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11-5-2018


Leila Chatti


MOTHERLAND

What kind of world will we leave
                      for our mothers? My mother

calls me, weeping. I am
                      far and the country she gave

me could kill me. Or
                      that's what she's saying, her voice

clumsy with tears-my mother
                      who never cries, and so

for this, too, apologizes. Sometimes, more 
                      often, I want to mother

my mother. I've begun to 
                      wonder what it is like for her

to have four hearts 
                      outside her body, buried

in brown and fragile skin. I never wanted this
                      for my children, my mother sobs

from a Michigan town 
                      where once men crowded in white

cloaks, their sons still 
                      there lingering at drug stores and gas pumps

with steely guns and colder eyes. 
                      What do you tell a mother

you love too much
                      to lie to? My mother

named me Leila because it was a song
                      white men played on air guitars, which meant,

she'd hoped, they couldn't hate me. I'm so scared now
                      for Rachid, even with his blonde hair--

My mother thought her blood
                      might protect us in this country

from this country, her fair genes and cast-
                      aside Catholic god. Thinks now

she failed us as children because she only ever told us 
                      stories of monsters

we wouldn't recognize. Mother, 
                      I know these men

could be your brothers
                      and do not blame you. She weeps.

I am far and the country
                      monstrous. What kind of world

do we mother, knowing
                      what it is, what it's capable of?

The long night stretches
                      between her window and mine.

As if comforting a child, I say the word
                      kind--as in, the world is still

kinder than we think. I think
                      I believe it. Mom I say

stop crying--no one's leaving this world
                      
to anyone yet. 

FASTING IN TUNIS

                      Longing, we say, because desire is full 
              of endless distances.
              - ROBERT HASS

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.

WHEN I TELL MY FATHER I MIGHT BEGIN TO PRAY AGAIN

He says he's never really stopped
speaking to God. Says it's in his DNA, asking 
for things.

Twenty-one years he bowed before the bed, us 
children in a row behind him
crushing our foreheads earnestly to the floor.

I can't remember the last time 
I clasped my hands above my breast and yearned for 
God in that formal way,

but my father possesses an exact date-
Christmas, seven years back, the final jummah,
after which he walked out into the blinding

snow. O ye who believe! If there exists
in my blood a map, it is one I keep 
folded for fear

of where it does not lead. God,
I want so badly 
to speak

with you-not for aid or for proof of 
my goodness, but to feel
again your presence

in my life, undeniably there
like my father's hand on mine
in this still and inscrutable dark.

-from Tunisiya/Amrikiya (Bull City Press, April 3, 2018), selected by Tyree Daye, POW Guest Editor Fall 2018

PROMPT: In "Motherland" Leila Chatti writes, "often, I want to mother // my mother." One of the strange rituals of adulthood is the shifting dynamic between offspring and parents that Chatti points to here: children begin to comfort parents, to try to protect them against the world, against a country that is "monstrous." Write about one of these moments from your life, when you felt yourself taking on a more care-taking role with a parental figure: what did this new role feel like? How did you (perhaps, as Chatti suggests) care for yourself by caring for your parent?
 

BIO: Leila Chatti is a Tunisian-American poet and author of the chapbooks Ebb (Akashic Books, 2018) and Tunsiya/Amrikiya, the 2017 Editors' Selection from Bull City Press. She is the recipient of scholarships from the Tin House Writers’ Workshop, The Frost Place, and the Key West Literary Seminar, grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund and the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, and fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, and Cleveland State University, where she is the inaugural Anisfield-Wolf Fellow in Publishing and Writing. Her poems have received awards from Ploughshares' Emerging Writer's Contest, Narrative's 30 Below Contest, and the Academy of American Poets, and appear in Ploughshares, Tin House, American Poetry Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Kenyon Review Online, and elsewhere.


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