Blog Post

Finding the Words: Sounding Out Impossible History

Shaun Nowicki | March 29, 2021

From November 30th to December 9th, 2020 poet M. NourbeSe Philip and dozens of collaborators gathered online to read and to remember the dead. These readings, held under the collective title of Zong Global 2020, were a version of the annual, durational readings of Philip’s 2008 book-length poem, Zong!, which ritually honor the enslaved Africans who were massacred aboard the English slave ship Zong. Poets, performance artists, and others read the poem together in a blended series of live and pre-recorded YouTube videos. These videos, while not currently available for public viewing, are an attempt to make visible and visceral an event which has nearly escaped from historical memory. 

The poem itself is intentionally built around these relations of voice, sound, and history. Philip outlines the history of the Zong massacre and the silencing of the dead in an essay that follows the poem. While the poem is invested in the process of language as itself a source of truth and knowledge, understanding the story of the Zong as it is passed down to us by Philip allows for avenues into Philip’s experimental writing (Philip, M. NourbeSe and Setaey Adamu Boateng. Zong! Wesleyan University Press, 2008. Project MUSE The killings began on November 29th, 1781 and continued for ten days. One hundred and forty-two Africans were thrown overboard or committed suicide by jumping overboard during this time. The event has come down through history with only one primary source document, a deposition in the insurance claims case Gilbert v. Gregson. Even as the poem is written with the possibility of hearing the dead in mind, all of the language of the poem is drawn from this deposition. The case is notable because it is predicated on the argument that the enslaved Africans should be considered property rather than people in order that the backers of the venture might collect insurance money from the destruction and damage done to that property. By taking this lone document as her starting point, Philip is able to fracture the dehumanizing language of English court so that we might hear the “echoes of the dead…more than two hundred years later, [and] what it must have been like for those Africans aboard the Zong” (198 Philip, M. NourbeSe and Setaey Adamu Boateng. Zong!),

Sounding it Out

All meaning in Zong! starts with the breaking down of the language and logic of this deposition. Language fractures into sonic units, phonemes that articulate sensation more than sense. In doing so, the partial condition of our knowledge becomes evident in the mutability of individual sounds.  For example, the word os, which serves as the title for the first section of the poem, is glossed as Latin for bone. Opening the poem this way evokes the literal bones that perdure in the ocean, but also points to the skeletal state of our understanding. As the poem fleshes out the story of the Zong, os evolves into embodied wailing. As Africans are thrown “to/port/over/&/over” we hear their screams mutating into distress signals: es es

oh es

oh oh es es oh

  es       s           o

    s   s   o

      s           s

          o s 




If one only reads the poem, however, one is liable to lose the texture of the sonic landscape in an attempt to reconstitute a logical or consistent whole. Separation gives way to a constructed, if ultimately faulty, idea of comprehensibility. The Zong! Global 2020 videos, as well as numerous other recordings of readings by Philip over the years, strike the ear and the brain out of complacent connection making. What I mean is, instead of allowing us to piece together a few words in order to understand a totally alien experience through description, we are forced to reckon with the gaps that give the lie to any sense of unity and coherence. Instead of water in the opening poem “Zong #1”, we may hear the wail of agony in wa, or a. Instead, we may encounter the sharpness of t and the rattling of iron restraints. Instead, we may inhabit the perpetual groans in the belly of a slave ship in grumble of er

All of these sounds serve an almost impossible purpose, to listen for the presence of the dead in a document that contends for their nonexistence as human beings. Historian Marisa J. Fuentes writes in her book Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive about the impossibility of recovering the voices of enslaved women in the 18th century Caribbean archive. Records such as journals, notes, or anything that would give direct insight into the thoughts, struggles, and knowledge of the enslaved simply does not exist in a way that meets the strictures of historical evidence. While this is largely a problem with the simultaneous demands of archival research and the erasures enacted by the archival process itself, Fuentes still proposes numerous ways to listen for (even as we cannot recover) the voices of the enslaved. Pinpointing a moment of utter despair and violation, where, having been beaten, an enslaved woman screams out and forces herself into our historical record through the horrified gazes of the white citizenry. Philip’s poem records no individual scream, but creates a rupture in the archive from which can spring the distant screams, moans, words, and language of those murdered slaves.

Blank Spaces

It is perhaps more apt to describe the poem as built on a foundation of silent, blank spaces than on any actual speech or sound. One is just as likely to encounter the blankness as much as cacophony in the act of reading.  In these blank spaces between the disjointed and rearranged letters of the Gilbert v. Gregson text, we encounter the points of fracture between knowledge and invention. As much as we are able to hear the wailing echoes of the dead in the scattering of water in “Zong #1”, we encounter the fields of silence that shape and engulf individual phonemes. The fact that we derive sense from the wildly broken up letters and syllables that comprise “Zong #1” is largely a function of our innate desire to find and connect the scraps of information we have into meaning (much as one does in the archive). But examining the letters as they are, as individual sounds and units of meaning is to understand that they merely invoke the remotest possibility of understanding, of affective connection. While we can join Philip in the act of recognition and remembrance through these echoes, we cannot reconstitute the dead in language. 

These silences create the shape and movement of Zong! just as the silence of the archival record creates the shapes and movement of history. The shapes that the language takes on the page, whether it is the more conventionally lineated opening poems of “Os” or the concrete swirls and unfurling of “Ventus,” is always bound by a pregnant sense of what is unable to be told. Philip places just as much emphasis on the silences in her readings of the poem, where they take on a quality of oral grammar. These silences pace the poem, make it legible, and can escape notice because of their nothingness. 

The last section of the poem, titled “Ẹbọra” (Yoruba for “underwater spirit”) is perhaps the most paradoxical in its deployment of sound and silence together. Textually, “Ẹbọra” has the most crowded and loud pages, as layers of language pile on top of one another. Words and phrases overlap and fill the page, even as a faded gray typeface gives the impression of submersion. While the inking seems to push us into a realm of quiet, the increasing layering of the words over one another as we progress through the chapter gives an increased sense of noise. Voices emerge confused as we try to interpret the visual equivalent of these voices talking over one another, each seemingly desperate in its attempts to reach out and speak through water, time, and history. If one can hear the echo of death in Zong!, in its final section we can hear them scream as any attempts at recognition and reconciliation become confused and impossible. Language fails. The text dissolves into pure noise. Amidst the intense visual noise, we are confronted again with the silence of history. The dead remain submerged in the end, totally inaccessible, unable to be taken home from the water, unable to be found amongst the wreckages of language. 

These final pages’ point to a larger question of the poem, one that Philip hammers at again and again in her concluding essay on the writing of Zong!: how does one tell a story that must be told but cannot be told? It is impossible to recover the thoughts, words, and lives of those who were murdered on the Zong, just as it is impossible to drag their bones from the water. There can be no story given to their lives, as their lives are now incomplete, unknown, and totally unrecoverable. Zong! gives shape to the possibility of their existence while giving a sense of the impossibility of knowing that existence by listening for the sound within the silences.

My interest in Zong! has been primarily founded on its investment in feeling our way back into the past, even where there is sparse evidence to allow for that possibility. By listening for the presence and the absence of the dead, we are better equipped to make meaningful social and institutional change that counteracts the continual process of erasure against black and brown people. More than that, though, Zong! demonstrates a way to reach back into the past through our emotions, sensations, and our bodies to make meaningful connections with the world. It encourages us to sit with the dead, to listen, to understand, but, most importantly, to feel.