Polly Atkin on her love of tea, Teaism, and what Leila Chatti’s poem ‘Tea’ means to her
On March 23rd, 2020, Leila Chatti shared one of her poems on twitter, which had been chosen as The Missouri Review’s Poem of the Week. The poem was called ‘Tea’. It is a poem about the speaker’s relationship with tea, and the relationship of Tunisian people to tea. It is also a poem about finding ways to keep moving forward through a time that feels unsurvivable.
On the same day we entered our first lockdown in the UK. I’d begun my own two weeks previously, finding no reassurance in the continual assertion that the 1-2% of the population expected to die from COVID-19 at that point would be people who were sick or elderly. By that third week of March I had been equally alarmed and frustrated for weeks, baffled by our government’s lack of action, and disturbed by the attitudes of ordinary people revealed by the growing crisis. This was the backdrop to my first reading of this poem, and I’m telling you because I need you to know exactly how particularly out of control of my own fate I was feeling. I am not in any sense exaggerating when I say this poem was utterly necessary to me that week in 2020. That every time I hit a new low spot in this never-ending plague year I come back to this poem, and it reminds me I can carry myself through it if I think inch by inch, moment by moment, kettle boil to kettle boil.
I am not in any sense exaggerating when I say this poem was utterly necessary to me that week in 2020
The language of the poem is direct and apparently straightforward. It addresses the reader, although who that reader may be – friend, confidante, advisee, self – is not pinned down. It begins by recounting an action the speaker takes: “Five times a day, I make tea”. The explanation that follows, of why they make tea, is a key example of the layered meanings I value in this poem. The speaker tells us “I do this / because I like the warmth in my hands” then expands upon what warmth means to them – it is not just the physical sensation of warmth, but carries all the metaphysical weight too – so it is a “feeling of self-directed kindness”, where the kindness is both physical and mental comfort. They explain how they have to create their own warmth and kindness – they’re “not used to it”.
Within these first few lines that simple act of making tea has already shifted to take on huge resonance. It’s not about making a drink, it’s about making existence bearable. Making tea is transformative, kindling warmth and kindness out of nothing. What is carried in those words in their opposites – the coldness and unkindness of the speaker’s usual state. The tea is a kind of lifeboat in the ocean of it. What makes this poem a lifeboat to me is the possibility in that notion of self-directed kindness. The speaker lets the reader in on a kind of existential secret – “it’s easy” they tell us, to make your own kindness. But every word in this poem is expertly chosen and placed. “I create my own” she tells us, but with the inescapable caveat “when I can”. The kettle’s “scream” is another indicator not all is as easy as we are being told.
by Leila Chatti
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.
She is alone. She “must make tea for [her]self”, she tells us, “because no one is here to love me”. The only source of love she has is her own actions. The possibility of love from another floats in the background – the sound she makes when pleased that another poet notices – but it is distant. In the present she has to rely on herself for comfort.
She follows a ritual of noticing that will be familiar to many readers as a grounding technique taught in mindfulness classes and CBT, paying attention to the present moment of her body. This is, she says “to remind myself I am here”. Like everything in the poem, this simple phrase does a lot of work: “here” is both here in the kitchen, feet cold in socks, and here in this life. It is a way of saying “I am alive and in this present moment”, but also that it is hard for the speaker to remember this sometimes.
This ritual of noticing leads her into thinking of other rituals, and her tea-making habit becomes paralleled to the five daily prayers traditional to her people. Dropping to the ground in worship and dropping mint springs in a glass are both ways of creating the conditions of improvement. Self-care is a kind of prayer here, in whatever form it takes: “a gesture of devotion towards what is not always beloved / or believed”. To speak of the self this way, as a separate thing to be mistrusted – “what is not always beloved / or believed” – is painful and relatable. Too often we do not extend the kindness to ourselves that we would extend to others. When it is used in common parlance as a near synonym for gentleness, or worse, niceness, we forget the etymological roots of kindness in notions of nation, and family – in fellow feeling for kin. A kindness we give to ourselves is part of recognizing ourselves as home, family, as self, not other. “I think to care for the self / is a kind of prayer” is, like so many phrases in this poem, a movement towards understanding that, a statement of intent.
