What should I say? In this country, this world, women don’t get to be in the center. Though they always are, even in, especially in, the origin story of Jesus. This poem reminds me that I was reading a book of poems in the hospital room while my wife gave birth to our first son, proving that poetry is either worthless or essential. Leila Chatti made me understand my wife and my mother — two people I thought I understood better than I actually did. Sometimes poems give us more than we can handle. There is no real way to admit to not knowing what Chatti reveals, beyond revealing it to others: Sometimes it’s brutally hard to be a woman in this world. Selected by Reginald Dwayne Betts
By Leila Chatti
Oh, I wish I had died before this and was in oblivion, forgotten.
Mary giving birth, the Holy Qur’an
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), girl-sweat lacing
rivulets like veins in the sand,
her small hands on her knees
not doves but hands, gripping,
a palm pressed to her spine, fronds
whispering like voyeurs overhead —
(oh Mary, like a God, I too take pleasure
in knowing you were not all
holy, that ache could undo you
like a knot) — and, suffering,
I admire this girl who cared
for a moment not about God
or His plans but her own
distinct life, this fiercer Mary who’d disappear
if it saved her, who’d howl to Hell
with salvation if it meant this pain,
the blessed adolescent who squatted
indignant in a desert, bearing His child
like a secret she never wanted to hear.
Illustration by R. O. Blechman.
Reginald Dwayne Betts is a poet and lawyer. He created the Million Book Project, an initiative to curate microlibraries and install them in prisons across the country. His latest collection of poetry, “Felon,” explores the post-incarceration experience. In 2019, he won a National Magazine Award in Essays and Criticism for his article in the magazine about his journey from teenage carjacker to aspiring lawyer. Leila Chatti is a poet who was born in Oakland, Calif. She earned her M.F.A. from North Carolina State University, where she was awarded the Academy of American Poets Prize. Her debut collection, “Deluge,” was published by Copper Canyon Press in 2020.
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