I want to start with a lovely poem by Leila Chatti that is reminiscent of poetry written by the brilliant Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad (1934-1967).
NIGHT LAMENT IN HERGLA
This is what the fearful do:
when a burning star torments them,
they go to the sea.
THERE IS NO WORLD in which I am not haunted,
no willing God to relinquish me.
My mother taught me death comes
wailing from the shadows, my father
all ghosts exist in smoke. I search
the sky for light long extinguished,
make wishes on their bright graves.
In the dark I try every language you might
recognize, but nothing calls you back;
the words hang in the air, their own
brief phantoms. The ocean offers
no solace; I stand at its black edge
as it retreats, draws close, backs away again.
Like this, your memory wavers
on the threshold. How many nights
your name appeared on my lips
like an incantation, how many times
you’ve arrived in a dream pale
as prayer at dawn—your absence
burns its hole through my waking.
I stalk the shores of your sleep,
which allow no entry. The moon
reveals nothing of heaven, a brined window.
You are gone, in this country and all others.
Leila was born in 1990 in Oakland, California. A Tunisian-American dual citizen, she has lived in the United States, Tunisia, and Southern France. She is the author of the debut full-length collection Deluge, forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press in 2020, and the chapbooks Ebb (New-Generation African Poets) and Tunsiya/Amrikiya, the 2017 Editors’ Selection from Bull City Press. She holds a B.A. from the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities at Michigan State University and an M.F.A. from North Carolina State University, where she was awarded the Academy of American Poets Prize. Her poems have received prizes from Ploughshares’ Emerging Writer’s Contest, Narrative’s 30 Below Contest, and the Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Prize, among others, and appear in Best New Poets (2015 & 2017), Ploughshares, Tin House, American Poetry Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Georgia Review, New England Review, Kenyon Review Online, Narrative, The Rumpus, and other journals and anthologies.
In the extracts from two recent interviews below, Leila talks about the themes that reoccur in her poetry, about her art and why she chose poetry.
“When I first realized I was a poet, with the same certainty and absoluteness as the fact of my brown hair or the city of my birth, I was in early adolescence. I was a cliché in that I thought a lot, felt more than I could bear, and used poetry as a container for what I carried too much of…I wrote to make sense of my suffering. I still write to make sense of my suffering, the suffering I encountered then and the suffering I’ve since amassed. I write now, too, for and about other things, but this remains my primary impulse.” (Leila Chatti, Interview in the Adroit Journal, 2018, https://www.leilachatti.com/media)
“I often find myself writing about water—the ocean, likely because I’ve spent my life crossing it each summer, and the Mediterranean sea, where I spent those summers along the shores of Tunisia. Tunisia itself appears in my work as well, specifically the small town of Hergla, where I’ve spent my adult summers. My father’s eldest brother has a home there, and I spend a month each year—this past one being the first exception in a long time—writing while looking out at the water. I’ve done a significant amount of writing there, and the landscape makes its way into the work.” (Interview in The Massachusetts review, 2017)
And to finish another poem by Leila…
Fasting in Tunis
Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances.
MY GOD TAUGHT me hunger
is a gift, it sweetens
the meal. All day, I have gone without
because I know at the end I will
eat and be satisfied. In this way,
my desire is bearable.
I endure this day
as I have endured years of days
without the whole of your affection.
Your desire is one capable of rest.
Mine keeps its eyes open, stalks
through heat that quivers,
waits to be fed.
The sun burns a hole through
the sky and I am patient.
The ocean eats and eats
at the sand and still hungers.
I watch its wide blue tongue, knowing
you are on the other side.
What is greater: the distance between
these bodies, or their need?
Noon gapes, a vacant maw—
there is long to go
until the moon is served, white as a plate.
You are far and still sleeping;
the morning has not yet slunk into your bed,
its dreams so vast and solitary.
Once, long ago,
I touched you,
and I will touch you again—
your mouth a song
I remember, your mouth
a sugar I drink.