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   
flee dow        
                                            n the river                                                  do not
read this ruth                                                   it will destroy you                    
                 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

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.

Response to Nicole Brossard

Nicole Brossard at North of Invention. Photo by Aldon Nielsen.

I admitted to write makes no sense. I am interested in consciousness. Thought follows the land of the spine. Caresses and alibis. The body in the center persists. Let’s not touch silence. Catch me in my difference. Un autre paragraph. Le peau hesitante. Le vaste complication de la beauté. We are closed to reality. Skin hesitating between philosophies and the dawn. The universe is on the page one page over. The nudity of reasoning beings. The present is not a book because of the body. Joy that traverses the rose bushes. The blind spot of pleasure. Suggestions heavy-hearted. Immensity. Sentences permeable to death and oblivion. There remained a wound in the middle of the universe — one needed to behold it. Eternity that recommences at the edge of the void. We served each other in order to exist. The poets. Light enters them in spite of themselves. Drop another ice cube in my port, if you would. Été, enfants, electricite. We propose to physically possess poetry. Syllogie. — Lines/phrases from Nicole Brossard’s reading

Nicole Brossard’s reading on January 21, 2011, concluded the two-day North of Invention conference, a gathering of avant garde Canadian poets, each of whom gave a talk and a reading at Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia. Brossard’s reading said something about poetry’s magic and power, its sweetness and hopefulness, its profundity and wit and otherness — its aliveness. I always like to find an occasion to present my favorite quotation from Charles Olson: “art is the only twin life has, its only valid metaphysic.” That is why, when hearing Nicole Brossard read, one feels — I felt, and I just watched the PennSound video — restored, revivified, reminded. Reminded by the lexicon of Nicole Brossard’s poetic imagination, a lexicon I would be unlikely to confront in most Anglophone poetry, with its admonition against “abstractions” still a first law in creative writing classes, as if an “abstraction” (“immensity,” “silence,” “consciousness,” “eternity,” “oblivion,” “light”, “reality,” “exist”) is a substitute for the real, rather than an extravagance of the real, owing to the felt extravagance of experience. An abundant, inclusive, affective language that has the power, as Brossard says, to enchant, disgust, and thrill, instills the pleasure one experiences in her poetry. It is, as we used to say, personal and political at the same time, for it is in poetry, Brossard says, that she is most faithful to herself and her relation to reality. So was Rimbaud and Verlaine; so it is in French poetry, French song lyrics, French philosophy. Their utopias always included immensity, oblivion, and existence. These words, in French, possess a quality of longing they seem to lack in English, where, embarrassed, they subside into the margins. Brossard’s poetry gives us back the wholeness of perceptual experience; for her, ideas are not only in “things.”

Anti-patriarchal, feminist, lesbian-utopian, and constitutive of a beautiful, erotic, and revolutionary écriture-feminine, Brossard’s luminous works in both prose and poetry are admired and respected by both English- and French-speaking Canadians. At Kelly Writers House, Brossard read from a new edition of selected works, edited and introduced by Jennifer Moxley, a tantalizing piece about a gathering of poets (whom “light enters in spite of themselves”) in a garden — perhaps a festival or conference occasion. Laughing, punning, quoting lines of poetry, the poets “serve each other in order to exist.” When the speaker says, at the conclusion of this piece, “drop another ice cube in my port, if you would,” the audience (their reflections shimmering in the glass panes of the door behind the podium) shouted and clapped for joy, and so did I. Honoring the conference’s stated interest in the practice of constraints, Brossard read from a book of alphabets, saying that using constraints was like swimming in the ocean, as opposed to the “swimming pool” of her own familiar methods. The poems openly struggled with English alliteration, especially with the owlish-sounding letter “w,” which barely exists in French, transforming the fraught history in Canada of English/French language issues into the playfulness of formal constraints, where we as readers and listeners are invited to “catch [her] in her difference.”

Nicole Brossard’s reading was a moving finale, a great programming decision on the part of the organizers, Sarah Dowling and Charles Bernstein. In his introduction to Brossard’s reading, Bernstein thanked Brossard for the “jouissance she brings to our poetries.” Her lifetime of work is indeed, as Bernstein said, a cause for true celebration.

Responding to Fred Wah

Fred Wah at North of Invention (photo by Aldon Nielsen).

January 20, 2011, at North of Invention: A Canadian Poetry Festival, Fred Wah disturbs Canada’s national imaginary.

In his talk, in the Kelly Writers House, in Philadelphia, USA, Wah describes his poetic practice as a kind of grammatical GPS that locates and disturbs the Canadian national imaginary. Formed by his experience as a person of Chinese, Scottish, and Swedish descent, Wah pays close poetic attention to the minute and overlooked in language, identifying and troubling coercive nationalistic narratives. In doing so, he practices an “alien ethnic poetics” that “locates a time and space outside and between what is signified on the nation’s surface.”

Demonstrating his poetic system of location, Wah considers the preposition “from,” in the national slogan, “from sea to sea,” reminding us that to be from Canada is to not be from Canada — it is to be from elsewhere. Recalling the Canadian government’s Chinese Exclusion Act [1], and the federal legislation that made it illegal for Indigenous people to vote until 1960, Wah locates Canada as a country founded on racist immigration policies, and a brutal and bureaucratic process of colonization.

