Kathy Lou Schultz
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. These include: multiple dedications, epigraphs, and acknowledgements; a glossary; “Manifest”; and “Notanda” (Philip’s account of writing the poem); and, finally, the legal decision Gregson v. Gilbert from which we know the story of the slave ship Zong whose crew, in a calculated attempt to collect insurance money, threw African captives overboard while they were still alive.
It is from this legal case that Philip constructs her epic. As a lawyer and a poet, she has both a fascination with, and deep distrust for, the ability of words to make meaning. Thus her repeated claim, “There is no telling this story; it must be told.” The poem teeters between legal language and poetry, and the ways in which either may evacuate or imbed meaning, history, and emotion.
Philip also makes a haunting assertion that she acted as amanuensis. The poem recorded in this book is “As told to the author by Setaey Adamu Boateng.” The spine of my Wesleyan paperback edition even lists both “Philip & Boateng” as the authors. Thus, Philip animates the voices of the ancestors through the writing of this poem.
As I page through the book, my eye is drawn to Philip’s use of the page — the manner in which the words collect, then disperse; how they constellate at points like waves; or dissolve into individual syllables and letters. The poem reaches for breath, for sense.
Water is an enemy in the poem: the calm seas that do not push the ship forward to its destination, the dwindling supply of fresh water for drinking, the expansive sea that consumes the Africans forcibly thrown overboard, never to resurface.
I am so entranced by this movement of words, that I nearly miss the footer running along the bottom of the page: “Zuka Tuwalole Femi Chuma,” a role call of names. The entire series, Zong! #1–26, is built upon a foundation of names, a monument for the dead.
Zong! #6 is a series of questions, assertions, and contradictions. The first three lines (centered on the page, though aligned by the imagined right, not left, margin) suggest a body: “question therefore / the age / eighteen weeks.” The “age” (and not “duration” or “length”) evokes the image of an infant (age, eighteen weeks). Our habit is to describe a baby’s age in weeks, before we realize we can begin giving the age in months: four months, five months … Yet, this child is rendered to body only: it is neither “he” nor “she.” A sense of doom rises in my belly.
Other assertions and then contradictions follow: “but it is said …” “and / contradicted / by the evidence …” “— from the maps” showing a ship off course, out of time, outside of time. A journey estimated at forty days now gone eighteen weeks. Unable to correctly interpret the “evidence” of the map, does “the age” of the infant body indicate space and time? (An infant born on ship?) The body. The body of evidence. Contradicted.
Because Philip constructed the poem from legal language that renders the human body visible only through an insurance case that determines its monetary value, she plays with the inherently contradictory moral logic until it implodes, revealing itself to history.
It is through the series of framing devices that I am led further and deeper into the words on the page of Zong! #6 — even as they threaten to pull apart.
Kathy Lou Schultz is the author of four collections of poems, most recently Biting Midge: Works in Prose (Belladona) and Some Vague Wife (Atelos). Her monograph, The Afro-Modernist Epic and Literary History: Tolson, Hughes, Baraka, is part of the Modern and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics Series from Palgrave. Schultz’s articles have appeared in a wide variety of scholarly journals including Contemporary Literature, Journal of Modern Literature, and Jacket2. She is an associate professor of English at the University of Memphis, where she directs the English Honors Program and teaches courses in African American and Afro-Diasporic literature, poetry and poetics, and modernism.
We often find ourselves discussing, often in rooms with other poets, often in schoolish settings, what it means to say that something is poetic. It is for the most part clear enough in reference to other literature, suggesting a higher-than-average degree of patterning the sonic and visual aspects of language. Or to put matters in another register, “poetic” suggests that some relatively larger portion of the communication is borne by things other than denotation and connotation, by measures to be found beyond the dictionary and thesaurus.
