Poem of the Week | March 22, 2020
Leila Chatti “Tea”
This week’s Poem of the Week is “Tea” by Leila Chatti!
Leila Chatti is a Tunisian-American poet and author of Deluge (Copper Canyon Press, 2020) and 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 appear in The New York Times Magazine, Ploughshares, Tin House, American Poetry Review, and elsewhere. Chatti was also a finalist for TMR’s 2019 Editors’ Prize contest.
Five times a day, I make tea. I do this
because I like the warmth in my hands, like the feeling
of self-directed kindness. I’m not used to it—
warmth and kindness, both—so I create my own
when I can. It’s easy. You just pour
water into a kettle and turn the knob and listen
for the scream. I do this
five times a day. Sometimes, when I’m pleased,
I let out a little sound. A poet noticed this
and it made me feel I might one day
properly be loved. Because no one is here
to love me, I make tea for myself
and leave the radio playing. I must
remind myself I am here, and do so
by noticing myself: my feet are cold
inside my socks, they touch the ground, my stomach
churns, my heart stutters, in my hands I hold
a warmth I make. I come from
a people who pray five times a day
and make tea. I admire the way they do
both. How they drop to the ground
wherever they are. Drop
pine nuts and mint sprigs in a glass.
I think to care for the self
is a kind of prayer. It is a gesture
of devotion toward what is not always beloved
or believed. I do not always believe
in myself, or love myself, I am sure
there are times I am bad or gone
or lying. In another’s mouth, tea often means gossip,
but sometimes means truth. Despite
the trope, in my experience my people do not lie
for pleasure, or when they should,
even when it might be a gesture
of kindness. But they are kind. If you were
to visit, a woman would bring you
a tray of tea. At any time of day.
My people love tea so much
it was once considered a sickness. Their colonizers
tried, as with any joy, to snuff it out. They feared a love
so strong one might sell or kill their other
loves for leaves and sugar. Teaism
sounds like a kind of faith
I’d buy into, a god I wouldn’t fear. I think now I truly believe
I wouldn’t kill anyone for love,
not even myself—most days
I can barely get out of bed. So I make tea.
I stand at the window while I wait.
My feet are cold and the radio plays its little sounds.
I do the small thing I know how to do
to care for myself. I am trying to notice joy,
which means survive. I do this all day, and then the next.
This poem was the first I wrote in a long period of drought. I was, as the poem alludes to, suffering from a depressive episode, one that dislodged my language and made the simple tasks of living significantly difficult. There was one act of self-care, however, that I could bring myself to do with regularity: make tea. All day, each day, I did it; it’s true. I made the connection one day between my love of—dependency on, even—tea and the cultural role and history of tea in my Tunisian ancestry. Tea is so beloved in Tunisia that when it was under French rule, colonial administrators believed Tunisians’ tea consumption was a psychological condition, teaism, similar to alcoholism, and that the amount of tea my people drank had poisoned both their bodies and minds. I was interested in examining my own experience with my body and mind, harm and care, pleasure and survival, as it relates to tea, and this poem tumbled out of that. As a note to this note, my pantry continues to be stuffed to the brim with tea—enough to last me over a year, at least.
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