M. NourbeSe Philip's unrecoverable subjects

M. NourbeSe Philip at North of Invention.

I watch M. NourbeSe Philip’s performance of “Zong! #1” a mere two weeks after attending my sister’s labor, and the experiences pull at each other. In both cases there are human sounds exceeding vocabulary and in both cases I am honored to witness a brave and generous and necessary act. But in Philip’s case, this is not a delivery that ends in joy and relief. Instead, she performs just two pages of a 182-page work whose engines of composition and unrecoverable subject suggest movements beyond those we get in Zong! In this book, one of the most important of our time, Philip delivers the story that can never fully emerge.

Such a paradox propels much of Philip’s writing. Throughout her career she has laid bare the wounds inflicted by the colonizing language of English — its embedded biases, its silencings — revealing it as “expressive of the non-being of the African.”[1] At the same time, however, she deploys that very language in order to enact those exposures and break silence. In Zong! this seemingly untenable tension is carried to its limit, as the English she is constrained by is the particularly fraught “rational” discourse of law.

Zong! was written using only the language of the 1783 legal decision Gregson v. Gilbert, a case in which the owners of a slave ship filed for insurance settlement in compensation for the lost “property” of 150 slaves thrown overboard when resources grew scarce thanks to navigational error. While Philip considers the later movements of her book as more vigorously breaking up the source text’s language, it is in “Zong #1” that she subjects Gregson v. Gilbert to the most radical fragmentation, idiom falling into pure phonic material. It takes me a while to figure out some of what I am hearing. Habitual strategies of literary comprehension are inadequate here, where, to borrow a phrase Philip uses in describing an earlier work, there is “an eruption of the body into the text.”[2] The author herself asks in the journal accompanying Zong!, “What am I doing? Giving voice — crying out?”[3] In Philip’s powerful performance I hear the sound of physical and emotional agony, the empathetic reach across centuries, the sound of water, the sound of our loss for the loss, the sound of language failing, the sound of impossibility, the sound of possibility too, hope in a telling of the untellable being performed by a “long-memoried woman.”[4]

An integral feature of the soundscape is silence, something that is palpable here in various ways, as Kate Eichhorn explores in her essay articulating Zong!’s “multiple registers of silence.”[5] Fittingly, Philip begins her reading by performing sections from her 1991 poetic novel Looking for Livingstone, a moving and often comical treatise on colonial silences and silencings. In that book we find that silence is a body, a way of being, a “hard kernel,” a possession, a language, a weapon, an artifact under plexiglass, Eden, “legion / wedged / In the between of words.”[6]

The oceanic scope of Zong! manifests that legion, page after page shot through with silences that function in myriad ways. In her journal, Philip details her techniques, beginning, “I white out and black out words (is there a difference?)” (193). Many of the pages in Zong! suggest this erasure effect, featuring spaces/silences that are far from lacks or gaps, that are replete with intent bespeaking sculptural acumen. As we saw in her well-known poem “Discourse on the Logic of Language” from She Tries Her Tongue, Philip is keenly attuned to the noise that can erupt in the spaces opened up in collage. In Sal, the second movement of Zong!, other languages emerge, contributing to the gathering resonance. Here, too, the spaces between juxtaposed “nig” and “doge” (Ital. duke, 64); “to trap a fat pig / a fat nig” and “a lace cap for my queen” (67); “bile cum pus” and “jam and bread” (70) sound a critique of the systems of exaltation and abjection ensconced in and sanctioned by language. The silences in the book reflect, contest, and rupture the profound silencing effected by the legal document which would refer to Africans as “goods” (211).

