I’ve been asked to comment on Ron Silliman’s excellent talk “Your Monsters Are Our Monsters: The Problem of Borders and the Nearness of the American Avant-Garde.” In Silliman’s “L-shaped talk,” the shape itself merits consideration.
Some artists cannot afford to believe that aesthetics are not inextricably tied to politics. In my final post of the series, I continue summarizing the significance of artists who, in giving expression to their visions of truth and meaning, ultimately resist normative discourses by refracting status quo representations of the world.
II. Refraction as Resistance: A Poetics of Non-linear
Deviating, shifting, indirect, crooked paths, “constant state of motion, dispersion, and permeability.”
I began with an accumulation, a sense of something, and this question: What is the significance of ‘refractive poetics’ for artists who identify with the margins or address alternative modes of seeing?
This series started with the intuition that certain works of art to which I am drawn translate the world for and through the liminal body, offering articulations that refract the straightforward, the literal, the dominant. What is the role of ambiguity and the inarticulable in these refractive poetries? Why are these qualities especially poignant for artists from the margins? How do the mechanisms of refraction allows these artists to achieve meaning and truth that is otherwise unlocatable?
This series started with the intuition that certain works of art to which I am drawn translate the world for and through the liminal body, offering articulations that refract the straightforward, the literal, the dominant. What is the role of ambiguity and the inarticulable in these refractive poetries? Why are these qualities especially poignant for artists from the margins?
In my previous post, I wanted to address the inherent political implications of how erasure poetry refracts a document into another one. I also asked: How do some poets use the rupturing of a text in order to reclaim, redress, resist? How does the intentional absenting of language attempt to succeed where its presence cannot? With this in mind, Zong! by M.
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.