to come to a point of poetic balance, of resolve.

Chatti, on her visit to Virginia Commonwealth University’s campus for the Levis Reading Prize event, most likely walked some of the same paths and alleyways followed by Levis during his time as a teacher here in Richmond, Virginia. This year marks the twenty-fifth year of the passing of Levis, and despite COVID-19 and its variants, Chatti’s in-person reading functioned to remind her audience of his legacy, while also serving to celebrate Chatti herself, and her debut full-length collection. It was a gentle reminder that poetry persists in times of such distress, and that what’s paramount about poetry is its capacity to rejuvenate language, to rejuvenate us.

Because of this rejuvenation, the last poem of Deluge carries specific resonance. It’s a cento—composed of lines from various poets to achieve a united arrangement of poetic voices— and yet fits seamlessly into Chatti’s own voice, into her collection, and into its commanding achievement:

My blood alive with voices, made of longing—pieces of cloud dissolved in sunlight. And
the water abated, and the matter was ended. I could go back to being who I was. And the
angel departed me.  

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