Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip

In the present case I use the text of the legal report almost as a painter uses paint or a sculptor stone — the material with which I work being preselected and limited. Henry Moore observed that his manner of working was to remove all extraneous material to allow the figure that was “locked” in the stone to reveal itself. It is an image that has always appealed to me, although I work with words rather than stone.” - M. NourbeSe Philip

Zong!, is a book of poetry by Caribbean author M. NourbeSe Philip that uses language in a way which challenges how authorship can be defined. In this project, the poet is bound to a preexisting text, making the economy of words at her disposal finite and perhaps most significantly, not from herself. She carves dozens of poems out of Greyson v. Gilbert (1781), more colloquially known as the Zong case. The Zong, a Dutch slave ship, was the setting for the deliberate massacre of over 150 African people, carried out by the ship’s captain, solely so that the owners of the ship could collect insurance monies. The Zong is also the setting for this poetic text.

The nature of the tragedy Philip is attempting to retell is intimately linked to how she structures the words on the page. She appears to do so in such a way that the words should take on a life of their own by existing outside of a logical context. She writes:

I murder the text, literally cut it into pieces, castrating verbs, suffocating adjectives, murdering nouns, throwing articles, prepositions, conjunctions overboard, jettisoning adverbs: I separate subject from verb, verb from object — create semantic mayhem, until my hands bloodied, from so much killing and cutting, reach into the stinking, eviscerated innards, and like some seer (psychic), sangoma (South African healer), or prophet who, having sacrificed an animal for signs and portents of a new life, reads the untold story that tells itself by not telling. (pg. 193)

As a reader, seeing the text “locked” within itself while it is simultaneously physically severed, creates feelings of discord and loss. The significant separation of the words on the page in Zong! #1 makes each word (and sound) independent of surrounding words (or sounds), each taking on its own spookiness, cultivating its own nonlinear meaning. Entire words stripped down to individual letters have the power to create one rhythm, just like the power of the repetition of “was the” in Zong #26 leaves you feeling out of breath if you read it aloud:

“was the cause was the remedy was the record was the argument was the delay was the evidence was overboard was the not was the cause was the was was the need was the case was the perils was the…” (pg. 45)

The mixture of these techniques allow for a combination of experiences for the reader. Some poems roll off the tongue like a song and others like a cry for help. At a glance, the poems seem similar in structure and in word choice, yet the way they consistently refuse to adhere to linear thought signals the reader that unity and coherence are not only being paid attention to, but also resisted.

For Philip, the untangling of the Zong case to create an original text seems to fundamentally be about omission, selection and the symbolic and spatial positioning of language in such a way that the author may tell a story which cannot be told.

Works Cited

  • Philip, M. NourbeSe. Zong! Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2008. Print.