Project Description


When my grandmother died, I flew an ocean
to grieve her. On the phone with my father, I tried to
puzzle it out—she was dead, but she was dead
in the future, five hours ahead, there was still time
for goodbyes, last kisses and murmurs past cheeks, here
she would still be breathing.
The day I left, magnolias dripped
onto Raleigh’s streets as if thawing, and the spring sun shrugged
off winter’s grip. Clouds
frothed outside the plane’s porthole windows and dawn
spilled toward me, a flush of light.
It was April and everything glowed
pink and alive. But in Tunis, it was as if
I’d alighted, stunned, into another
world where all was dry—dust
on marble and jasmine
desiccated brown on the dashboard
of the rented car, hot as a mouth.
The highway shimmered, coughed up shivery
air like ghosts. We passed
the olive groves, rows of silver-green
leaves and hunched spines, miles of sand
blanched beneath the sky so clear
God could easily look through it
if He wanted. My father, who hadn’t prayed
in years, played the Qur’an from a cassette tape
and said nothing. I didn’t
know yet the rules of death
in this country—all my life considered it refuge
from my American tragedies, a grief-
less sanctuary. So when we arrived,
my grandmother already tucked in
the arid earth like an unviable seed
three days earlier, I didn’t expect the crush
of distant relatives and neighbors I knew vaguely
by face, crowded on the white terrace of her
house smoking cigarettes, wailing or shuffling
with their hands shoved in their pockets
or lifting tiny cups of Turkish coffee to their mouths.
It was Lilia, the youngest of the daughters
now orphaned, still round-faced at fifty
like a child, who pressed her lips to my cheeks
and said farq, which I did not understand until her son
illumed—separation, ritual
day of acknowledging the death and life
ever after as changed, different, a division
between what was and what is, now
that the loved one is gone. And what I felt
then was a flood of something like relief,
to have my grief charted for me—three days
of mourning; on the third day, letting go—
and so I let the ululations of near-
strangers wash over me from the hallways, the salon, the grounds
where once she watched her progeny
collect coiled husks of nails
like coins, pluck hibiscus and plant them
behind ears like flamenco dancers, dip
toes into the blue mosaicked pool. I let myself be
carried from room to room with my dozen cousins
as if by a current, said the requisite prayers, said Inna lillahi
etcetera, my tongue stumbling, my still-living heart
welling up like an eye. And when at the end
of the day, the aunts ordered
us into the showers one by one, to wash off
the death
, we obliged—the emptying
house dewy, filling with steam. All night, a lulling
ubiquitous hiss.

Leila Chatti

Leila Chatti is a Tunisian-American poet and author of Deluge, forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press in 2020, and the chapbooks Ebb (Akashic Books, 2018) and Tunsiya/Amrikiya, the 2017 Editors’ Selection from Bull City Press. She is the recipient of a Barbara Deming Memorial Fund grant, scholarships from the Tin House Writers’ Workshop, The Frost Place, and the Key West Literary Seminar, and fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation of New Mexico, and Cleveland State University, where she is the inaugural Anisfield-Wolf Fellow in Writing & Publishing. Her poems appear in PloughsharesTin HouseThe American Poetry Review, and elsewhere.