Jake Kennedy: Notes on NourbeSe’s “Zong! #11”

suppose the law


              suppose the law not 
                     —a crime 
              suppose the law a loss 
              suppose the law 
                 Nomble   Falope   Bisuga   Nuru   Chimwala   Sala 
from, Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip

Zong! is M. NourbeSe Philip’s seven-year-in-construction longpoem. In it, she writes (re-speaks) and re-tells (re-combines) and, as we learn, “not-tells” (antinarrates) the November 1781 murders-by-drowning of approximately 150 Africans aboard the slave ship Zong. As NourbeSe explains it, “The text of the legal decision of the Zong case, Gregson v. Gilbert, runs to some five hundred words. Relying entirely on the words of the reported text, but through a variety of techniques such as whiting and/or blacking out words, fragmentation and reversals, I use this word store to create the manuscript, Zong! The text thus stands as an intervention in the history/laws/languages of white supremacy and, at the same time, as a formidable (unparalleled, even) achievement of conceptual poetry.

“Zong#11” supposes. It supposes against the suppositions of “the law.” And, the poem makes naked its (the law’s) hollow (not hallowed) core: a sleight-of-hand between actions and negations; subject- and objecthood; existence and nothingness. As if in this middle passage, in that blankness, is where most truth got, and continues to get, lost. Here, poetry is the distance (I think) between the not and the is, the not and the be, the not and the would. The poem creates a stutter space, an unspokenness filled with ghostly moving. NourbeSe says that, “Law and poetry both share an inexorable concern with language—the ‘right’ use of the ‘right’ words, phrases, or even marks of punctuation; precision of expression is the goal shared by both.” Within this “rightness” she uncovers an economy of brutal disorder—the violence of all that was erased because it didn’t or wouldn’t cohere. What are these spaces? A gutting out? A kind of spectre? The right wrongness? Anyway, the Steinian-sounds (suppose a rose) chant towards the sounds of law-as-crime and eventually “speak” of the losses that law enables/condones.

Remember Jordan Scott’s phrase in Blert: “… a threat to coherence… an inchoate moan edging toward song”? “Suppose the law a loss” gives pleasurable iambs, sure—but the mouth that moans these syllables is necessarily stuffed with silences and the tongue contorted with hesitations, too. What is the relationship between silence and space here? What are their particular qualities? If silence is the sound of history’s violence and space is the possibility of revival/redress then both qualities are about learning (radically) to listen and learning to see anew. 

What is that one em-dash doing? Knife blade, shut-mouth, a whip’s lash, the seam of the closed eye? The multiple “supposes” here might, like Susan Howe’s phrase, echo in order to constitute historical voices otherwise inarticulate, slighted, anonymous. The “supposes” also, unmistakably, must be the sound of the language of the Western/British slave trade and, as such, signify the white European “oppressor’s” voice. Thus Zong! hears/witnesses the past in a strikingly full, often deeply uneasy, way.

At a recent reading, here in Kelowna, British Columbia, NourbeSe spoke of Zong! as a text that she herself was always and again learning to read. When she read from “Zong#11” she closed her eyes and turned away from the page: “Su-pose [silence] the [silence] law [silence] is” And then the negatives arrived rather swiftly, terrifyingly: as if the sounds of a knocking behind the cellar door: not not not not.

Underneath the floor now, underneath the deck, underneath the sea, the poem resolves with the imagined names of the murdered Africans. Thus, to—in the end—slip below (be forced below) the water is to sing, say, or suppose the law; and it’s also to sing, say, or suppose a Nomble or a Falope or a Bisuga or a Nuru or a Chimwala or a Sala—to participate in a remembrance and to be implicated (contaminated, to use NourbeSe’s phrase) in the violence of “not-telling”… the cut that tethers the nothing to the story.
Jake Kennedy lives and works in Kelowna, British Columbia. His BookThug chapbook Hazard won the bpnichol award a few years back. Right now he’s working on an extemporaneous biography of poet-architect Madeline Gins.

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