Find the poetry of M. NoubeSe Philip here

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Former lawyer, essayist and Caribbean-Canadian poet M. NoubeSe Philip, is versed in the language of reason, yet in her poetry she shows how reason can be irrational by humane standards. In this paper I argue that Philip ingeniously represents the brutality of transatlantic slavery to challenge the rationality of colonised discourse. I have coined the term colonised discourse and define it as a style of language which is bound to the rules of reason; the type of discourse that colonises words into a system that is believed to be inherently reasonable and rational by the colonisers standards. In Philip’s work Zong! (2008) an entire section is constrained to the words of a piece of colonised discourse: Philip uses a two-page legal document, The Zong Case (1781), to give shape to her poems. The Zong Case also known as Gregson v. Gilbert, saw 150 African slaves murdered in order for an English slave ship owner to claim insurance. I argue that Philip’s Zong! uses the language of this case to create an anti-narrative that emphasises the silencing tendency of this type of discourse. I suggest the constraint that Philip employs, along with the dismembering of the words, creates a work that makes a reader feel disoriented, confused, alienated and horrified. I also compare James Walvin’s historic discourse on transatlantic slavery to Philip’s Zong! with purpose to show how present-day discourse is colonised and how it can be complicit in the violence of silencing the voices of minorities. I also propose that authors of colonised discourse may fear poetry, because they consciously or unconsciously fear that it effectively subverts ‘reasoned’ language. French philosopher Philip Lacoue-Labarth says ‘A poem wants to say; indeed, it is pure wanting to say.’ Contrary to Lacoue-Labarth, I argue that the poems of Zong! don’t want to say, but instead want to show how what can be said and what has been said, is both senseless and brutal.

Philip first encountered The Zong Ship story in James Walvin’s Black Ivory: A Historical of British slavery (1992), and the brutality of the story appears to have inspired her to look for another way to portray the history. In a chapter titled ‘Murdering Men’ Walvin speaks of The Zong case, Gregson v. Gilbert. Walvin describes how the captain of a slave ship named the Zong, made a navigational error that supposedly led to low water supplies, which led to a decision to throw some ‘cargo’ overboard, the cargo was 150 African slaves. The history tells us that decision was based on the captain’s knowledge that if the slaves died a natural death, then the underwriters would not be obliged to pay, however if the Africans were thrown into the sea alive, the slave ship owners could claim insurance. A legal case was put forth to the Chief Justice when the insurers refused to pay. This case ended up being the only record of this historical event. The two-page document Gregson v. Gilbert, cites Chief Justice Lord Manfeild’s ruling. Mansfield ruled in favour of the slave owners, and compared the African’s to ‘horses’ thus effectively legitimising their dehumanisation. On the acknowledgment page of Zong! Philip cites Black Ivory as an inspiration for her work (p.xi). But while Walvin’s discourse establishes, what in his words was “The most grotesquely bizarre of all slave cases heard in the English court” (Walvin 189), Philip’s Zong! portrays in her words “a story that cannot be told, but that must be told”. Thus, while Walvin emphasises the intent to focus on the factual evidence provided by colonised discourse, Philip suggests the story of those who were silenced must be told, but must be told in a way that shows what can’t be said.

The first section of Zong! titled Os (the Latin word for bones), signals Philip’s distrust for colonised discourse. Limited to the words of Gregson v. Gilbert case, Zong!1#-26# thoroughly disassembles the language of legal discourse and metaphorically throws it out to sea. In her prose that follows the poetry of Zong! Philip states her distrust of legal discourse and any language bound by ‘order, logic and rationality’ (Philip 197). She claims trust can only come in the language of song, parable, puns and ‘of course poetry’, suggesting that “in all these instances humans push against the boundary of language by engaging in language that is often neither rational, logical, predictable or ordered”. Thus in hacking the historical legal document into pieces, Philips creates an anti-narrative that asks the reader to be weary of the language of colonised discourse.