But when something beyond language is identified as poetic, problems arise.One can easily imagine some people agreeing over dinner that a particular piece of furniture was poetic, but when pressed, producing five or eleven different explanations. In the last century, poetry did perversely well in coming to stand for something like an acme of aesthetic achievement, indeed becoming a kind of synecdoche for imaginative capacity itself — perversely in that it is able to mean so much precisely by meaning so little, or at least lacking a specific self-recognition. Fredric Jameson offers a rather unsympathetic formulation of this inverted development as part of modernist ideology.
It is as though in return for the acknowledgement, by the other arts and media, of the supremacy of poetry and poetic language in the modernist system of the beaux-arts, poetry graciously returned the compliment by a willingness to adopt, however metaphorically, the technical and material accounts the other arts gave of their own structure and internal dynamics. (A Singular Modernity, 153)
In the following era, whether we use the term "postmodernism" or not, poetry has been largely evicted from the catbird seat, while still doggily panting after other modes; one need only consider the familiar blather about poetry trailing X number of years behind painting or sculpture or what have you, as if the only difference among these practices was that certain external ideas that simply exist floating freely in the ether had been spotted sooner elsewhere, and now it was just a matter of poetry pulling the wool from its eyes and cotton from its ears. We might suggest that this ambiguous delusion about the comparability of poetry and the studio arts has a half-submerged class character. One need only consider the well-known phenomenon (we have felt it ourselves) of poet's jealousy when the painter comes strolling out of his or her studio at end of day, clothes smudged and streaked with lovely and serious-looking oils, runoff turpentine staining sturdy shoes. This envious sense that painters, e.g., go to work and have work clothes, that they actually make things, that they work with their hands — well, this is not terribly challenging to decode.
Surely this is the reason that Jameson's epochal assessment of postmodernism begins with a historically older image, able to stand for the lost era of manual labor: a painting of work boots. Grounded in the materiality of real production, painting et al. are also able to leap into the future via transforming their production process. But if this is in any sense true, such an analogy must simultaneously disclose the absurdity of poetry haltingly trying to reproduce fine art's dematerialization of the art object; it is precisely fine art's parallels to commodity production that gives the refusal to produce a political charge.
These are merely preliminary thoughts toward approaching the question of "the poetic" in an art that is purely physical, activity without direct product. What would it mean to say that a dance is poetic? The occasion for this question is subjective: an encounter with a specific dance or two as the most astonishing experience of art in the last few years. Turf Feinz is a collective from Oakland and environs. They practice a dance style known as turfing, which is also a way of understanding style itself according to an intense localism — an assertion that stylistic distinctions belong not just to a city but to a neighborhood, to a few blocks. Turfing is in turn associated with hyphy, a hip-hop phenomenon largely of the Bay Area that simmered during the nineties and emerged nationally around 2006-2007; it is the soundtrack of choice for turfing shows, sharing with the dance style an intense localism, as if its language were landscape. As the immortal E-40 puts it, in a turf-laden video, "I'm from the Bay where we hyphy and go dumb / from the soil where them rappers be getting they lingo from." E-40 is not himself from Oakland but from Vallejo, a few towns over.
It is not the association with hyphy, exactly, that makes Turf Feinz poetic; in the first instance, it is the intensely elegiac character of the dances. This is true in the most literal sense: the major pieces (recorded and tracked by YAK Films) are dedicated to the dead. The first Turf Feinz' piece to find a global audience is frequently known as "Dancing in the Rain," from 2009; its proper name is "RIP RichD." It was recorded on a rainy streetcorner the day after the death of dancer Dreal's half-brother in a car accident. It remains incomparable. It comprises an astonishingly inventive set of passages, building from a single dancer toward an improvised quartet, the dancers betraying considerable formal training, some ballet behind the classic "Oakland boogaloo" from whence turf dancing springs. The main feel is that of gliding, its intensity amplified by the slick surfaces. On the corner of 90th and Macarthur, the moves feel — despite the remarkable technique — perhaps a bit tossed off, casual. But that's not it. The dance is somewhere between machinic and all-too-human, but it is insistently expressionless. The first dancer is masked up. As others join, it becomes clear that the inexpressive faces are part of the performance: all of the embodied activity with none of the exuberance such motion would ordinarily imply. The dance is soulful, whatever that means, but without spirit. Even as the four members wheel and pivot through space, the dance is flat, or flattened. It is in this way that it becomes fully elegiac. It is about what's missing, or a missing dimension.
