And like a dead shadow
we kept descending
between the thick walls of the sea
Y como una sombra muerta
entre los murallones del mar
from Zurita’s El País de Tablas (The Country of Planks trans. Daniel Borzutzky)
Just before sitting down to read Zong!, I was watching my friend’s livestream video of the the second night of protests in Charlotte.
State violence on full display.
Racialized state violence on full display.
Anti-black state violence on full display.
Distressing to say the absolute least.
In other words, I was not in a reading mood.
But when I started reading M. NourbeSe Philip’s Notanda at the end of Zong!, I found that she was saying exactly what I needed to hear. She was asking the hard hitting questions. I.e.—how can we use a “contaminated” language to confront/digest/reckon with histories of [anti-black] violence? Where do we turn when [black] people and their stories have been erased? How can we use [or undermine] grammar to “unlock” the stories that “must be told?” Especially when they are stories that “cannot be told.”
All this to say, Philip was asking what needed to be asked and doing what needed to be done.
Philip’s approach to Zong! made me think of a couple other poets I’ve been reading recently—Collier Nogues, Bhanu Kapil, Anne Carson and Raúl Zurita. It felt like she combined, in one book, the strategies, struggles, and triumphs of these other writers.
Like Collier Nogues, in The Ground I Stand On Is Not My Ground, Philip both relies on, and subverts, historical documents to tell an untellable story. Though Nogues performs a more standard type of erasure (simply blocking out words in an existing text without rearranging them), a similar effect is produced. In both Zong! and The Ground I Stand On Is Not My Ground, there is an ambiguity around who is speaking. A shifting of narration, and an sense that there is more than one voice in the text. In Nogues poem Editor’s Introduction, these eerie lines emerge— “No evidence is now available as to/authorship/ /but I came to believe/ /that the logic of ideas strung together by/the syntactic structure of the sentence/ /depends on the reader’s context.” These lines could just as well apply to Zong!, a story “told to” rather than “written by” Philip.
Though Philip and Nogues both use erasure to create their poetry, Philip roots her work in the power of fragmentation. She says in her Notanda that she wants “poetry to disassemble the ordered, to create disorder and mayhem so as to release the story that cannot be told, but which, through not-telling, will tell itself.” To do this, she breaks phrases, sentences, and words apart to build herself a new lexicon, a new language. She clusters the words on the page and lets imagination find relationships and “complete [the fragment’s] missing aspects.” Part of her process involves “random selection that parallels the random selection of Africans.” This particular technique reminds me of Bhanu Kapil’s “bibliomancy” where she opens texts (often her notebooks) at random and chooses fragments to include. Though the reasoning behind Philip’s and Kapil’s choice of technique is different, there is a similar effect of unstable authorship and a “poetics of fragmentation.”
For Philip, Zong!’s many-voiced and always shifting text is a way to memorialize the slaves who were murdered on the Zong! It is, as she says, “a wake. It is a work that employs memory in the service of mourning…” In this way, Zong! reminds me of both Anne Carson in her work Nox, and Raúl Zurita in his work El País de Tablas (The Country of Planks). Both Carson and Zurita are trying to find a way to (as Meghan O’Rourke says of Carson’s Nox in her essay The Unfolding) navigate the “contours of absence.” Where Carson uses fragments (grammatical, photographic, or material) to piece back together the life (and death) of her brother, Zurita attempts to give voice to the fragments of bodies dumped into the sea (and volcanoes) during the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile. Philip, in some sense, brings both of these approaches together in Zong! to tell the story that cannot, but MUST be told.