Reciting Poetry in the Psychiatric Ward by Leila Chatti


Amidst all the blonde collegiate
nurses assigned to our wing, one
my mother’s age who likes me.
She’s sweet on my name—same as Ali’s
—but calls me sugar, swallowing
the r, and winks one big dark
eye at me when I pass. Over the desk,
she leans in and says, like it’s a secret, I know
you’re not crazy
, then laughs
because there’s little else
she can do, can only shake her head and promise
to talk to the doctors. She’s the only one
who believes me when I say
I teach poetry at the university—
claps her long-fingered hands and quotes
Maya Angelou, declares
herself a phenomenal woman, then adds
and you’re a little caged bird
. When she asks me to
teach her about poetry, I am glad
for it—to stand by the nurses’ station
with some semblance of use,
to punctuate the timeless stretch
of the ward with mini-lectures
on Brooks and Lorde and Hughes—
and on my last day, when it’s determined
I can be trusted again
with my life, I am given
my things in a plastic bag
and she asks me
my favorite poem, I recite without thinking won’t you
celebrate with me
—and she smiles
as I’m led through the bolted doors
where she stands, waving, like a good host,
then says kindly don’t you ever
come back now, you hear?


LEILA CHATTI is a Tunisian-American poet and fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. The recipient of prizes from Ploughshares’ Emerging Writer’s Contest, Narrative Magazine, and the Academy of American Poets, her poems appear in Best New Poets, Ploughshares, Tin House, Narrative, The Missouri Review, TriQuarterly, and elsewhere.