In the discussion following the reading, Philip takes up the question of her innovative constraint-based compositional method, making it clear that while she “meets” contemporary movements like conceptual poetics, her process evolves out of a different place — her own personal history growing up in the Caribbean, and the brutal truth that the documentation of the Zong’s history is confined to legal papers. Reading her book puts me in mind of an earlier era of Canadian experimental poetics as well. In the movement Ferrum, the reader is confronted with word fragments and single characters, letteral widows and orphans:

                                                                                       n gon the op
era over we d                                             rop her o
                             ver we eat e                                        gg drop so
up fish ro                                      e & h
                              am scene nev

This kind of fragmentation recalls the paragrammatic methods practiced by bpNichol and theorized in Steve McCaffery’s 1985 essay “The Martyrology as Paragram.” McCaffery succinctly defines the upshot of the paragram as “meaning’s emergence out of a different meaning both of which share common graphic or acoustic components.”[7] Here again, however, Philip engages a similar technique with very different motives and effects. While Nichol’s paragrams search for the alternate, hidden logics in language, the undertaking is, as Frank Davey has put it, “exegetical”:[8] Nichol is looking for the enlightening truths to be found there. Philip’s paragrams are revelatory as well, but what they often display are the brutalities embedded in language, the historical residue of colonialism. There is also a listening for lost voices, however they might filter through. In addition, Philip’s paragrams tend not to resolve themselves back into the rational, as part of her project is to rend, break the words. On the final page of Ferrum, over a funnelling list of Yoruba names, appears:

                        ver the o                                         ba   s
                                                                                                                  (Zong!, 173)

Competing readings remain in tension; among them are the refrain, “the oba sobs,” “boss,” “basso,” “S.O.S.” and “oss,” the silent bones. This indeterminacy is heightened by the ample space surrounding the letters, precluding their resolute incorporation into sense. Of her poems Philip says, “The ones I like best are those where the poem escapes the net of complete understanding” (192). Thanks to Sarah Dowling checking her copy of Zong!, I know that the period I have after that final “s” is really just an ink dot, printer’s flotsam, but that little error led me to realize that the book rejects all punctuation aside from the titular exclamation. Philip denies Gregson v. Gilbert the last word, but she also refuses to present her own work as such. The poem escapes the net of complete understanding and the net of closure, as the history of the Zong continues to defy full comprehension and a full telling.



1. M. Nourbese Philip, She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks (Charlottetown: Ragweed Press, 1989), 15.

2. ibid., 24.

3. Philip, Zong! (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2008), 194.

4. Philip, “A Long-Memoried Woman,” in Frontiers: Essays and Writings on Racism and Culture (Stratford, ON: Mercury Press, 1992), 55.

5. Kate Eichhorn, “Multiple Registers of Silence in M. Nourbese Philip’s Zong!,” forthcoming in XCP: Cross Cultural Poetics, 33–39.

6. Philip, Looking for Livingstone: An Odyssey of Silence (Stratford, ON: Mercury Press, 1991), 8, 56.

7. Steve McCaffery, “The Martyrology as Paragram,” in North of Intention (New York: Roof Books, 1986), 58–76.

8. Frank Davey, “Exegesis/Eggs a Jesus: The Martyrology as a Text in Crisis,” in Reading Canadian Reading (Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 1988), 236.

Constant renewal

Nicole Brossard at Kelly Writers House

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

Fearlessly and enigmatically experimental, Nicole Brossard’s work in French (and in English translation) embodies the writing life. Brossard, a radical Quebecois, lesbian, feminist poet presents us with a Poétique that is an invocation for anyone writing poetry now: “Whatever the sadness, the melancholy, the anger we carry around with us might be I doubt that it is possible to write poetry without an acquiescence to life, without enthusiasm, without zeal — these are needed to rip us out of reality and, paradoxically, to give us the intuitive comprehension required to understand the enigmas that comprise its complexity.” Brossard points us toward that complexity, that rift between rising and falling, where poetry happens: “The poem is always an event of fervor that oscillates between the pleasure of words and a powerful and renewed intuition of life. […] I am in poetry (as much as I can be) faithful to myself in thought, in desire and in imagination. For me, poetry is a consent to life, to life which nourishes, modulates and renews my relation to reality.” Brossard concludes by sharing a personal decree, one that should be at the heart of every writing life: “Language always incites me to take action.”

