First reading of M. NourbeSe Philip's 'Zong!' #6 (4)

Gary Barwin

Notes toward a close first reading

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.”

Indeed the previous “First Readings” of Zong! #6 from M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! (2008) have excellently introduced the broader context of the poem. So, in order not to duplicate them, in this reading I’m going to focus on how the poem is presented on the page and how I might begin to unpack its prosody, the nature of its language, and its structure. Sometimes this kind of nose-close-to-the-book approach can reveal subtleties that a consideration of the larger context might overlook. And in truth, sometimes I encounter a poem with little context and must search for clues on the page in front of me. Thus, these notes toward a close first reading.

So: how does Zong! #6 unfold across the spacetime of the page? How does the presentation of the poem create or represent the prosody and semantic relations of the poem? There does appear to be several registers of language present. Does one voice speak in this poem, or is there more than one voice? Who is being addressed? What is the context?


Zong! #6 uses the entire space of the page in a dynamic way, the small schools of words like waves crossing the white ocean of the page. Littoral becomes literal. A passage about a passage.  The poem floats. 


It appears that the poem is organized into units of three lines. Tercets. The first stanza is neatly aligned, but subsequent stanzas drift.

I wonder about reading each tercet like a wave. Rise-peak-fall. The middle line given a kind of semantic stress.

Tercet One

Line 1: The first tercet begins with an imperative (“question therefore / the age / eighteen weeks”).  “[T]herefore” seems to refer back to a statement made before the poem. Is this statement part of an ongoing communication? Is it referring to the situation of the Zong? It seems to be either pointing to previous evidence or making the gesture of pointing. Because poems. 

Line 2: “[Q]uestion … the age”: “The age” as in the historical period or the age of something or someone?

Line 3: But then “eighteen weeks.” What do we measure in such weeks? An infant? A fetus? What does it mean to question this age? Life is fragile, contingent? Or is “eighteen weeks” an interruption, another voice’s urgent interjection?  

Terecet two

The second tercet isn’t neatly aligned like the first. It’s broken. Its content is also different. It isn’t an imperative, but rather, it contains varying tonal registers.

Line 1: The stanza begins further to the right of the page with a qualification: “and calm.” “[E]ighteen weeks // and calm.” It’s been calm for eighteen weeks. Someone is calm? Waves on the sea are calm.

Line 2: At the extreme left, another qualification: “but it is said …” It is the invocation of oral tradition, of wise memory, of story. Is this another voice speaking? I wonder if the poem can be considered a polyphony of voices or a collage of texts.

Line 3: Then the last line of the tercet “— from the maps.” There’s fragmentation. It’s another interruption. First the ellipsis of line 2 then the em dash of line 3. Words on either side of the page linked over the disjunction, the wistful nostalgic trailing off of the ellipsis and then the more incisive interruption of the em dash. The silence of distance or time represented by the white space of the page.  A middle passage spanned. The ellipsis and the dash like two hands reaching out. I begin to think of the page as a map.

Tercet three

A return to the center of the page.

Line 1: “and” is a hesitation, but it’s a conjunction that nevertheless moves forward. There’s been a decision to speak.

Line 2: This is language that is more like the imperative of the beginning stanza. It sounds legal: “contradicted / by the evidence …” More ellipses, a trailing off, or an indication that there could be an enumeration of this evidence.

Tercet four

A new place on the page: we’ve travelled. The first two lines repeat the beginning of the poem.  They return like a refrain with the inevitable rhythm of a new wave lapping onto shore. But each element is emphasized, is given its own line: “question / therefore / the age.”

The return of these words is a kind of summary. The “therefore” now looks back on the rest of the poem. Because “it is said,” and it is in “the maps,” and there is “evidence” which contradicts.

And: “question therefore.” Question “therefore.” Question the logic. Question the thinking of an age that ignores evidence which contradicts it. Why is this so?

Below the line

Inches of silence and time, and then, in small print, what appear to be African names. Faint memories below the waterline. We look down from the ship and see these names far below us. Is this the evidence that was spoken about above? “[I]t is said …” and “from the maps.” Should we consider these names, these people, as footnotes tossed overboard from the official poem? Who are they? How does their story enter the official record, if at all?

This kind of focused first reading looks at Zong! #6 as if through a pinhole, but it serves as a valuable starting point from which to further explore the rest of Zong! To hear its voices, to ponder its questions, to consider its larger story.

Notes for further consideration: The arrangement of the poem on the page represents a kind of visual or semantic rhythm which isn’t reflected in the recorded performances by the poet. I’d like to explore how this changes my experience of the poem.

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Gary Barwin is a writer, composer, and multimedia artist. The author of seventeen books, his latest collection is Moon Baboon Canoe (Mansfield Press.) He will be the 2014–2015 writer-in-residence at Western University. Barwin lives in Hamilton, Ontario and at His Jacket2 commentary is called “languageye.”