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Cecilia Vicuña on M. NourbeSe Philip’s ‘Zong!’

‘Through its transformations and multiple languages, the poem becomes a dark mirror that reflects the missing truth’

M. NourbeSe Philip. Photograph: Bryony McIntyre

M. NourbeSe Philip. Photograph: Bryony McIntyre

I read M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! (2008) not as the song of the drowned slaves but the song of all of us, who are now becoming slaves, albeit by other names, on the slave ship Earth.

In November 1781, the captain of the slave ship Zong ordered that some 150 Africans be murdered by drowning so that the ship’s owners could collect insurance monies.

The poem begins by sounding the ‘w w w’ in water, the ‘water /of /w/ant’, a thirst for justice never quenched, the water of life robbed from us. Naming the water of want, the spirit of language before language comes alive and the poem speaks to us beyond space and time. So, we experience its music not as the past but as a potential future, awaiting us.

Undoing the colonial modes of representation by staying in a ‘story told by not telling’, the poem engenders a negative space, a dark constellation for the reader to participate in the reversal of the cover-up of the crime.

Through its transformations and multiple languages, the long poem becomes a dark mirror that reflects the missing truth. The more you hide it, the more it wants to come out, and the old will to hide the truth becomes the force that impels it to re-emerge, rising again, as in Ezekiel 37: 7–10: ‘There was a noise and behold, a shaking, and the bones came together.’

Zong! is not just a book of poetry; it is a method displaying itself like a deep-sea creature that blossoms in search of food: the instant when ‘the material and nonmaterial come together in unexpected ways’, allowing the erased story of the slave ship to recompose itself in us.

Zong! is composed entirely from the words of Gregson vs. Gilbert, the legal document of the battle between the ship’s owners and an insurance company. Unravelling this document, the poet dives into the pain between the lines, and we suddenly read silence as a premonition:

Neither Captain Collingwood nor those who had helped in the massacre could be charged with murder since, what was destroyed, being property, was not capable of being murdered.

How is the court language that calls the slaves ‘property’ different from the language that calls corporations ‘people’? We still live under the same logic. When refugees drown, we submerge their story, as we buried the story of the slaves. If property is more valuable than life, law can become a crime.

‘I am, metaphorically speaking, at sea, having cut myself off from the comfort and predictability of my own language – my own meaning,’ Philip writes, locking herself in the legal document, ‘in the same way men, women and children were locked in the holes of the slave ship Zong.’

A new perception of language comes to the fore as she resists ‘grammar as force’, as if the current ‘making sense’ of the world were the jail that keeps us enslaved while the rule of profit kills cultures, peoples and lands.

Philip’s rebellion opens up the field for what may come, when we allow poetry to speak: ‘There are always two poems – the one you want to write and the other that must write itself.’

Cecilia Vicuña is an artist and poet based in New York, USA. Earlier this year, she had a solo show at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, USA.

Issue 200

First published in Issue 200

January - February 2019
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