Poem of the Week | August 29, 2022

This week’s Poem of the Week is “And Whatever I Held Inside Me” by Leila Chatti.

Leila Chatti is a Tunisian-American poet and author of Deluge (Copper Canyon Press, 2020), winner of the 2021 Levis Reading Prize, the 2021 Luschei Prize for African Poetry, and longlisted for the 2021 PEN Open Book Award, and multiple chapbooks. Her honors include a Pushcart Prize, grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund and the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, and Cleveland State University, where she was the inaugural Anisfield-Wolf Fellow in Publishing and Writing. Her poems appear in The New York Times Magazine, The Nation, The Atlantic, POETRY, and elsewhere. She lives and writes in the Midwest.


And Whatever I Held Inside Me

And I could not breathe
in the proper cadence.
And I hissed like I was punctured.
And when I spoke no one heard me.
And I made a mistake
thinking I was finished
with feeling; from behind that partition
surged more than before.
And I choked and nearly vomited on the carpet, like an animal.
And I was deranged, the cat was afraid
and felt pity for me. And I was so sad
now about everything. And I was bewildered
by the novelty of my suffering—
I thought we were well
acquainted—and what it revealed I feared
was the real me, hiding all that time,
who I would be forever after, the self
I would die with, and maybe soon,
I was certain I was breaking open
and whatever remained would be exposed
as irremediable.
And the world was narrowing to a point.
And I closed my eyes so I wouldn’t see it.
And the specter of my voice said Feelings
go in the box! Feelings go in the box!

And my mind conjured the box.
And I saw it
and obediently I put them in.
And the furniture stayed very still, as if holding its breath.


Author’s Note

I wrote this poem in the immediate aftermath of a massive panic attack. I think, generally, there is an impulse to capture the triggering incident, the story behind the symptom, but in that moment, I could not—or would not—face it. I could not bring myself to write about the cause of my suffering, but instead only suffering itself, and I tried to record it as accurately as I could, like a reporter.