The tabular design of Zong! effectively supports the anti-narrative. Watkins proposes that tabular poetry is poetry that “one can’t move through it serially without paying attention to the infinite semantic possibilities which lie behind the code strings” and argues that ‘the non-rational poet writes to negate semantic closure’ (256 Watkin). Indeed, Zong! negates semantic closure, and frustrates any intention to pin meaning down or conclude a story. There is no anchoring in a soothing metre in Zong! and if any rhythm can be described it relates to the movement of the reader’s eyes (Scott 16-17).

“Tabular verse can be oralised and vocalised but rarely articulated. Rather than describing a rhythm, scansion describes the dynamic of the eye… if one can speak of rhythm at all, it is the rhythm of the collection and processing of information, the rhythm of the eye, its saccades and fixations, as it scans and rescans the text”(Scott 16-17)

The possible readings available with eye scansion are limitless and the effect can feel disorienting. Because many readings are possible I will describe the rhythm I experienced on first scanning Zong! 1#. My eyes were first drawn to the paralinguistic elements, the exclamation mark after the title evoked a sense of urgency, an urgency which was then fixed on the footer line placed above African names. I tried to read the stuttering sound units that were scattered on the page and found the alliteration jarring (“w” “w” “w” “w” “a”, ‘w a’ “t” ‘wa’ ‘wwwaa”), I was reminded of the sound of a baby crying or perhaps trying to talk for the first time: ‘goo’ ‘d’, “Wa”  “t” “er”, “w one” “dey” “day” “s” “wat” “wa ter” “of” “w” “ant”). Trying to make meaning of it caused tension, frustration and sense of thirst.  On a more peripheral reading of the pages, a spaciousness in my eyes was felt, and I began to take in the fullness of the design, I started to see an oceanic quality of movement and depth, a depth that contrasted with the flat stillness of the former page, I lingered on that flat page, anchored by the seven words written in boldface: The sea was not a mask – Wallace Stevens. My eyes were then drawn back to the scattered words and letters on the next page. The sea of words looked like bodies floating and I felt a tinge of shame, like I was watching something horrible but unable (or unwilling) to do anything about it. For me, the effect of the design created a kind of frantic rhythm that evoked disorientation, confusion and a sense of horror.

Zong! can be read on an electronic device, or in hard copy or a recital can be watched online, and each version brings differing experiences to show the work goes beyond what reason can say. My experience of scrolling down the pages of Zong! on a screen, gave me a sense of drowning, a sense that deepened when I scrolled down on the final section titled Ebora, which translates to mean ‘underwater spirits’ in the language of Yoruba. The final section of Zong!, “Ebora” is near impossible to read the words that are printed over the top of each other in light font. This has the effect of drawing attention to the last word that is printed clearly – “reason”. This last words double meaning perhaps emphasises the brutality of behind the “reason” for throwing 150 Africans overboard, by contrast with the inability of any humane “reason” to make sense of the event. On reading the hard copy, this downward quality of depth opened to a feeling of breadth, yet in both instances I felt I was searching for meaning in some mysterious and uneasy ocean. The disorganisation of words in Zong! seemed to represent an undoing that made room for a lot of white noise in the space around the words. In my experience of watching a performance of Zong!1# (Penn Sound, 2011), this white noise became excruciating. Blasing argues “Poetry ensures the audibility of the echoic personal – not in what is said but what is heard in the sound of what is said… a truth that cannot be arrived at by reason alone, a truth that the poet recognises by sensation” (Blasing 136).  Watching Philip reading Zong! 1# the pain on the poet’s body was palpable, I felt a visceral empathy in hearing the stuttering sound, sounds that evoked a sense of choking nausea. There is no need for Philip to say anything about the trauma that must have been experienced by those Africans aboard the Zong, what is not said can be felt in watery space of the screen or page, and on the skin as the poet reads. The multiple ways and multiple modes in which Zong! can be experienced, thus works to achieve something that goes beyond what reasoned language can say.

