Outside of the history world, the word “Zong” and the event to which it refers is virtually unknown. The tragic lost of life of over one hundred and forty slaves thrown overboard during its journey to the New World is an atrocity that has escaped mention in the largely US-centered perspective of textbooks one frequently encounters in high school and even university classrooms. Its horror, its warning, its echo is left unheard to many of those outside the realm of Caribbean Studies. Why is such a crucial event in American history so often overlooked? While the answer to this question is debatable, it seems critical that keeping the story alive and continuing to reflect upon and examine its significance not only to history but also to humanity itself is paramount. M. NourbeSe Philip’s collection of poems entitled Zong! seeks to respond to this aim by emulating the thoughts and experiences of slaves aboard the ship and beginning to work through the process of understanding the event and its long-ranging ramifications.
The first poem of the first section of the collection entitled “Zong! #1” immediately strikes the reader with its unconventional physical structure and positioning of words and letters. Not only are words strewn seemingly at random across the blank page, but they are also violently torn apart. It is not even until the third line that we are able to decipher a full word—“w a w a t / er…”—the joining of which only occurs after the movement of “er” to another line. The reader’s experience of reading this poem—one of disorientation, confusion, and frustration—mirrors the experience of the recently captured slave as he or she boards their doomed vessel of the Middle Passage. Individual words slowly become perceivable, although their discovery does not offer any satisfaction at discovering their meaning. Pulling together the disassembled letters, in order, assembles words such as “water,” “was our water,” “good,” “water…oh…on one won(e) one day ah days one days wa….” before continuing, again broken, to the next page. Here, as the reader continues to search for some kind of discernible meaning, one can see an almost geometric quality to the arrangement of letters on the page. The structure slopes downward; words, and their corresponding meanings, are collapsing. “Wwww w a t e r,” water… “wa ter / of w / ant.” The lines of the poem, like the lives of those aboard the Zong, are deteriorating. In our disorientation, we are left, dissatisfied, with only the permeating image of “water” and “want”: our basic human needs, our basic will and instinct to survive.
It seems fitting that Philip emulate the absence of meaning and complete destruction of slaves’ lives as they knew them by a corresponding destruction of poetic form. The reader is offered no answers, only thrown into a world, much like the slaves, in which he or she does not have the tools to decipher the experience. However, as the collection progresses, coherence slowly begins to return, eschewing the chaos of “Zong! #1” by providing, in the very least, whole words as units of meaning. By “Zong! #3,” letters have reformed into words and the disorientation is lessened, yet cryptic language and inverted patterns of speech remain. The momentum of the sense of a fractured reality continues to be propelled by repeated enjambments: “the some of negroes / over / board / the rest in lives / drowned / exist did not / in themselves / preservation / obliged / frenzy / thirst for forty others / etc”. The word “overboard” itself is sliced in half, almost mirroring the throwing of bodies from the ship deck. A sense of panic is elicited by “frenzy,” closely followed by “thirst for forty others,” where the reader has no doubt in what has occurred. Yet, after this terrible act has been committed, we are left with one hauntingly evocative word: “etc.” The reader’s mind is ripped from the scene in front of them directly to the ship’s log where deaths of “cargo” were catalogued. We are reminded of the ship’s recorder who after the entry of several slaves who suffered the same death felt compelled to write “etc” or “ditto” in the column justifying loss of cargo. As scholars, we often caution each other to protect ourselves from the loss of empathy in examining what can be monotonous (yet still horrifying) ship records such as these. However, the poignant plantation of the simple term “etc” at the conclusion of “Zong! #3” reminds us that such a notation is anything but forgettable: three simple letters can dismiss both one life and a massacre.
When one visits M. NourbeSe Philip’s website, you are greeted by a quotation by Setaey Adamu Boateng that reads: “There is no meaning but meaning–our search from it, our fleeing from it, our longing for it, our denying it, and, finally, our embrace of it.” Reading the poems within the first section of Zong! entitled “Os” (from which the two poems above were taken), the question of meaning becomes essential. Our traditional structures of meaning (words, phrases, lines, etc.) have been disrupted; we are left to piece together what we can from what remains. Philip invites us to search through the wreckage and ultimately embrace its reality along with her.
These are but two examples of the chilling insights one can gain from the Zong! collection of poems. As an English teacher, I’m naturally pre-disposed to connecting content I learn to the lives of my students. More than often these days, teachers are faced with the ever-frustrating predicament of wanting to provide authentic academic experiences in the classroom via critical thinking and exploration of a given topic while simultaneously being required, to some extent, to “teach to the test.” However, learning about events such as the Zong Massacre and reading poetry such as this help us to examine our definition of humanity and better understand who we are today. I am rather ashamed to say that this class has been my first exposure to this material, and it has already had a profound effect upon my understanding of the slave trade and my ideas about what I would like to impart to my future students. I’m interested in developing and adapting some of this material to be taught to younger audiences as I believe that thinking through these issues can be valuable to younger students as well—this is a topic I hope to examine in future posts!