It is also about the police. The establishing shot, indeed, is a conversation between one of the crew and a cop in a roller, which must depart before the dance can begin. This will foreshadow Turf Feinz' other best-known dances: "RIP 211" and "RIP Oscar Grant." Kenneth "211" Ross was shot to death by officers in December of 2009; Oscar Grant on January 1st of that year by transit cops, though such differences are specious. All cops are bastards, after all, and killing African-American kids is pretty much their thing. This is a broader context of elegy as it exists in Oakland; the missing dimension is always the life of kids of color. At the end of "RIP 211," under heavy dubstep (a remix of Nero's "This Way"), the crew gathers against the wall of a squat. An AC Transit bus passes across the frame like a cinematic wipe made from the material of the city. When it's gone, so are they.
This shot will be repeated in "RIP Oscar Grant," finally the most powerful of the trilogy — but in the middle, at the inflection point. Seven and half minutes long, it develops with no hurry as the crew makes its way, inevitably, to the Fruitvale BART station where Oscar Grant was murdered, an event that would set off a sequence of riots and confrontations known as the Oscar Grant Rebellion. Here are some acual images of the police murder:
Accompanied by audio collage of news reports and a minor-key piano, the crew one by one offers isolated performances at the site of the killing: patient, slow (and sometimes filmed in slow motion), beautiful. Again they remain expressionless. Just before the three minute mark, one of them slides up and down the platform, at moments almost frictionless and yet absolutely stuck to the earth. There is no taking flight in turfing, no transcendence, no symbolic emancipation or escape. There is only this world, where the bodies are until erased. At 3:04 the lateral motion is suddenly interrupted by an awkward, astonishing pirouette against his angular momentum, pivoting and then improbably pausing on pointe, just one foot, body perfectly arched. The world is suspended. He tilts backward and toward the ground, his backpack pulling on him. Cata•strophe, a downward turn. It seems he'll fall, that everything will come down. A BART train enters the picture and obscures whatever happens next. There is the sound of a gunshot. When the train passes, another dancer is mid-move. Things resume.
If the social distance between poetry and painting concerns ideologies of production, what then of dance — of allegories of physical labor without a product? It would be easy enough to go to the late modern ideas about performance and post-medium arts, the dialectically doomed attempts to outmaneuver commodification. But this seems inapposite to say the least, and moreover shifts us unremarked to the consumption side, where commodities are exchanged and exhausted. This won't do, finally. The dance is production side, if via its absence. It is scored and choreographed to the rhythm of machines but without their presence, embodying the blank technicity of labor without any production to speak of — but still unable to efface entirely its moments of human invention, the swerve. It is a dance of aimlessness and streetcorner, invention for its own sake, amazing and defeated: a dance, and here we perhaps arrive at the far horizon of the argument, not of surplus goods but surplus populations, excluded from the economy if not from the violence of the state. A post-production poetics.
In this sense, poetics means something like a form of timeliness. The shape of being historical. At the end of 2009, the year from which these three dances issue, the unemployment rate for black youth rose to 50% — almost half the population excluded from the wage. The dance in this sense is a conversation with Detroit and Athens, Madrid and Dhaka, with the favelas of São Paulo; a quiet confrontation with the world as it goes, after the global slowdown, after the social factory could put any kind of good life on offer. In Oakland, where unemployment already runs above state levels, the rate for African-Americans is generally double the city average at any given time. In 2008, Vallejo, home of E-40, became the largest California city to declare bankruptcy. Catastrophe calls the tune. It is perhaps seductive to imagine a post-production aesthetic as utopian, emancipatory, freed from the factory whistle. Post-human, even. For now, the inverse is the case. There are bodies. They have neither an obvious way out nor a persuasive way back in. This surely is the peculiarity of our moment...
