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."

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