And these are accurate coordinates. In fact, since Canada is a country based on the illegal annexation of the traditional lands of hundreds of Indigenous nations, even the communities that are actually from here (and have always been here) are not from that Canadian here.

Wah identifies his poetics and Jeff Derksen’s “public language” as interventions into this national imaginary. As is evident by the critical intensity of Wah and Derksen’s work, Canada has always been deeply invested in its own imaginary delineations; Canada has never been north of invention.

Wah notes Joy Kogawa’s Obasan, the Japanese redress of 1988, and Nicole Brossard’s feminist poetics as important influences on his poetic interventions supplying vital entry points for him “to write from.” But he also emphasizes that influences can have their own complex conditions. Locating another imaginary realm, the jurisdiction of the writer over language or material, Wah recalls Brossard’s critique of his transcreations of her lesbian feminist Ma Continent (1974), and Steve McCaffery’s concern that Wah’s work with Indigenous pictograms in Pictograms from the Interior of B. C. (1975) [2] took the pictograms out of their original context. Wah’s willingness to share and thoughtfully consider these responses within the context of his present writing practice is striking and generous. It demonstrates his unflagging commitment to writing and to thinking about writing. Language play, he concludes, is serious work; we need to take care with the materials we address.

After the talk, during the question period, Derksen suggests that since the Canadian avant-garde has shifted to include a poetics that is more critically conscious of issues of race (thanks to writers like Wah), the movement should now evolve beyond the Canadian national boundaries o speak to the larger context of North America. 

But such a shift may not be in keeping with Wah’s findings.

That is, considering what Wah’s poetic location devices have demonstrated, perhaps the Canadian avant-garde needs to turn its attention even more closely to the contemporary consequences of our bogus narratives and bloody history, to the Indigenous communities in Canada, to governmental interference in Indigenous rights, sovereignty, land title, basic access to health care, education, and clean drinking water. Maybe it is time for the Canadian avant garde to poetically investigate the language of our history, to read our treaties, to understand the legal implications of the Royal Proclamation of 1763 — and, for non-Indigenous Canadians (like me), to live up to the responsibilities (past and present), the legal conditions and commitments, that we have, as people who live on these lands. [3] 

In Bob Perelman’s response to Wah’s talk, and Derksen’s comments, Perelman affirms the necessity of poetic systems of location, and reiterates Wah’s call for care. Although Perelmen acknowledges the importance of the instinctive artistic response, he suggests that intuition and immediacy require an understanding of history. Our unfreedoms, Perelman says, “are harder to perceive with our senses because we are so inured to them . . . sometimes we mistake sensual immediacy for freedom when we are actually faced with evocations of our unfreedoms.” As a Canadian living in this country that habitually defines its citizens as just and decent, it is also clear to me that we are profoundly inured to the unfreedoms of others, and that our subjectivities and freedoms are tangibly built on those unfreedoms. Take the pictographs. As Wah says, these were “undocumented,” and they probably still are, undocumented and unacknowledged. Official Canadian historic discourse and policy have rendered most Canadians illiterate in Indigenous legal systems, histories, cultures, languages, oral and inscribed expression — our national identity, and our continued appropriation of Indigenous land and resources depend on this lack of education.

From here, where I write this, on Treaty Six land, in traditional Cree territory, Wah’s poetics, his talk and the conversation that follows locate and trouble our illiteracy, the fraught privilege of our poetic play, and the national imaginary of this country. [4]



1. When the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed, the Canadian government moved to restrict the immigration of Chinese people to Canada. The first federal anti-Chinese bill was passed in 1885. It took the form of a head tax of $50 imposed, with few exceptions, upon every person of Chinese origin entering the country. No other group was targeted in this way. The Head Tax was increased to $100 in 1900 and to $500 in 1903. $500 was equivalent to two years’ wages for a Chinese laborer at the time. Meanwhile, Chinese people were denied Canadian citizenship. In all, the federal government collected $23 million through the Head Tax. Despite this “tax,” Chinese immigrants continued to come to Canada. In 1923, the Canadian Parliament passed the Chinese Immigration Act excluding all but a few Chinese immigrants from entering the country. Between 1923 and 1947 when the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed, less than fifty Chinese people were allowed to come to Canada.

2. The terms commonly used for the people who lived in Canada prior to European contact are Indigenous or Aboriginal. First Nations, Métis, and Inuit are for specific groups. For the most part, in Canada, the word “Indian” is not used, unless the speaker is Indigenous or is referring to the federal government’s control over “Indian” status.

3. In 2000, at the University of Alberta (on Treaty Six land), Cree lawyer and activist Sharon Venne asked her non-Indigenous audience: “What are your treaty rights?” See Venne’s article, “Treaties Made in Good Faith.” In Canada, even if you do not live on treaty land, you still exist within a country that was founded based on a series of binding legal agreements with Indigenous Nations. See Anishinaabe law scholar John Borrow’s “Wampum at Niagara: The Royal Proclamation, Canadian Legal History and Self-Government.”

