Review: “An Emphasis on Origins in Figment by Leila Chatti” by Morgan English

Leila Chatti’s new work Figment is a book-length poem which loosely takes the form of an abecedarian. The alphabet acts as a guide through the associative, musical leaps Chatti makes from page to page. We first see the alphabet pushing the book along with: “amorphous / blank // belief be / lie con / ceive con / ceit // deny.” Airy, abstract, and fragmented, Figment marks a stark departure from Chatti’s debut collection Deluge, a book densely packed with personal narrative, religious symbols, and detailed, sensory imagery. I see Figment not as an artistic evolution of Chatti, but as an involuntary poetic response to living, as the poet grapples with pregnancy loss. The fragmentation and space for silence represents an authentic response to a grief that our culture mostly keeps hidden and unspoken. Form and content unite beautifully in this book, creating a testament to loss that haunts each page, in lines that trail off and words that quickly morph into other words. Unanchored by punctuation, the words seem as if they might drift off like balloons let loose, with their strings just out of reach:

                                                            I saw you shadow of
                                                                            a shadow

                                             maybe I thought
                                             I made you


Through silence/erasure, fragmentation, etymology, and associative word play, Chatti follows a thread where imagination is the source of suffering and meaning-making; creation an act of the mind. The thread is language itself, where Chatti relies on individual words and their origins, rather than on symbols. The Mary of Deluge, “crouched and cursing, a boy-God pushing on her cervix,” is not present here, but the weight placed on words like genesis, form, fiction, and story similarly points to a faith and doubt tangled up in roots and origins. We enter the book through a list of definitions of the word figment, including “a feigned, invented, or imagined story, theory, etc.” and “something that seems real but is not.”

There is a gracefully weary quality to Figment, as if Chatti first had to make the paper for the words to appear on, and then gather berries to make the ink. A line she borrows from Jean Valentine’s poem “Embryo,” invokes the grief-tired labor of the poet: “words only / half gathered.” In Chatti’s brief ending note, she credits Jean Valentine whose “words and silences helped me discover my own.” Silence presents itself as various kinds of erasure from crossed out text, to the prefix un-, to caesural pauses and a generous use of white space. Under the heading vanished, the use of strikethrough text (“visible / viable / visceral / void”) is a format suggesting erasure, and a few pages earlier, we find a heart-breaking collection of verbs nullified by the prefix un-: “uncarry unsuckle unrock uncoo / unswaddle uncradle …” Caesura enacts loss with “face        less,” and then we find caesura and a pair of homonyms:

                                    [day]                 a blur                   how long
                                                             did I stand           there
                                                             did I stand

Chatti approaches Figment’s fragmentation with absolute precision and astute word play, with homophones throughout such as “please      O pleas” and “madder matter / mattered” and effective rhyme at work:

                                                            from zephyr
                                                            from ether
                                                                        into neither

The fragmentation in Figment allows for a surreal quality, mixed with word play and an emphasis on origins, which calls to mind Rimbaud, especially on the page titled O! From Rimbaud’s “Vowels:” “A Black, E white, I red, U green, O blue: vowels, / I shall tell, one day, of your mysterious origins:” and “O, sublime Trumpet full of strange piercing sounds, / Silences crossed by Worlds and by Angels: / O the Omega…” From Chatti we have: “O omen / O otherworld //…O! / O! // O proof / O quiver / O ruin,” and then the poem/page ends with the isolated, italicized word “root.” Chatti indeed “seeks the raw root of things,” as art critic Jan Veth once said of the yet-unknown Vincent van Gogh, and etymology is her well-trodden path to the root.

If language is Figment’s thread, and the alphabet the needle pushing it along, then etymology is the needle’s eye. The source of ideas and experiences are searched for in root words, prefixes, and branching definitions, from the root word *dheigh-, “to mold, form, shape,” in pairidaēza-, or paradise, to the Latin figmentum. My favorite etymological exploration is the well-riffed fainéant (literally “does nothing”), the root word of faint and to feign, where the speaker calls themself a “little            do nothing.” As Chatti moves through the definitions of figment, the last page presents a final movement from figment to figure, a positive reclamation of the power of the imagination:

faint yes brief
yes but here

figure of my imagination

This ending page/poem offers a sense of catharsis, the kind found by poets in the power of the written word, where language “shaped for / you a space.” In Figment, I see a brilliant mind at work, even under the heavy weight of grief. Chatti examines the patriarchal pressure on women a little more gently, or obliquely, than in Deluge perhaps, but still we find a hearty inquiry into origin, genesis, creation, conception, and the patriarchal notion of hysteria associated with women (“mothered // made      mad”).

Figment, by Leila Chatti. Durham, North Carolina: Bull City Press, November 2022. 48 pages. $24.95, limited-edition hardcover.

Morgan English is a poet and editor. The winner of The Florida Review’s 2021 Editors’ Award in Poetry, her writing has most recently appeared in Arc Poetry Magazine. She holds a BA in creative writing from Florida State University, and is an MFA candidate at Bennington College. She lives in southern Vermont.

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