It is this “action” of Brossard’s that returns the reader to her body of work composed over 45 years. Brossard’s awareness of her own writing is revelatory. She confirms that the very best poetry is a variable force, likening it to “the features of the same face [which] can vary depending on the lighting and the feeling …” Brossard, with utmost humility, asserts that, “The two recent anthologies of my poetry witness […] how I have traversed personal and collective space” thus allowing her to “take an overview of what I am calling — in contrast with biography — my bio-semiology as well as what makes up the nodes of fervor in a life of writing.”

Brossard’s “nodes of fervor” are ever appealing, even for the many who come to her work as Anglophones, as outsiders dependent on the translator’s lie. And yet Brossard delights in the impossibility, describing our dependency on the translator “as a game of possible variations at the heart of meaning and value, but also as a subterranean current of strangeness when confronted with the elusive.” It is in the course of this “confrontation,” amid endless variation that we come to love Brossard’s work, where a multiplicity of meanings override all hope of rest amid such a delightful groundlessness.

Brossard’s contemporaneity is obvious as she accurately describes the present climate of post-postmodernism in poetry: “I also find this phenomenon of disfiguration and reconfiguration today in young poets at a moment in history when the real, the fictional, and the virtual are tied for […] first place as they are working to feed sense and nonsense simultaneously.” Brossard further elaborates, sharing her thoughts on community and solidarity amid a climate of apathy: “It is a phenomenon we have gradually learned to use for ourselves in untangling the impossible concatenation of images and values that characterize the political and the ethical in today’s essentially market-based society.”

In Nicole Brossard: Selections, published by the University of California in 2010, Brossard expounds on her theory of writing (and translation), while simultaneously sharing her raison d’être: “I think a mothertongue is oral and that written language holds nothing maternal. In this sense, French is not my mothertongue. While a mothertongue and reality flow together, gasping, full of holes, stammering, with dangerous liaisons and surprising constructions, written language is initiation, lesson, mistake, and castigation, a taught language with its rules to obey and its exceptions, a deliberate and conformist language strong in gender discrimination and outlawed meanings, a language of great taboos and a selective memory. The vivacity and vitality of written language finally depends on the adventurous ones, the dreamers, the audacious, and the amazons who take the time to write a book or to live a lifetime in the form of a book.”[1]

It is clear Brossard is one of the audacious ones, a dreamer providing “evidence for the unique energy that carves markers of meaning and hope in language.” And here we have Brossard at her very best, reading from and discussing her body of work in English, renewing the work once again as it transmigrates from the corporal-textual into the virtual realm.


Unless noted, all quotations are from the PennSound video recording “Nicole Brossard Appearing at North of Invention: A Canadian Poetry Festival, Kelly Writers House, January 20–21, 2011.”



1. Nicole Brossard: Selections (Poets for the Millennium) (University of California Press, 2010), 207.

Why is Jordan Scott?

Jordan Scott at North of Invention (click here to view his performance).