4. Thanks Fred.

Addendum to her howlings

a.rawlings (left) and Maja Jantar (right).

This is a transcript of Órói or her poetical unrest, an aural note for Jacket2 on a.rawlings reading with Maja Jantar during the North of Invention conference, a Canadian poetry festival held at the University of Pennsylvania at Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia in January 2011, as seen and heard on PennSound.

If you’re reading this because you can’t hear the sound file (4:39), please follow me. I’ll guide you through it.

— I’ll tell you what you can’t hear.

First, about the sounds:

En guise d’accompagnement, a tapestry (from the Persian taftan, tabidan: “to turn, to twist”) inspired by a’s name and based on preparatory work for Telephone, a poetry journal from New York which asked me to translate Augusto de Campos, who called himself a concrete poet. I took the task literally and translated the name instead of the work. I started with A, using some of the sounds the letter can produce in English and in French (five, to be precise: a, a, a, a, and a). It’s dedicated to Edith Sitwell, who, in turn, called herself an abstract poet.

[Insert a silent sequence which will then be considered the normal, regular or standard silent sequence.]

I had to ask about her.

[Insert a shorter silent sequence.]

I had to bug people to know about her.
(To bug someone [as you would bug a room] helps to listen.)

[Insert a slightly shorter silent sequence than the previous shorter silent sequence.]

I asked a friend who happened to know her (un hasard, he’s translating Wide slumber for lepidopterists in French), and who told me about another friend, and I asked her.

[Insert a similar slightly shorter silent sequence.]

I asked François Luong who’s from Strasbourg and who has lived in Houston and who’s now in San Francisco, and I asked Karen Hannah who’s from California and who has lived in Korea and who’s now in San Francisco.

[Insert a standard silent sequence that feels longer than it is.]

He says they’ve been looking for the center of the Earth, working on a geological site full of Icelandic digressions. / She says she sails, wholly unfettered. / He says to think about her is tiring. The idea of her. He can’t wrap his mind around it. Too numerous dimensions, he says. / She says she has natural urges to root and unnatural urges to unroot. / He says her wording’s comparable to an ecological spill. / She, a letterpress printer, says she’s smitten, and worked from a sound poem of hers. / He says her work’s hard to put into words.

[Insert a longer silent sequence.]

a.rawlings says she’s been displacing her body. She’s from Northern Ontario or maybe Toronto, she has lived in Belgium and Iceland, now maybe back where she came from. She’s been swerving between repetitious bruising and improvisational healing, using divinatory practices and line drawings, studying volcanoes and dancing, making nonstop nonsemantic hellos and devising a poetics of the corpoverbaurovisual.

[Insert a quarter of a standard silent sequence.]

I would like her to meet Susan Philipsz, who was born in Glasgow but who lives in Berlin. Her father’s Burmese. She was awarded the 2010 Turner Prize for art, but she only uses sound.

[Insert a standard silent sequence.]

A poet who doesn’t know better will use words and meaning as a place to start. A poet’s place to start should be anywhere. Displacing’s a good place.

a.rawlings, hats off to your good start.

Sound body, sound text

On a.rawlings and Maja Jantar

a.rawlings and Maja Jantar perform at North of Invention.

Performance, especially of the type that a.rawlings and Maja Jantar execute, creates a new syntax for sound and text as they swirl vividly around each other. You can see it in the way their bodies move, pulling sound out of lungs through stuttered and sometimes simultaneous arm movements. In their performance, we witness these two bodies on stage, connected through sound and text, looking to physically touch each other at all times. Chests push out or suck in, arms move up or down or yank toward abdomens. Try watching on mute for a minute: a.rawlings’s mouth is incredibly expressive.

The most powerful moments arise from the physical and aural linkages and disruptions that occur throughout the performance. What is happening here? Their hands reach out and sound or silence comes, somehow seeming connected to the movement of the arm. Here: two voices piecing through language simultaneously but also against the other. They’re in different speech patterns, as we all are. We all have cadence and comfort zones for our tongues and limbs. And it’s the moments where the two voices sync up as best two voices can where I feel I lose the most language and enter something else: song? Voice? Sound? Music?

I say lose, but I don’t mean loss. What I lose is the connection between signifier and signified. I reach aporia, a space where all those doubts I have about language become useful through the exhaustion of the words and the sometimes violent, sometimes beautiful separation of word as a vassal of meaning from its aural genetics. Once in this aporatic moment, I’m able to let go of language as a fixed centre for meaning. “I will not ruin the environment.” When synced up, repeated, pulled apart and reconstructed, then pulled apart again, this phrase is ultimately exhausted; it becomes an aural environment of its own that is directly connected to body and time through the various affects and defects of language. This is a gain. So a.rawlings isn’t “exhausting” language in the Deleuzian sense of a total destruction of possibility, but tiring it, weakening it in a productive way that allows us to see possibility in it through the affective and the physical.

What strikes me about a.rawlings’s work is how well situated it is in the body, even when we’re observing her poetry alone on a page. The physicality of sound is what is “here” even as it swirls away from the body and the page. She creates a presence for language that is complex and powerful for the reader and the listener.