A Review of Figment by Leila Chatti
Words By Eliza Browning
Published November 8, 2022 by Bull City Press
Leila Chatti’s heartbreaking chapbook Figment addresses the often unspoken subject of miscarriage, mourning the ghost of a child that might have been. This collection, in the form of an abecedarian of grief, works to destigmatize miscarriage, an all-too-common experience that affects 1 out of every 8 pregnancies. Figment hovers in the liminal space between dreaming and waking, between the seen and unseen, between imagination and reality.
“I had a dream / all / but gone upon waking,” Chatti writes in the first poem of the collection. She characterizes the phantom pregnancy as a reality that is unseen and unfelt by all but her. As the mother of an unborn child, Chatti views herself as a failed creator and blames herself for her pregnancy loss: “as if from dough from clay / fictile / I formed / you I didn’t know / before / I did it / what I was / capable of.” Giving voice to her experience illuminates the invisible trauma of her lost pregnancy, which nonetheless causes her very real pain. The collection thus becomes an elegy: “Figment of speech / when I speak / of you I conjure you,” she writes to her child. Chatti’s deployment of silence through empty space counterintuitively vocalizes her suffering. She attributes this stylistic choice to poet Jean Valentine, whose line “words only/half gathered” Chatti borrows from Valentine’s poem “Embryo.”
In illuminating the silenced nature of miscarriage, the author restores order and meaning to the process of grieving. The fragmentation of language reflects the author’s inability to vocalize the depths of her grief, but for Chatti, the process of writing Figment was also one of healing and vulnerability: “As much as I have written and shared about my life, there are some things that are very difficult to put into words,” she explained in her book announcement. “The past few years, I have privately struggled with pregnancy loss. When this first happened in the isolation of 2020, I could not process it fully; it felt like something I had imagined, even as I was deeply suffering.” Figment became a way for Chatti to work through the grief, a project so intensely private she believed she would never publish it. Yet, the publication of Figment becomes a way of bearing witness at a time when pregnancy and reproductive rights are at the forefront of American political consciousness. Reading something so intimate expands the boundaries of the privacy of grief, evoking our compassion and vulnerability as readers.
Figment is also a striking exploration of the ways that language eludes, shifts, and breaks down through grief. On each page are floating, fractured clouds of alliterative words: “figment,” for example, is associated with the words “fiction,” “fantasy,” and “phantom,” both something real and not. Through such sparse language, Chatti submerges the reader in her haunting dreamscape. While this effect initially disorients the reader, the alliterative pattern can also seem predictable, with the alphabetic form conveying the sense that grieving is linear—a suggestion the intensity of Chatti’s loss belies. Although the fog of language effectively captures the haziness of grief and embodies the ghostly nature of miscarriage, I found myself wanting to tease more emotional resonance out of the sparse verse. Without a strong narrative thread or image at the heart of this collection, individual poems risk disintegrating into pages of disconnected words.
Though brief, Figment is a collection that demands our attention. Chatti guides us through this collection like a spiritual intercessor bearing witness to the both private and universal nature of her grief. The splintered form of some alphabetic sections can sometimes grow repetitive, a stylistic choice that occasionally borders on being gimmicky: “witness: woman / whose wound within / wrong / world / who whispered why why why why why.” Nevertheless, Figment is resonant in its voice and unique in its form. In giving voice to the unspoken, Chatti brings the unseen reality of pregnancy loss at last to light. Her vivid and vibrant language spills over the page, providing consolation not only to mothers but to anyone who has suffered loss.