While Philip makes her distrust in colonised language felt, in Zong! she also shows that she does not extend this distrust to Western poetry. Quotes from Stevens, More, Thomas and others of the Western canon are inserted into Zong!, and each excerpt aptly support Zong!’s purpose. Steven Wallace says: ‘The sea was not a mask’ (As cited by Philip 2), and in Zong! 1# Philip shows us how the sea of language cannot hide the brutality of the Zong history; Thomas More says: ‘The poet is a detective and the detective is a poet’(As cited by Philip 100), and Zong! asks the reader to detect what’s beyond the surface of words and reason; Dylan Thomas says: ‘Though they go mad they shall be sane, / Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again…’(as cited by Philip vi) and Zong! allows the trauma African Ancestors to be felt in the sound and silence of the poetry. By using poets of the Western Canon, Philip shows how she trusts that poetry (new and old) has the power to subvert the reason of colonised discourse.

Walvin writes historical discourse on Slavery in the conventional way, and even though his discourse belongs to the rule of language that Philip distrusts, Philip has respectfully acknowledged his work, Black Ivory, as an inspiration for Zong!. Black Ivory recounts the brutal history of slavery with sympathy for the Africans who suffered, and Walvin’s intentions can be considered laudable in his desire is to bring awareness to the atrocities of slavery. This said the voice in his work remains constrained to Englishmen past and present, and therefore lacks an African perspective. Walvin cites words apparently spoken by the Captain of the Zong Collingwood:

“Collingwood told his officers: ‘if the slaves died a natural death, it would be the loss of the owners of the ship; but if they were thrown alive into the sea, it would be the loss of the underwriters.’ As a humane, though obviously specious, justification, he suggested that ‘it would not be so cruel to throw the poor sick wretches into the sea’” (Walvin, 1992, 16)

And in his own voice Walvin speaks of the Chief Justice Lord Mansfield who ruled in favour of the slave ship owner:

“When lord Mansfield died in 1793, he was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey, his memory celebrated in portraits and statues to be seen to this day in the National Portrait Gallery, Christ Church, Oxford and trinity Hall Cambridge. But where are the memorials to the thousands whose lives were touched by the career of the lord Chief Justice?”.(Walvin, 1992, 22)

In an interview, Philip recounts a time she talked with Walvin to inquire about the names of the Africans who were aboard the Zong. Philip politely relays Walvin’s uncomfortable chuckle as he apologetically explained that the Africans were known as ‘negro one, two’ and so on (Radio National, 2008).  Perhaps it was this conversation that inspired Philip to print African names in a footer, to create a memorial to those directly affected by slavery. Black Ivory assuredly gave Philip the desire to redress much of the logic behind the history, including the Captain’s reasoning for throwing the ‘sick wretches’ overboard and Lord Mansfield negation of the humanity of the African aboard the Zong. Zong! effectively redresses the history by bringing an African perspective to it, and Philip’s thus creates the memorial to those slaves who were silenced; It is this type of perspective and memorial representation that could assist in balancing Walvin’s conventional version of events.

