How We Survive (Zong!)

Zong! is a bodily text. M. NourbeSe Philip’s work demands of us on a mental/emotional level, but perhaps most readily on a physical level. It performs most actively on the page: its terror lies in its history; its trauma lies in its sight. Her poetry—the summoned words of those who were lost—puts us in immediate contact with their final bodily realities: our eyes travel—they swirl—they get lost on the page. When we read her poetry aloud, the words bleed together–touch each other—meet before they drown. The pain lives in the text, in the negative space, in what is missing, in what cannot be summoned. It is a trauma that inhabits our bodies and becomes a physical body of its own. This presence—the “body” that is conjured up through what the text asks of us—signifies the loss.

Philip’s work heightened my interest in examining the physicality of words. At Rutgers, I studied with a professor in the English department who is a practicing psychoanalyst and whose work is to examine visual representations in literature. His project began with studying Beloved and having a sense that the body was represented heavily throughout the text. He then went and circled instances where the body was represented. His project asks, what does language and the words that we choose, reveal about the psyche? For instance, in his Virginia Woolf course I worked on a project that asked, what do the instances of “windows” and “doors” in Mrs. Dalloway—physical passageways—say about the mental “inside” and “outside?” I looked at what was being kept in and out and what all of the “shutting” and “locking” and “closing” represented.

He describes his project as the following:

“The project develops from semantic parsing…To parse a paragraph for its semantic web, the reader (human or machine) looks for categorical relationships. The semantic web self-organizes with the words within the text, semantically drawn together by family or class. In Beloved’s opening paragraph we find “mother”, “grandmother”, “children”, “baby”, “sons”, “daughter”, “sister”, and “brother”—words with a semantic relationship as kinship terms.” His project can be found at

In Zong! It is fascinating how the body is so heavily felt, yet it is represented by the negative space—a resistance to the language. Words that are thought to represent the body, like body parts or the senses, are for the most part missing or disjointed. The absence of these signifiers that we might readily accept as being representative of the physical, however, does not prove to be an absence of the physical. We feel it and we see it, it moves through us, yet at the same time because it is a “presence” that is exemplified through loss–we can’t “touch” it.

This is what I feel is most powerful in Philip’s work. Zong! is a terror that is a part of our history and that we know has happened; an annihilation that explains the ways in which we are here today. The trauma is always present—in that we know something of this nature has happened—but it is not lived. It is a trauma of what was lost. What Zong! seems to ask of us is: how can murder be a part of our existence? Loss, then, seems inherent in our survival.



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One Response to How We Survive (Zong!)

  1. Erica Mena says:

    Yes, beautiful exploration of the material. The text is extremely bodily, even (especially?) in its absences. I love how you’re reading the text here, and would be super interested in how engaging with the limited vocabulary of the text in the way you describe might reveal other manifestations of bodily presence/absence in the text.


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