Before I delve into the chaotic sea of words that M. NourbeSe Philip calls Zong! I feel like it’s important to discuss briefly the history in which she is writing about. As a former lawyer, Philip is inspired by the legal decision of Gregson vs. Gilbert. Through a chain of poems, Philip writes of how 150 African slaves were murdered in order to collect insurance money; telling the story that cannot be told yet must be told: attempting to bring existence to these African slaves that were erased as people and were, instead, written off as disposable commodities.
Very notably, upon opening the book, we can see that the writing is very abstract. As mentioned in class, Zong! is a found poem, that is, a poem created by taking words, phrases and sometimes whole passages from other sources and reframing them as poetry by making changes in spacing and lines, or by adding or deleting text, thus imparting new meaning. Philip writes, “I murder the text, literally cut it into pieces, castrating verbs, suffocating adjectives, murdering nouns, throwing articles, prepositions, conjunctions overboard…” (193). She takes the legal document of the court case, destroys it, thus untelling the “story” and actually depicting the truth of what happened to these people. As it is told to Philip by Sataey Adamu Boateng, the way in which the words are placed on the page resembles memory, remembering the horrors of what happened on the slave ship. The torn apart and reconstructed words mimic the dehumanization and destruction of black lives lost, and it is hard to find meaning among them. Philip writes, “When I start spacing out the words, there is something happening in the eye tracking the words across the page, working to pull the page and larger “meaning” together — the eye trying to order what cannot be ordered” (192). By acknowledging that the words serve a purpose as they appear unorganized and scattered on the page, Philip gives way to and embodies the chaos that occurred aboard the ship. Also, there is a lot of white space left on the page where no words are written, which is symbolic of the silence that these slaves were forced to succumb to.
To borrow a phrase from Ian Strachan’s Diary of Souls, “I begin reading Zong! out loud. “w w w w a wa” (3). Very quickly, I am whispering, my voice and breath ragged. The letters far from each other sound like voices calling out from the water, like voices mourning. There is a sense in which words are not the thing here, that words must get out of the way for something else to come through. White space fills these pages, like water. I want to weep, or vomit. Something is pushing, rising up or out and I don’t know what it is. What I feel is an urgency in the coming apart of words to tell a story, or to let a story emerge, a story that is lost in the water.” Despite it being difficult to pull meaning from the words, readers of Zong! acknowledge that the words and the way in which they are spewed across the page haphazardly, do in fact, invoke a significant meaning. Philip writes, “The poems resist my attempts at meaning or coherence, and at times, I too approach the irrationality and confusion, if not madness, of a system that could enable, encourage even, a man to drown 150 people as a way to maximize profits” (195). Even the author acknowledges the fact that these unorderly, dissected words make it hard to excavate any meaning from the pages; yet she also believes that the story of Zong can only be told through untelling. She believes this because despite having the facts of the legal document, the log book with the slave names was lost, and therefore the entire story cannot be told.
Throughout the collection of poems, Philip repeatedly uses the same words to enhance their “meaning.” We see words such as water, overboard, drowned, negroes, dead, rains, sustenance, suffered, throwing and justify many times while reading. These words themselves, despite being seemingly thrown together, exude the story of Zong! and show the importance of telling this story, even if it’s difficult to understand. By emphasizing these words from the legal document, Philip is eliminating any ambiguity of what truly happened. The truth of the matter is these slaves were thrown overboard because there was an insufficient amount of water to sustain everyone aboard the ship and the crew wanted the “important” people to survive, as well as to cash in on the insurance of the slaves. Literary devices such as hyperbaton and juxtaposition are also used throughout, which lends to depicting the chaos of the Zong Massacre. Hyperbaton is the inversion of the normal order of words, especially for the sake of emphasis. For example, “the some of negroes” (6). Philip is emphasizing that only some of the African slaves were thrown overboard, which leads us to wonder why only some were and how it was decided who would be thrown overboard. Another example is, “exist did not” (6). Here, Philip is emphasizing the word exist to show that the existence of these slaves was not important to the crew members on the ship. Juxtaposition is the fact of two things being seen or placed together with contrasting effect. The best example of this I could find is when Philip writes, “sour water” (10). I think this is important because we don’t usually think of water as being sour. We think of it as cool and refreshing, and as a necessity of life. The Gregson vs. Gilbert legal document describes the overthrowing as, “ an action on a policy insurance, to recover the value of certain slaves thrown overboard for want of water” (210). By describing the water as “sour,” Philip is trying to showcase how the water of the ocean has been tainted by the greed and selfishness of those who threw the slaves overboard for profit, and now water is death instead of life.
Overarchingly, the poems of Zong! bring light to the horrors that these people faced. Philip brilliantly destroys the only public document related to the massacre, the Gregson vs. Gilbert legal document, and recreates it into the actual story of the Zong Massacre. A story that, unlike the legal document, illustrates the existence of these people, and the injustice they went through.
- As mentioned, there is a lot of white space left on the page where no words are written. How does this lend to the ways in which we read the poem? Should these spaces be accounted for? Why or why not?
- I talked about the repetition and importance of words. Why did M. NourbeSe Philip choose the words that she did and why are they put together in the way that they are?