Zong! Excerpts: Breaking Down the Chaos

My initial attempt at reading Zong! was a bit of a challenge for me, to say the least. Each poem made me feel forced out of my comfort zone in the worst way possible. My internal monologue resembled something along the lines of: why are the words like this, why are we reading this, what even is this? Trying to interpret each poem’s meaning felt like pulling teeth. But, as I read through NourbeSe Philip’s essay and read her poems a second time, I slowly began to understand the context of her pieces. My feelings of utter panic left and it became possible for me to break down each poem. Here are two of my interpretations:

Zong! #1

This is the first poem in the series and the most chaotic, in my opinion. On my first attempt at reading this, I lightly skimmed the poem as it seemed to be almost illegible. It meant nothing to me. During my second time around, things began to make more sense. I saw the poem in a completely different way. It is chaotic, but that was Philip’s exact intention. She attempts to mimic the gruesome and sad end that these slaves were forced to endure. I see this opening poem as a representation of the bodies of the enslaved people in the water as they drowned, those who suffered under dehydration, and those who starved to death. The way she writes, “w w w… w a t er,” sounds like one of the slaves trying to beg for water as he desperately dies of thirst. The way the letters are dispersed throughout the pages represent the bodies of helpless humans scattered throughout open water as they frantically drowned to their deaths.

Zong! #12

Zong! #12 is my favorite poem in the series. The meaning of this poem seemed to jump right at me as I read it for the second time. The right column of the poem seems to be a conflict between morality and evilness as the captain ultimately comes to the decision to throw 150 slaves overboard. It may have been unnecessary, but the captain believed it was justified since he would earn more financial gains doing so. The left column featuring two lines gives the reality, “it was a throwing overboard.” Philip isolates this statement to emphasize that this is the bottom line: it was a throwing overboard which is neither justifiable nor necessary. The reason I liked this poem so much is because I felt that she brings in the obvious truth and exposes the wrongs of the mariners who overthrew the slaves, forcing them to drown. She speaks out against the tragedy and shows that it was by no means justifiable.

The poems of Zong! had a much different effect on me when I read them for a second time compared to the first time. The first time I read them, I went in blindly as I was unaware of any sort of context. After reading Philip’s essay, I was able to figure out the poems and see them from a completely different perspective. I felt emotionally moved while my spirits grew saddened as I read Philip’s creative interpretation of the suffering that these slaves were forced to go through.

I am curious to see how everyone else interpreted these poems. Did your brain process work similar to mine? Was it completely different reading the poems after learning about the tragedy in Philip’s essay?

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