Back in 2006, when the Modern Language Association conference was held in Philadelphia, Nick Montfort joined twenty-seven other poets for the annual “MLA Offsite Series” reading. Each poet read very briefly, typically just one poem. Nick chose to perform “I Icing Sing.” The constraint is a phonetic one. Each stanza consists of many pairs of syllables that sound very alike, as in “eye eye sing sing.” So the beginning reads:
eye eye sing sing but but er er up up right right in in joy joy
— and here is how those sounds become words in the first two lines:
I icing sing — but butter her up
upright, right in. Enjoy joy.
Open online course on modern poetry enables Pakistani student find his university and his writers' house
An article in the Christian Science Monitor features three talented students who found their college experience in unusual ways. One of those three is Taha Tariq — of Lahore, Pakistan — who discovered Penn and the Kelly Writers House through “ModPo,” the free and open online course on modern and contemporary American poetry offered through the House. Here is a portion of the article. The whole article can be found here.
When I meet Taha at the White Dog Cafe in the heart of the University of Pennsylvania campus in Philadelphia, it is apparent that he loves language – and conversation. He is a geyser of ideas, large and small, and offers snippets of insight and self-awareness.
Over smoked salmon artfully arranged on a rectangular plate, he proclaims his passion for author Jodi Picoult ("The judgments, decisions, moral dilemmas, and questions she presents leave me speechless," he says). Later, we visit Hill College House, his dorm, and meet his suitemates on the fourth floor. I learn that he has seen plays around the city, been a guest at a roommate's home on Long Island, and led late-night debates in the communal study space.
Taha is also intrigued by an ongoing conversation he has been having with a street vendor about religion. We sit on a stone bench amid fallen leaves as he describes the moral twists the man's narrative suggests and his plans to write about it, not for any class, but for himself.
Taha is interested in problems of perception and understanding. In Pakistan, he says, a relative and a friend's uncle were both injured by bomb blasts near mosques. "I feel I should be doing something about that," he says, during a Friday evening phone conversation. It's unclear what Taha will make of his future, but he is ambitious, imaginative, and eager to have an impact. It is odd, he says, to realize that just a year ago he had stumbled upon a MOOC and was watching Dr. Filreis online – the same professor he now calls "Al." Filreis is his adviser and teaches the seminar he recently took on representations of the Holocaust in film and literature.
Taha came across Filreis's enormously popular MOOC on modern poetry, known among its community simply as "ModPo," by chance. Google delivered him to the website of Coursera, an education firm that produces online courses, and he browsed, then signed up for the class. Taha says he was drawn in by the lectures – conversations that introduced him to new poets and new ideas.
He was also attracted by the bohemian culture of the Kelly Writers House – a literary salon on the Penn campus that hosts poetry readings, film screenings, lectures, and cultural events. It was founded by a group of students and faculty in 1995 in a spirit of cultural communitarianism. As a high school senior in his native Pakistan at Lahore Grammar School, a network of private schools that prepares students for British-style exams, Taha was struck by what he saw as a relaxed relationship between professors and students in the MOOC and at Kelly Writers House events.
"The videos weren't just lectures or presentations," he says, but "students sitting around with a mug of coffee, discussing the poems. Some of them fumbled, some of them struggled, some of them got interpretations completely wrong, so I didn't feel like someone was imposing their interpretation on me."
Interpretation – not just of poems but of ideas – matters to Taha. As a high school student, he and friends started an intellectual magazine called Pineapple – named for one fruit Pakistan struggles to grow – that aimed to provoke. The first issues include articles on "Shia Genocide"; views of Pakistan from youth in India, Afghanistan, Egypt, and the US; and a contrary look at the Taliban.