Why is Jordan Scott? [Because the spaces = most interesting!] Are you comfortable? [He has shown and will show that languages {aieee!} are always attached to the body and the body is almost always under duress.] Would you like a cigarette? [They (ink, voice, hand signal etc.), being just another ingredient of chance, are never neither ready nor hesitant …] Have they treated you well? [He reveals (does!) that the stammer is an irresistible, uncontainable revealing-forth — it seems to speak otherwise to the intention/claim of the speaker … and thus encapsulates {people}] Who are your greatest disfluences? [As NourbeSe finds (does locate!) a border language to say what cannot be said in honor of the water-word-screams/whispers (all that which had to have been said) of the Zong victims, he too sees the words as sacred holes as substances.] How does splatternite? [In a canoe, at dusk, alone?] Where did you read that? [And again & again — he is most connected to.the.speaking. of.this.ground.and/its/layers] Have you ever used a gun? [See how mouths are also “automatic”/“semiautomatic”] Has it ever misfired you? [His utterance as the kind of utterance that uncovers language as perpetual click without report] What are your regrets? [More lake, less canoe] Utterly, you say? [He seems to say: there is no totality and we keep saying it.] Is there any real difference between profound & confound? [Wonder, full: that is, how the ampersand sews those two togeth!] Did you mean to valsalvas yourself? [The way truth tends to stumble from the cadaver/cavern of the mouth, they way lies burst out onto stage] If Batalus is Demosthenes, then are the pebbles really candies? [It might just mark the exhalarating “unsaying of the naysaying” that so many of us need … we do!] Can you identify three words without synonyms? [What harmonizes, then, are all the hesitations: that’s the only] Wait, waiting isn’t a kind of metaphor? [How patient the teeth are!] Tired of chewsing yet? [Oh, and we owe him the thanks for not just theorizing “materiality” but marshalling it] Did you just mouth off? [The closest we come {not that kind!} to “getting it”! something!] Where are you hiding the ______? [Where, like Beckett and Arakawa & Gins, the blank is the fullest, most genuine kind of coherence] Ready to confess? [Now power, he illustrates, resides in the blip, the hiccup, and the unformed yawp] A ransom is its own raw ward? [There is only synonymeity (!) — and that is the deference!] Crackulates scapula or calliope tremor coccyx? [We are gorgeous bells made of meat] What did Dennis Lee ever doodoo to you? [The way young kids take a rhyme cluster and stretch it until they find neologisms … and so on] Have you never trusted yourself? [Perhaps only in the pause/the breath is the sincerity?] If you haven’t done anything wrong, why are you afraid? [Our tongues! Our tone guess!] Just remember to diaphragmatically breathe, right? [Intro. of oxygen] Why is it all always about you? [Extro. — these words help us inhale, yeah?]

Not against expression

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

Shortly after North of Invention, I had the opportunity to ask M. NourbeSe Philip a question following her public reading here in St. Catharines, Ontario. She read exclusively from Zong!, outlining for a group of mostly students (the same students featured in the chapbook she holds up towards the end of the video) the difficulty of writing about eighteenth century African slaves who were murdered for the sake of an insurance payout.

My question, drawing upon her repeated desire to “tell the story that cannot be told,” was simple: “Are you ‘against expression’?”

Her answer was not simple: “No.”

Being not-against expression does not automatically make one for expression. The negation opens up a gap in what is sayable, a liminal space in which, to paraphrase Lisa Robertson, the possible fusion of politics and emotion provokes a literary opening for the recollection of the dead. The dead themselves are absolute negation, perfect absence. We remember and reconstruct them through the trace they leave, and what the living choose to preserve. When the dead in question have been written out of history, with almost all trace destroyed or else reclaimed by the earth, it is only through an act not-against expression that one can recall them into the literary.

Recollection is a noun of action from the Latin recolligere meaning the act of recalling to memory: in this case, to bring back by calling upon an absence. This is very much a literary problem for an author in a country where, when she began writing “there didn’t appear to be a tradition of writing by people like myself.” This place outside was “open” and “silent” but it was out of that space that Zong! was written: “how difficult it has been to speak silence, to read silence.” Recognizing her position as a writer outside of the expressible and the expressed, she has consistently situated herself on the other side of the borders of literary power (though willing to come over, nervously and with a feeling of “prickliness,” to get work).

Zong! works from a “dessicated text”, the legal case summa outlining the decision of the British court on a case of murdered slaves. The slaves are not named in the document, the act of murder is barely mentioned, and the court ruled in the favor of the slave merchants, further negating the enfranchisement of the absent people in question. And yet Philip, before writing this book, felt the voices of these lost ancestors buried in the two-page case summa. The book is her looking, her creating a new trace of a lost group of people. This recollected expression of absence coalesces into a devastating argument — but it is not a legal argument against a decision of a particular court. It is an argument that attacks the legitimacy of that eighteenth-century court, the legitimacy of the system that created the court, and the legitimacy of the language that permitted the system. The court was British but the system was the entire Western network of nations involved in the transatlantic slave trade that brought “people like myself” to North America: black skin, she notes, functioned as a passport to be transported anywhere.

