I started looking through “Swimchant for Nigger Mer-Folk (An Aquaboogie Set in Lapis)” by listening. As in “Zong!,” the subject matter deals with the throwing overboard of slaves on the Middle Passage; as with “Zong!,” I was severely impacted, but had almost no clue where to start looking, so I thought that hearing a reading of the reading might help me now as it helped last week.
The poem bears a few similarities to “Zong!;” the subject matter, the way in which it seeks to provide some narrative to voices prematurely cut, and the way in which form is intrinsically tied to the meaning of the poem. Whereas in “Zong!” it was the silence, overlap, and spacing of words that gave me an almost claustrophobic feel, in “Swimchant,” the interactions words themselves become violent. They literally “dive,” careening downwards in the very first line (“never learned to swim/but me sho can di v e”), off to the side of staunch, all-caps, large font text which reads, in part, “O,VERMILLION SHIP… OVER MILLIONS SHIPPED,” referencing both visually and literally the millions of slaves shipped through the Atlantic, as well as the physical ship that the first line “dived” from. Underneath the “dive” is a line of text, bobbing and choppy across the page like the waves of an ocean. Underneath the waves are lines and phrases jumbled, mashed, and slapped together, mirroring the franticness of the men and women who had made that “dive”, as well as the “hammerheads” that would tail the ships, waiting for someone to be thrown overboard; different font styles, sizes, italicizations, widths, all caps and lowercase, all show the number of voices lost in the sea, and further add to the chaos of the piece.
This is where I got to before I heard Kearney’s reading (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZbeGLipkNjU). I was shocked when I first heard it, not only because Kearney is a master storyteller and performer, but also because his reading was completely different from how I had read the text. I’d read down the first page on the left, and then down the second page on the right; Kearney read left to right, across both pages, a choice that I thought was interesting, given that in my book the lines of text on the second page that corresponded with the lines of text he read on the first page had all been shifted up almost a full inch. I looked at the poem online, and sure enough, in their version (https://personalmagazine.wordpress.com/current-issue/), the words ran straight horizontal across the pages, creating one long line of text; of course there was still a disjointed and chaotic feeling to the piece, but not nearly as much as when the line of one voice is cut in two across a double page spread. In the “original” version and in Kearney’s reading, lines of individual narrative had been preserved; here in the anthology, every voice of every individual “Mer-Folk” had been spliced, to the point where I couldn’t even recognize their voice anymore.
The questions I have then are: What does this do to their stories? What, if any, is the “correct way” to read this poem?