"We felt there were a lot of issues people in Pakistan didn't talk about," he says. "We felt the problem of extremism and radicalism was because people wouldn't see things from a different perspective."
When I speak with Filreis, a charismatic bearded professor, he complains that people criticize MOOCs without differentiating between those that are done well and those that are not. He is sitting at a computer and clicks between discussion boards, Facebook posts, and live "office hour" chats led by teaching assistants who discuss poems in the video lectures (the TAs have become ModPo celebrities, too).
Filreis reads comments aloud to demonstrate that users employ different tones in different settings that reflect very human interactions. A user mentions an upcoming chemotherapy session on Facebook. Classmates send supportive wishes. On the discussion board, students eloquently debate the meaning of a poetic image.
"This sounds like real people to me," says Filreis, who notes that there can be bad big campus lectures (he uses more colorful language) and terrific big campus lectures, subpar online classes and terrific ones with intensely engaged students. "I am trying to make a model of how a MOOC can be personal," he says. Filreis is also doing the MOOC, which is filmed at the Kelly Writers House on campus, "because the outreach is fabulous. Poets I care about are being read by thousands and thousands of people."
About 80,000 people have taken ModPo since it launched in fall of 2012, and last year, says Filreis, about 150 students with no other connection to the university made unsolicited donations totaling about $7,000 to the Kelly Writers House.
The MOOC has also become a tool for attracting students such as Taha to Penn, says Jamie-Lee Josselyn, who since 2012 has been in charge of recruiting talented writers. This year, 400 potential students have contacted the school, double the number from last year, which was when Taha reached out to Ms. Josselyn. She says Taha's insights on ModPo discussion boards and his entrepreneurial approach with Pineapple magazine "is honestly something we are really looking for."
Translation from Spanish & commentary by Cole Heinowitz
[The eight poems posted here are taken from the 17 typed manuscript pages Pizarnik brought to the home of the poet Perla Rotzait in 1971, less than a year before her death.]
1 […] ON SILENCE
…it’s all in some language I don’t know…
L. C. (Through the Looking-glass)
I feel the world’s pain like a foreign language.
They play the part “estranged”.
… SOMEBODY killed SOMETHING.
L. Carroll (Through the Looking-glass)
This little blue doll is my envoy in the world.
An orphan in the garden rain where a lilac-colored bird gobbles lilacs and
a rose-colored bird gobbles roses.
I’m frightened of the grey wolf lurking in the rain.
Whatever you see, whatever can be taken away, is unspeakable.
Words bolt all doors.
I remember rambling through the sycamores …
But I can’t stop the drama—gas fills the chambers of my little doll’s heart.
I lived the impossible, destroyed by the impossible.
Oh, the banality of my evil passions,
enslaved by ancient tenderness.
No one paints in green.
Everything is orange.
If I am anything, I’m cruelty.
Colors streak the silent sky like rotting beasts. Then someone tries to write
a poem out of forms, colors, bitterness, lucidity (Hush, alejandra, you’ll frighten
The poem is space and it scars.
I am not like my little blue doll who still suckles the milk of birds.
Memory of your voice in the fatal morning guarded by a sun rebounding
in the eyes of turtles.
The light of sense goes out remembering your voice before this green
celestial mixture, this marriage of sea and sky.
And I prepare my death.
She wants to speak, but I know what she is. She believes love is death—even if everything devoid of love disgusts her. Since her love makes her innocent, why should she speak? Mistress of the Castle, her fingers play upon mirrors of pronouns.
With every word I write I remember the void that makes me write what I couldn’t if I let you in.
I stand by the poem. It takes me to the edge, far from the homes of the living. And when I finally disappear—where will I be?
No one understands. Everything I am waits for you and still I hunt the night of the poem. I think only of your body while I shape and reshape my poem’s body as if it were broken.
