What follows is Part 1 of 2 of M. NourbeSe Philip’s essay, “Black W/Holes: A History Of Brief Time,” which combines definitions from Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time with an urgent discussion about race relations in Canada and beyond in the late 1990s. This essay was originally published in Toronto’s FUSE Magazine in 1998. After sending Philip my commentary, “Physics of the Impossible,” which speculatively discusses her book-length poem Zong! (Wesleyan University Press, 2008) in relation to Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity, she sent me this essay. Since it only appears in the back issue of FUSE, I am presenting it here with her permission.
If a poem could exist on a rocket ship traveling at the speed of light where, in Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, space compresses, mass increases, and time slows, what kind of poem might it be? According to Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which applies at cosmological scales in contrast to his earlier theory of special relativity that applies at local scales such as the solar system, profound distortions of spacetime would have to occur in a universe where the speed of light is constant.
In M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! (Wesleyan University Press, 2008), created from the legal decision about the African slave ship named Zong where some 150 slaves were murdered by drowning so that the ship’s owners could collect the insurance money, the arrangements of text units in many sections of the book-length poem seem to inhabit aspects of Einstein’s conceptions of the universe.
I don’t usually wake to find myself without a clue about where I am. I generally have some sense of how my location relates to the broader world and the larger story of how I got there. Similarly, my first reading of a section from a larger work is usually preceded by an examination of the entire poem and a reading of any contextualizing text — back cover copy, introduction and afterword, perhaps even other discussions of the poem, including “First Readings.”
I first read M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! #6 within the context of her book-length work, Zong!, which I had ordered after hearing about it from several friends who had attended, or participated in, performances of the work while it was still in progress. I approached the book with a feeling that this poem was crucial and I needed to catch up with what my friends had experienced. I also longed for my poetry communities in San Francisco and Philadelphia, where I had at times attended multiple poetry readings within the space of one week. I felt an increased sense of urgency indicated by the capital letters and exclamation point on the book’s cover: ZONG!
My most recent scholarship focuses on what I term the Afro-Modernist epic. I have found that understanding the contextual framing of these long works is essential to reading any of their individual parts, and the poem text of Zong! is surrounded by numerous frames.
Arlene Keizer’s first reading of Philip’s Zong! #6 is the second in a series of five such readings we are currently publishing. Recently we published Evie Shockley’s, and soon we will publish pieces by Kathy Lou Schultz, Meta DuEwa Jones, and Gary Barwin. — Brian Reed, Craig Dworkin, and Al Filreis
The Bone Alphabet
I came to M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! (2008) with too much knowledge to offer the text the complete and utter astonishment it deserves. When I received the invitation to write about Zong! #6, I was already thinking about the way Philip’s book disassembles language and forces readers to consider how “un-telling” the already partial and fragmented tale of an obscene, unspeakable sea voyage might shake the structures that made such a voyage possible (structures that have been altered but are still in place).
Evie Shockley’s first reading of NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! #6 is the first of five we will publish in this second set of short essays in the new series. We will soon add first readings of Philip by Arlene Keizer, Meta DuEwa Jones, and Kathy Lou Schultz, among others. — Brian Reed, Craig Dworkin, and Al Filreis
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If I remember correctly, my first first reading of NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! was a listening. In that I was lucky, because Philip is a beautiful reader of her own work, reciting in a quiet, steady voice that makes even the harshest, most guttural sounds in the English language (“l/anguish”) sound comforting — and also because hearing parts of Zong! read aloud gives one assurance that it can be read on the page.
In that tenuous suspension between what is about to be silent and what is about to be spoken M. NourbeSe Philip intonates, makes utterances, working in and out of this impossible suspension: “…only if language bears witness to something to which it is impossible to bear witness, can a speaking being experience something like a necessity to speak.” (G. Agamben)
The song that is Zong! cannot be written about or described; it must be experienced. Because it sings for those who cannot speak, but must speak. Because Philip wades, swims, dives into the language of a law document and turns it oceanic, turbulent, makes the rock of law into the aquifer of moan.
...even when we believe we have freedom to use whatever words we wish to use, that we have the entire lexicon of English, at least those of us who are Anglophone, at our disposal, and are able to express ourselves in whatever ways we wish to (all of us who live in the so-called liberal democracies, that is), much of the language we work with is already preselected and limited, by fashion, by cultural norms—by systems that shape us such as gender and race—by what’s acceptable. By order, logic, and rationality. (M. NourbeSe Philip, from Zong!)