Reading M. NourbeSe Philip's 'Zong!'

M. NourbeSe Philip at North of Invention (photo by Aldon Nielsen; click here to view her performance).

There is no reading this book; it must be read.

Zong! is a book-length poem not so much “about” but “entangled in” the late eighteenth century British court case regarding the throwing overboard of 150 “negroe” slaves by the captain of the slavetrading ship Zong during its trip from the West Coast of Africa to Jamaica. NourbeSe Philip constructs her texts in the belief that this is a story “that cannot be told … [but] that must tell itself.”

This is legal poetry. This is, legally, poetry. Philip’s “intent is to use the text of the legal decision as a word store” in poetic maneuvers that try to sustain the material and immaterial balance of precision shared by both law and poetry. The poetry displays the agonizing tension of an exploration through the minute particulars and silences locked within the legal text, the precise and cautious movement that tries to not tell the story that must be told. In her back notes she says: “The ones I like best are those where the poem escapes the net of complete understanding — where the poem is shot through with glimmers of meaning.” The compositional task she set for herself, a palpable “negative capability,” explodes into the particles of language; the letters, syllables, sounds, silences, and spaces bob and glitter until the page becomes a seascape of indeterminate yet suggestive signs and linguistic attentions:

rt with the negroe                                     s w                                                ale and   
                                  sade                                     
flee dow        
                                            n the river                                                  do not
read this ruth                                                   it will destroy you                    
s                          
                 am my lad                                                                               jot these no
                                          tes these tunes                          fa la s

This is both a reading and a score. In reading this we move into the spaces and fragments with the trust that this soliloquy of evidence is, simply, proof of the unfathomable meanings hinted at, in the surfaces of language. Meaning here is not to be “made” but, rather, felt. Der Traum! Story rendered not as history but “histology” — cellular. Information carried. The pages of this section, “Sal,” float and riff on the data, the dendrita. Visually the pages detail the wide range of performance of the words themselves, their intonations and shapes, elisions and resonances, language levitating between tongue, eye, and mind.

When NourbeSe Philip performs this text the silence between the particles is as articulate as the letters, syllables, and words. “Zong! #1” is a veritable creek of attention as the word “water” generates a letteral turbine of iteration and association.

w      wa                                            wa                                        t
                         er                                           wa                                        te
                  r                                                                       wat
                                         er                                                                  wa   ter
                         of                                      w
                                                         ant

Typographically too difficult to illustrate in this essay, the last section of the poem, “Ebora,” presents the text as “overwritten” (i.e., layered) which elicits notions of erasure, correction, confusion, overlap, and so forth. When she performs (reads) this, the overwriting inserts segments of “tongue-tied” text, static, and submersed language.

What is so engaging in this work is its adherence to the layered possibilities of making the poem. The book poses a poetic treatment of story as the most dynamic and ethical response to reading and writing history. Philip avoids becoming implicated in story language: “The poems resist my attempts at meaning or coherence and, at times, I too approach the irrationality and confusion, if not madness … of a system that would enable, encourage even, a man to drown 150 people as a way to maximize profits …” Instead she, and the text, work hard to sustain a provocative and confrontational relationship to the normative materiality of history by juxtaposing, as she suggests, the nonmaterial or immaterial layers it is always cloaked within.

The poetic text is presented in six sections, each with iterative turns and elements that dovetail laterally with different abstractions and content that surface in the project. Material echoes resonate from the names, words, phrases, and things Philip provides in a “Glossary” and a “Manifest.” The “Notanda,” a sort of “postface,” is an incisive discussion of how Philip approached the writing. Part journal and part essay, this grounding helps balance the tension and energy of the poetry.

Zong! is, as they say, a piece of work. It is one of the most labor-intensive poetic texts I’ve encountered. Unfortunately many readers will prefer the work to be transparent, the reading of it to be effortless. Against such a norm, NourbeSe Philip’s insistence on the more substantial, yet difficult, complications of history and story is doubly admirable. Don’t expect to just read this book but, understand, it must be read.