Prior to this reading, I had never heard of the Zong case. As I read the poems, I had no idea the context of what I was reading. I did not understand the full story until I read Philip’s essay, after I had already absorbed the poems. One thing I was struck by in her commentary on her work was the idea of telling a story through not telling it. In my case, she succeeded in this mission handily. I knew nothing of the story, but by the time I read the details, I was not surprised. The horror had already been whispered to me slowly through the poems. They translated to me the essentials of the situation, which, stripped of meaning, conveyed more through silence than noise. Water-frenzy-negroes-overboard-justice-escaped. My brain painted the rest of the picture, which had already been formed but was simply fleshed out through the revelations in Philip’s essay. In this there can be seen an element of subjectivity; the story can become anything the reader finds in it.
This is in part what I believe Philip means when she claims that in writing Zong! she implicates herself–simply by allowing the story any flexibility, she allows the atrocities to be overlooked. She exposes the dead for what they were–humans who deserved respect and dignity and life–by opening the history up for inspection, but in doing so she allows them to be abused once again. In turning them from property into people, she reveals the solemn truth: they were people the whole time, no matter what any law or judge said. So she is not only savior but warden. Putting a story like this into the world; one that reveals so much of the evil humanity has the potential for, yet also allows murder victims a space for remembrance, is a powerful statement but a dangerous one.
The other thing I believe Philip could mean when she talks about guilt in authoring this work is somewhat reminiscent of Derrida’s ideas. It could be debated that just by writing about an act so singularly and irrevocably violent, Philip furthers the worlds that allowed it to happen at all. In putting the words on paper, she claims some type of ownership over such a horrific event, giving herself the power to condemn or acquit, save or abandon. From this view, the poems of Zong! become performative acclamations, words that bring long dead atrocious acts and innocent souls back into the landscape of present-day, breathing life into them and encasing them in the written word, where they will rest forever. The struggle becomes that it is impossible to separate the two; the killer and the victim, the captain and the slave, the perpetrator and the victim. They must all await judgement together. This requires the most delicate sort of artistry from an author, and this is where I commend Philip in her performance more than anywhere else; she refuses to let the dead remain unheard, yet she neglects to give them her own voice, which would, in the end, only be yet another form of subjugation for them to endure.