These poems threw me for a loop. I was not expecting the layout to look the way it did at all. His was the first time I have ever read something with this layout, so I was having to restart and reread many of these to make sure I was comprehending everything that was going on. It made my eyes hurt a little, which I wasn’t really a fan of, but the overall experience was interesting.
My first impression of the layout reminded me of the concept behind blackout poetry. I forgot who said it, but someone in class mentioned that it looked like some information or the rest of the sentence was missing, which would go along with my thought of blackout poetry. I also noticed that the layout didn’t stick to one format, if that makes sense. Some of the pages were set up in columns, diagonals, ovals, and some that didn’t have any specific shape, it just looked like a bunch of words on a page, more so than they already to.
I really liked the line that she kept repeating throughout the whole essay. “There is no telling this story; it must be told.” I like how she recognizes the fact that the events that took place during this time is something that she herself would not be able to fully understand and write about from her point of view. Even though none of this happened during her lifetime, and the information she gave was from a person that may or may not have existed, she still understood this was not her story to be told.
The content of the essay was really shocking. In school, you learn about slavery and its role in American history, but not a lot, if anything, about it from different countries around the world. We may be told that slavery did not just happen in America, but that’s about it. We don’t get any other information unless we do the research, which most likely won’t happen. So, it was intriguing to read about how slavery worked in another country.
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:
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 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?
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.
In M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!, the unusual and confusing format of the poetry proposes a large question: why did Philip decide to tell the story of the Gregson v Gilbert legal case and enslaved people in a manner that demands dissection, deep background, and intense analyzation? Philip’s use of format is directly tied to the unimaginable case that is being told. The case, which involves a ship that has been misguided and was not prepared for extended travel, states that slaves either died due to the lack of food and water or they “were thrown overboard for the preservation of the rest” (210), illuminating the fact that during this era, enslaved people were taken with less regard and were valued less than food and water to keep the white people on board alive. The lives of the enslaved were seen as just another provision; however, less than the provisions that are necessary to keep a human alive. Philip utilizes the format of her poetry in order to portray the case and a much larger picture. The words are written in a way that is difficult to understand and digest, much like the story that Philip is sharing. Philip connects her format to the story because to understand how one can trade another’s life for food is unfathomable, much like the poetry at first glance. To understand both Philip’s work and the history behind the enslaved people, there is an abundant amount of analyzation that must be done, further alluding as to why Philip chose a complex and complicated way to tell the story. Tracy K. Smith’s poem, Declaration, also discusses the issue of human rights in yet another unproportionate format, “He has plundered our- ravaged our- destroyed the lives of our- taking away our-.” Smith does this for the same reason that Philip does, to illustrate the fact that the poem is not easy to read; therefore, neither is the content laced throughout the poem.
In both Philip’s and Harris’ works, there is a question, spoken or non, about the association of blackness to property.
For Harris, she noted that slavery was a system that thrived from the division of color, facilitating the idea that ownership was a birthright of skin tone. On page 278, Harris says, “…the institution of slavery, lying at the very core of economic relations, was bound up with the idea of property.” There were many continuing underlying issues perpetuating the idea of whiteness as property, but the most notable was the monetary gain white slave owners were earning from their black slaves.
Philips examined every line of text from the Zong legal case and offered her own expert insight on the determination of the case. As she tore into insurance and property law, she highlighted several key points, one of which was the reasoning behind throwing the African slaves overboard. The insurance company would have to pay the Captain and the family buying the slaves money for “loss of property and income.” In the original case document, the slaves were referred to as “cargo.” Slaves were considered property.
I find it interesting that in both readings we hear cases for blackness as property, and in each case, the law stands on the side of white, property-owning citizens. Even though the law does not strictly mention skin color, it mentions property, and slaves had their statuses legally demoted to “domestic animal” and were branded as animals (Duke Law). This was because whites had adopted the Roman law of partus sequitur ventrem. It handled the legal status of animals in Rome, but the law had been twisted to fit the needs of slave owners by becoming “a legal doctrine concerning the slave or free status of children born in the English royal colonies” (Wikipedia, Duke Law). Both authors make strong legal arguments that blackness was a determinant of property, and I believe they are correct in their stances of black skin color sealing slaves’ fates as property.