M. NourbeSe Philip's unrecoverable subjects
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.” 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.” The author herself asks in the journal accompanying Zong!, “What am I doing? Giving voice — crying out?” 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.”
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.” 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.”
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.” 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”: 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
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.