The poem goes on to extend the meaning of kindness further by delving into heritage and culture, and the role tea might have in nationhood
The poem goes on to extend the meaning of kindness further by delving into heritage and culture, and the role tea might have in nationhood. In an author’s note to the poem in The Missouri Review she explains how the poem stemmed from contemplating her own reliance on tea during a period of depression, and how it made her think about her heritage, and the tension between “pleasure and survival”: “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.”
Before I read this poem, I was not aware of the history of Teaism as a psychiatric diagnosis, and how the pathologizing of tea-drinking was used by the French Colonial authorities to suppress Tunisian people. To have something so fundamental to your culture categorized as a contagious disease is, I know, a feature of colonial subjugation, but placed alongside the description of the simple power tea can have to soothe the body and mind, it becomes all the more shocking.
The appearance of this history in the centre of the poem has a powerful effect. It ties the personal catastrophe of the internal landscape to the cultural catastrophe of colonialism, and it links that history and the present. Tea was a joy ‘colonizers … tried to snuff out’ of the Tunisian people, so for the speaker to take that joy for herself, in the present, is reclamation of culture, a small act of rebellion against not just against the unkind cold of her present, but against the vast cruelty of history.
I was aware of course that in the US context in which Chatti lives – where tea was thrown overboard with colonial rule and “tea often means gossip, but sometimes means truth” – tea has an entirely different set of cultural attachments to the British context I was reading in, in which ‘a nice cup of tea’ will cure almost anything. This is tea as in John Agard’s ‘Alternative Anthem’, in which the kettle is “the engine / that drives our nation’s dream”, the manifold harms done to arrive at the point where tea became synonymous with British culture, a bitter aftertaste.
The appearance of this history in the centre of the poem has a powerful effect. It ties the personal catastrophe of the internal landscape to the cultural catastrophe of colonialism, and it links that history and the present
Teaism, the speaker tells us, is the “kind of faith” they might “buy into”, rather than selling themselves out for tea, as the Colonial authorities feared Tunisians would do. There is an economy of self-care here, an economy of faith. Tea, to the speaker, is “a god I wouldn’t fear”. But a less kind outcome is always present, as it is in the equivocating “I think now I truly believe / I wouldn’t kill anyone for love”, with its brilliant line break before the key addition, “not even myself”. Any assurance is undermined by the practical reason she remains safe from her own worst love: “most days / I can barely get out of bed.”
In this state of uncertainty, darkness rounding it, the speaker performs the repetitive prayer-act of making tea: “the small thing I know how to do/to care for myself.” Making tea is a way of “trying to notice joy”, a phrase so simple and so complex I could write a book to unpack it. Noticing is something we do, or don’t do. Trying to notice is a movement towards action, a statement of best intent. It includes failure. It includes the opposite of joy, and the opposite of noticing joy: joy missed, pains and sorrows noticed instead. It includes not doing. Most importantly, “trying to notice joy” in this poem “means [to] survive”.
This trying to notice echoes something Keah Brown writes in her essay ‘Nurturing Black Disabled Joy’ in the collection Disability Visibility: “I may not find joy every day. Some days will just be hard, and I will simply exist, and that’s okay too. […] the absence of joy isn’t permanent; it’s just the way life works sometimes. The reality of disability and joy means accepting that not every day is good but every day has opening for small pockets of joy.” (Keah Brown: ‘Nurturing Black Disabled Joy’, Disability Visibility: first person stories from the twenty-first century, ed. by Alice Wong (Knopf Doubleday, 2020))
This poem is now part of my practice of survival
“Trying to notice joy” is a practice towards joy – towards creating an opening for those small pockets of it. It doesn’t mean it’s easy, or that you feel it. The trying is what makes it an act of survival. The poem ends with the continuation of this practice: “I do this all day, and then the next”. Surviving is done one cup of tea at a time, one day after another.
I probably ought to make another confession. I am a tea lover. I have so many different kinds of tea at home they fill and overspill a whole cupboard. Even though I know it is magical thinking, I still cannot help but believe the right tea at the right time can work wonders. I did not have to be sold on the notion of tea-making as essential care. But what this poem tells us about care, kindness, kin, and continuation alongside that tea, was life-changing for me.
This poem is now part of my practice of survival. If I can do nothing else, there is always one small thing I can do to care for myself. I can care for myself, even when the world won’t. And in the midst of anything, I can try to notice joy, even if I don’t succeed, even if I don’t feel it or can’t find it. Trying is the daily survival practice, trying is the important part. Trying is what gets us through.