Zong!: Layout & History

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.

Zong!: the irrepressible and the neverending

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.

Zong! – Format and Racism

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.       

Why does Zong! look like that?

When I first opened the Zong! document I thought that I had broken my computer. At first glance, the structure is shocking. And like any other shocking element in literature, there’s a reason for it. I thought that the format was representative of the way a slave would have spoken. Coming from a foreign country and not knowing English / being deprived of the opportunity to become literate, a slave during this period might have spoken in sentence fragments like this. However, these “sentences” seem to be more chaotic. In the essay, Philip explains her clever tricks. Her approach was to choose words randomly, similar to the way that the slaves were chosen, which she describes as, “selected randomly then thrown together hoping that something would come of it.” Then I began to connect the dots between the words and the meaning. The words themselves represent each of the slaves. The large gaps of space represent the space that the slaves needed in the boat. Philip mentions that she tried to do research to get the names of the slaves on the boat and was devastated to find out that records were not kept of that. These humans were stripped of their names and therefore part of their story. Philip, in response, strips us of their story by “not telling it”. 

This is a story that needs to be told and Philip addresses that multiple times, but it is apparent that something is being held back. She says, “But this is a story that can only be told by not telling, and how am i to not tell the story has to be told.” This is where I get confused. She produced these poems in effort to tell the story. It is chaotic and mysterious, but it is not clear. So we know that she is not telling the story because in her eyes it cannot be told, but why, considering she explains the story in the essay?

Zong! & Apathy in History Classrooms

When I initially began reading Zong!, I was faced with the typical confusion that always seems to accompany this kind of poetry for me; the sparse wording and odd formatting were nothing short of disorienting, especially when combined with the complete lack of context I had with these poems. However, as I continued to read, these initial confusions only better lent themselves to the point the poetry was making. 

In classrooms in the United States, the profound tragedies experienced by the Africans as they made their way to the new world are largely left glossed over and unexplored. Apathy regarding history is something that I find to be quite prevalent due to the way history is often taught, but Zong! does a wonderful job of filling these gaps. The feelings of disorientation, confusion, and altogether frustration I felt as I was trying to decipher these poems is a direct reflection of the confusions felt by the Africans that were transported to the “New World.” I have memories of learning about this in elementary school and how inhumanely these people were treated, but these realities failed to sink in whenI was just learning them from one angle. In Zong!, I felt as though I was transported into the mind of one of these individuals. 

The elements of formatting utilized in these pieces mimic the unstructured form of natural thoughts; the confusion, frustration, and utter disorientation faced by these individuals are better felt in these poems. When reading this, it made me wonder about how history is taught in classrooms and its validity. I know that many history classes read novels to enrich their learning, but reading Zong! made me realize just how much of an asset this can be to students. Novels, poetry, and other creative works assist in the development of empathy as well as a deeper understanding of the events that occurred. In the current day, I can only see this as an enrichment to students’ learning in the United States.