Walvin’s historic discourse seeks to make sense of the history of slavery, but aspects of the language style and the absence of African representation, may implicate his discourse as being complicit in the silencing of African voices. In 2011, three years after Philip’s Zong! was released, The Zong by James Walvin was published. In the recommendations for further reading Philip’s Zong! is not cited, indeed nowhere in the book is Zong! mentioned. This leads one to question why a historian who proposes to be interested in slavery would not cite such an artwork completed from a person of the African diasporic community. It is especially conspicuous considering Phillip spoke to him personally during her research. One could argue that Philip’s Zong! as an artistic representation and therefore outside the bounds of formal historic discussion, yet considering Walvin dedicates a whole chapter of The Zong to Turner’s painting The Slave Ship this argument seems to falls flat. The Slave Ship is said to famously represent the Zong, and Walvin describes the painting as a “haunting portrayal of black bodies drowning beside the ship threatened by a looming storm” (Walvin, 2011, 3). Walvin credits the painting as being “a dazzling picture” (Walvin, 2011, 5) and at “heart a memorial” citing another historian who speaks of an ‘eminent art critic’ who claims that Turner’s work is the only ‘indisputable great work of Western Art made to commemorate the Atlantic Slave Trade (Walvin, 2011, 5). In further description, Walvin writes: “And what are those outstretched arms and hands? A final despairing wave from the wretches doomed to a terrible fate?” (Walvin, 2011, 4): it is uncomfortable to recognise that Walvin uses the same term (‘wretches’) to describe the Africans that he himself documents as being used by the captain who ordered their murder over 200 years ago: Captain Collingwood said ‘it would not be so cruel to throw the poor sick wretches into the sea’” (Walvin, 1992, 16).  Perhaps Walvin omits any mention of Philip’s Zong! due to defensive reasoning. Blasing claims

Discourse exercises power over the world of things; but poetry allows words to exercise power over discourse. This is a violence from within – not from within an “inner” subject, but from within a discursive medium, to counter its violence.  And without that counterviolence, we are prisoners of representation, with no hope of freedom.” (Blasing 143)

Philip indeed describes Zong! as a “a recombatant anti-narrative” (205). If as Blasing suggests poetry is a threat to disciplinary discourse, then could it be that Walvin is simply protecting his work? Poet Wallace Stevens writes:

The old men… are haunted by that

Maternal voice, the explanation of the night

(As cited by Blasing 138)

By failing to acknowledge Zong!, By favouring an English romantic painter as a memorialist, and by using the same term that the slave master used to describe the Africans he slaughtered, Walvin’s historical discourse becomes dangerously close to continuing a legacy of language that belittles, reduces and silences the African voice. With this in mind, the exclamation mark placed in the title Zong! perhaps signals the urgency needed now to end the complicity that continues to be adopted in some types of disciplinary discourse.

Zong! unties language from its slave masters and supports a view that poetry is a subversive power that works to keep the reasoning of colonised discourse in check. Philip has effectively adopted a design that allows Zong! to be interpreted and experienced in multiple ways, and effectively makes the reader sense the violence that colonised discourse can lead to. In light of Walvin’s The Zong, analysis of current historic discourse suggests that this type of colonized discourse can still be unwittingly complicit to a violence that silences others.  Zong! is a work that is felt both in its sound and silence and Philip is a poet that asks the reader to feel and listen carefully.



Mutlu Konuk Blasing, “Introduction: ‘Making Choice of a Human Self’; “Wallace Stevensand ‘The Less Legible meanings of Sounds’”, Lyric Poetry: The Pain and Pleasure of Words (Princeton, 2007): 1 – 26, 133 – 48. Print.

Philip, Marlene NourbeSe, and Setaey Adamu Boateng. Zong! (Wesleyan University Press,2008), Print.

Walvin, James. The Zong: A Massacre, The Law and The End of Slavery.   (Yale University Press, 2011). Print.

Walvin, James, “Murdering Men”, Black Ivory: Slavery in The British Empire (BlackwellPublishers, 2001): 11 – 25. Print

Watkin, William, “Surfacing of Life”. In the Process of Poetry: The New York School and the Avant-garde (Bucknell University Press, 2001). Print

Penn Sound, “Reading as part of the Contemporary Writers Series at Mills College, March29, 2011”, Web. 15th October 2016.

Radio National, “Rotten English: writing in the vernacular”, Friday 26 December 200810:00AM, Web. 15th October 2016.

Room Magazine, “M. NourbeSe Philip on Genre, Performance, and Putting the Ego Out”,Web. 30th October 2016,



Find the poetry of M. NoubeSe Philip here

Listen to Philip On Penn Sound here