Saturday, September 13, 2008


Zong! is, in the words of Nathaniel Mackey, "a brash, unsettling book" which "wants to chant or shout history down, shut history up." This book, by M. NourbeSe Philip as told to the author by Setaey Adamu Boateng, shuts history down precisely by reclaiming stories from history, refusing narrative. It does so with a passionate mining of words not just for fragmentation but for the usefulness of fracture, for all of what lies hidden (erased) in the visual and aural potentialities of words.

The cover describes Zong! as such:
In November, 1781, the captain of the slave ship Zong ordered that some 150 Africans be murdered by drowning so that the ship’s owners could collect insurance monies. Relying entirely on the words of the legal decision Gregson vs Gilbert—the only extant public document related to the massacre of these African slaves—Zong! tells the story that cannot be told yet must be told. Equal parts song, moan, shout, oath, ululation, curse, and chant, Zong! excavates the legal text. Memory, history, and law collide and metamorphose into the poetics of the fragment. Through the innovative use of fugal and counterpointed repetition, Zong! becomes an anti-narrative lament that stretches the boundaries of the poetic form, haunting the spaces of forgetting and mourning the forgotten.

The image below cannot do justice to the intimacy and care of Philip's work, and I apologize to you and her for the damage my photograph does (I wish my html skills allowed me to represent her work more accurately - though no electronic version can be accurate in this case). I can only say that I hope that in writing about this, the first page in the book, from "Zong #1," I'll lead readers to find the actual book, out this week from Wesleyan, and read it in her intended display. I will note that the poem "Zong #1" continues over the page, so here I'm fracturing Philip/Boateng's fragment - but hopefully usefully.

As it unfolds horizontally - across the horizon of both page and ocean - and through time - with some awful inevitability - "Zong #1" seems to stutter or staccato its letters, "w w w." What will result from this, one wonders? The "a wa" at the end of line 1 anticipates "away," an absence that is felt on the page even as it attempts to express itself. Similarly, "w a t" on the next line gestures towards our "wait" for story/history even as it cannot possibly fulfill "wait" alone. Within this poem, letters are not missing so much as words are exploded and become of use to us as they (refuse to) resolve into letter combinations. Even as one is tempted to call their formation valuable, one has to resist both the idea the formation needs to happen or that value is what we want here: to want value would be to comply with the captain and owners of the slave ship Zong.

(And, for that matter, why reach for English words in attempting to form expression, this poems seems to ask.)

This "w a t" leads on the next line to "er" - to error, to uncERtainty, but also to "water," to where We ARE(n'T). The poem proceeds by expressing, never quite paradoxically, an uncertain attempt at expression: one could read this page as attempting to reveal a phrase, perhaps "one good day[']s water of want," or "our water was good one day, water of want." Any attempt, however, to name such a phrase instantly becomes a betrayal of the poem; it betrays by providing a resolution where none was achieved, and it betrays by eliding what I take to be a gesture acknowledging the drowning slaves. Rather than seeing this as a poem read left to right, top to bottom, we must also see it as a poem whose letters are floating upwards, to the water's surface, where they break into pockets of (un)heard language; simultaneously, these letters might be drowning African bodies descending - an idea given possibility in the African names that "footnote" the pages of the first section of the book, 221 in total. Here I, as a reader and critic, am fumbling in the limits of my circles of knowledge, which is exactly part of the recovery that Philip has set herself to and in turn, in necessarily circular fashion, sets us to in her footsteps.

Unlike other examples of poetry which attempts to fragment words and even syllables, then, such as P.Inman or Clark Coolidge, Philip's work is not making a point about combination and recombination, about the infinite expressive possibilities of letters. What actually gets expressed - the legal decision, which she includes in her book - can only make us aware of the ways she and we might "deeply distrust this tool I work with -- language" and also the ways she is both, in her words, "censor and magician." Rather than using that as the springboard for refusing to work with and through language, however, she acutely renders the vitality of expression. This must be told, or not-told.

What I've written above is a first foray into this book. My writing is a necessity of beginning a communal conversation, a refusal of silence. I do not want to read this book alone. I do not want to shout down history alone. I do not want alone to think about what it means for me to read this as an Englishman in America. Where are my ancestors in this hi/story. I want to do all of this. This is the "not-tell[ing]", the anti-narrativizing we need to do. Philip is offering us a way of thinking against the idea the "we die alone." She is offering us a way of thinking through what a story is and does, damage and recuperation. She offers us, for those Africans and through them and their erasure by white English society, "the sustenance / in want."


John Gallaher said...

With a title like Zong!, and then looking at this bit, it sounds like it's going to be parody. (?) Or at least a dwelling in the absurdity of chopping master narratives to uncover the unvoiced. At the very least it's a very tricky tone. I'm curious. I'll have to look it up.

ljs said...

It's not working as a parody per se, though I'm interested after your comment to think about the ways the book is playing with parody: the legal case Philip is deconstructing as itself needing to be seen as a parody of human power relations, perhaps.

Philip offers an explanation of the title and particularly the exclamation point at one point in the book, asserting it as an exaltation, a refusal to be silenced despite the labelling of Africans captive on the ship Zong first as slaves then as goods.

Your comments, John, open up some interesting ways in which that ship's name, with the explanation mark added to it and with it placed as the title of a book of contemporary poems, works simultaneously in several narratives and registers, across periods and cultural norms - a "tricky tone" indeed.

Curiously, the name "Zong" was a mis-spelling: the ship's name was "zorg," meaning "care" in Dutch, but an error was made in repainting the name, writes Philip. I think that moment does remind us how multiple the tones of this book are, and how necessarily so.

Every time I look at it I find more I want to engage with, on a deeply human level as well as a poetic!

(John, you might be also interested to know that the first section has an epigraph from Stevens: "the sea was not a mask." In a book that reworks text, the tone of that epigraph is difficult to pin down, sad and beautiful as it surely is.)

John Gallaher said...

I'm really looking forward to seeing this thing. ZORG becomes ZONG becomes ZONG!, with open valences to comedy and tragedy? Right? I mean, it almost seems like it depends as much on the context of the reading, or the attitude of the reader, as it does anything in the text.

Lemon Hound said...

Thanks for this post, Lytton. Looking forward to the book, and happy to see Nourbese having a book with Wesleyan.