The language in question is indeed the legal discourse of the courts (and its laws), “I couldn’t have written Zong! had I not studied law,” but it is also the entire English language whose history includes permission for unspeakable violence and genocide. As the same language continues to operate today, with its choreography of control thinly veiled beneath a rhetoric of freedom, the act of speaking by somebody like herself, a “black African female” poet in Canada, includes invoking the Western history of violence aimed at silencing and erasing her. Expression thus includes this defeat of expression. No wonder she feels “as if I am always on shifting ground.

My question in St. Catharines was coy, of course, for I was also asking Philip for her reaction at being included in the recent landmark anthology of conceptual writing, Against Expression edited by Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith, where selections of Zong! poignantly appear between entries for Georges Perec (a Holocaust survivor and constraint-based poet) and Vanessa Place (a lawyer whose work includes the testimony of sexually assaulted women). The editors’ prefatory comments to her entry note that the poems in Zong! “suggest that the ethical inadequacies of that legal language […] do not prevent their détournement in the service of experimental writing” (484). The four pages of text excerpted from Zong!, however, do not support this claim: while they do highlight the ethical inadequacies of the legal language with which they engage, they do not do this in the service of experimental writing.

It would be wrong to think of or characterize Philip as a member of an aesthetic cause or movement within the framework of English literary traditions, or even more broadly conceived those of other Western languages, when her project calls her relationship to that entire frame into question. Paul Celan tried to “cleanse” the German language in the post-Holocaust era, but Philip’s relationship to English has not moved beyond being not-against the possibility of expression within it. This is an aesthetic problem perfectly infused with emotional and political dimensions, including the ongoing insistence of postmodern-era problems of identity politics. She remains committed to the difficult “burden of having to speak for the group” even while confronting the paradox of speaking within a language that alienates that group with every utterance.

She uses constraints in her writing not because she is a constraint-based poet, but because we are all constrained by the communal history of our shared language, because that language has participated in the sickening constraints (mental, physical, and spiritual) of people in our midst. She has already articulated her sense of the connections and differences with the Language writers and with Language writing, more broadly conceived. Similarly, while conceptual writing might be the most appropriate and relevant contemporary frame to imagine her writing within today, the specificity of her history and struggle inside Western colonialism and racism situate her outside the margins/frontiers of any Western literary mode. Furthermore, the “feeling function” that she speaks about as part of her writing marks her aesthetic project as being not-against expression, even if it is also not against Against Expression.

Speaking together against the fixed

Lisa Robertson on poetry as citizenship

Lisa Robertson at North of Invention. Photo by Aldon Nielsen.

What constitutes poetry, and how might it serve as a vital, even undeniably necessary act of citizenship? In her address to the North of Invention audience, Lisa Robertson eloquently addresses these questions while discussing the inextricability of subjectivity, social relations, and language. Her talk, one incarnation of a still-evolving paper initially presented at a conference on citizenship, invokes the ideas of French linguist Emile Benveniste. Benveniste tracks institutional change — in its broadest sense, encompassing speech and other socio-cultural institutions as well as the actions integral to them such as buying, siring, and hosting — through the permutations of language, thus rendering such changes transparent. For Benveniste, language, as medium in which change is recorded, stands as an argument against institutions’ tendency towards fixity.

One revelation here is the evolution of Roman terms civis and domus to refer to institutional and material ideas, when their original meanings instead refer to collective and reciprocal concepts of citizenship. Robertson, following Benveniste and his linguist-poet disciple Henri Meschonnic, stresses that discourse is central to the inextricable states of individual and collective citizenship, birthing us simultaneously as subject and co-subject. “Co-citizens,” Robertson asserts, “are those who speak together, and their home is the vulnerable shelter that speaking together offers them.”

Meschonnic applies Benveniste’s principles to poetry, claiming the art as critique of fixity through the reopening invited by rhythm. Here, vernacular, the lived and ever-shifting enactment of language, can dissolve the determination of fixed discourse in the invitation of new possibilities. Only in such continuous action, as Meschonnic believes, can the subject emerge as ethical. Echoing her French philosophical forebears, Robertson dares us to resist the institutional enshrinement of poetry and enter into its creation as an engaged act of reclamation.