And no one understands me. I know that life and love must change. Such statements, coming from the mask over the animal I am, painfully suggest a kinship between words and shadows. And that’s where it comes from, this state of terror that negates humanity.
3 NIGHT, THE POEM
If you find your true voice, bring it to the land of the dead. There is kindness in the ashes. And terror in non-identity. A little girl lost in a ruined house, this fortress of my poems.
I write with the blind malice of children pelting a madwoman, like a crow, with stones. No—I don’t write: I open a breach in the dusk so the dead can send messages through.
What is this job of writing? To steer by mirror-light in darkness. To imagine a place known only to me. To sing of distances, to hear the living notes of painted birds on Christmas trees.
My nakedness bathed you in light. You pressed against my body to drive away the great black frost of night.
My words demand the silence of a wasteland.
Some of them have hands that grip my heart the moment they’re written. Some words are doomed like lilacs in a storm. And some are like the precious dead—even if I still prefer to all of them the words for the doll of a sad little girl.
Even if she saw me cry and clutched me to hear breast, I wouldn’t revive. True, I’d be able to look in her eyes like Van Gogh saw the sun and shattered it in sunflowers—Can “life” be spelled with two “i”s?
Dolls are so cruel. And why shouldn’t they be, when men and beasts and even stones are cruel? In the poem, dolls and other creatures of the night are exposed. Poem, this is night. Have you met the night?
Roses are red in her fiery insatiable hands.
I call night silence. Night emerges from death. Night emerges from life. All absence lives in the night.
Then, in the morning, I cried:
My darling night, my little one, teeming with villains.
My love, call me Sasha. I’m recasting the play as a purely interior tragedy. Everything is an interior.
5 BLANK SLATE
cisterns in memory
rivers in memory
pools in memory
always water in memory
wind in memory
whispering in memory
6 WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE
I forced myself
kicking and screaming
7 ONLY SIGN
open your eyes,
kindle the light
[COMMENTARY. Flora Alejandra Pizarnik (1936-1972) was born to Russian Jewish parents in an immigrant district of Buenos Aires. During her short life, spent mostly between Buenos Aires and Paris, Pizarnik produced an astonishingly powerful body of work, including poetry, short stories, paintings, drawings, translations, essays, and drama. From a young age, she discovered a deep affinity with poets who, as she would later write, exemplified Hölderlin’s claim that “poetry is a dangerous game,” sacrificing everything in order to “annul the distance society imposes between poetry and life.” She was particularly drawn to “the suffering of Baudelaire, the suicide of Nerval, the premature silence of Rimbaud, the mysterious and fleeting presence of Lautréamont,” and, perhaps most importantly, to the “unparalleled intensity” of Artaud’s “physical and moral suffering” (“The Incarnate Word,” 1965).
Like Artaud, Pizarnik understood poetry as an absolute demand, offering no concessions, forging its own terms, and requiring that life be lived entirely in its service. “Like every profoundly subversive act,” she wrote, “poetry avoids everything but its own freedom and its own truth.” In Pizarnik’s poetry, this radical sense of “freedom” and “truth” emerges through a total engagement with her central themes: silence, estrangement, childhood, and—most prominently—death. An orphan girl’s love for her little blue doll pumps death gas through the heart of her avatar. The garden of forgotten myth is a knife that rends the flesh. A grave opens its arms at dawn in the fusion of sea and sky. Every intimate word spoken feeds the void it burns to escape. Pizarnik’s poetry exists on the knife’s edge between intolerable, desolate cruelty and an equally intolerable human tenderness. From her historical essay on “The Bloody Countess,” Erzebet Bathory: “the absolute freedom of the human is horrible.” From a late interview with Martha Isabel Moia: the job of poetry is “to heal the fundamental wound,” to “rescue the abomination of human misery by embodying it.”
The uncollected poems presented here (written between 1969 and 1971) are drawn from a 17-page manuscript Pizarnik entrusted to the poet Perla Rotzait less than a year before her suicide.]