Erasure Poetry As Outsourcing the Lexicon with Reference to Srikanth Reddy’s Voyager and M NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!

By | 1 August 2021

5.0 Certainly one of the most radical works of erasure poetry is Zong! (Wesleyan, 2008) by M NourbeSe Philip. Where many other examples choose an ample text to move through in linear fashion, producing enough material in the process to constitute the project in its entirety, Philip instead reacts to an extreme paucity of information. The book takes its title from the mass killing aboard the slave ship of the same name where, amidst navigational blunders and dwindling supplies, the crew drowned some 140 Africans in order to conserve resources, and later claimed for the loss from insurers. Concerning this catastrophe there exists a two-page legal document (Gregson v Gilbert, 1783, 3 Doug. KB 232), and it is this impoverished body that Philip redacts over and over in differing repetition each time.

5.1 The first two sections of Zong! proceed with at least some familiarity: relatively compact, at times almost-verses that readily fit our understanding of the iterative poetic sequence. One can reason about which aspect of the source text is under the microscope each time, whether the functions of terms such as value, evidence, loss; the ontological statuses or the haunting texture of water. As in Reddy’s Voyager, we see words that repeat and understand this to signal the repeated passages through the scant document. Some of the poems drift freely across the page in sparse fragments, while others take on a crystalline structure, particularly at the point of interrogating desperately any ghastly possibility of cause and effect:

this necessity of loss

this quantity of not
perils underwriters


                                                            the throw in circumstance

                                                            the instance in attempt

                                                            the attempt in voyage

                                                            the may in become (35)

5.2 But Philip quickly reaches the limits of both discursive logic in search of some explanation for the voyage’s horrors, and also the standard fare erasure of selecting or isolating words in the textual sequence to make poetry. The remaining 4 sections give way to explosions of text that blanket pages at times almost indiscriminately, proliferating out of the impossibly brief document of loss a great wave of presence. How is this accomplished? Determined to use only stock from the papers in question – to cultivate something expansive from such destitution – Philip assembles new dictionaries from the legal report’s pages. So-called mother words such as insurance would yield spore words along the line of ran, sure, can, and race; the linear-extensive space of the word in language giving way to the great interior of endlessly partitioning concepts that may combine in endlessly free and liquid ways. In this way, Zong! becomes productive much like a lexicon; a system of textual input and feedback capable of learning and generating more of itself; not a fixed or confined thing. Take the encroachment of other languages, particularly Yoruba, whose interface with English can only be found in the fall:

                                        oh                                        oh oracle
                                                            there are
                                        oh oh
ifá i
                    fa                                                            fall
                                        ing over (60)

5.3 The later poems risk floating across the open ocean of the page like so much flotsam and jetsam. There is perhaps a sense of the calamity – known only to us via that unthinkable paper record – being whittled down to nothing by the oceanic force of Philip’s rewriting; the rotten trunk of legal evidence breaking down and being dispersed within the great absorbing seas. But there is a play for life too. As through the accretion of language formed a kind of reef upon which a vibrant ecosystem of endless variety could take hold … The spores seed new base pairs recombining like strands of DNA in spiraling tendril forms across the page; these bolting stems seeking out the full extent of their possible permutations.

                                                       let us
us                                           just
                      y our              lips
   over                       these
                        an other                   man
                                    in                                        the
                                        troy                the
                                                of                       men
                                                poet (94)

5.4 It must be said that the expansive nature of Zong! is not a project of poetic systematising in search of some rational (patriarchal) totality; rather its volume comes from beginning and beginning forever and again in the inexhaustible fount of lost voices. We may look for a precedent to Detroit techno legends Drexciya, who built through and around their music an alternate afro-futurist history in which the unborn children of pregnant women thrown from slave ships – who never learned to breathe the surface air – adapted seamlessly from the amniotic fluid of the womb to flourish as a new pulsating deep-sea civilisation. Unable to locate any source for the names of those aboard the Zong, Philip instead conceives of plausible African names that lie at the bottom of the page in the first section, a position that ‘echoes the layout of slave ships where Africans were kept in holds at the bottom of the vessel’, but one that also serves as a powerful ground of potential voices – an absolute bedrock from which to mount the assault on history. The boundless flow of text in the later sections comes in to its own when understood – as the author asks us to – as a deeply real channeling, to the point where Setaey Adamu Boateng is given co-authorship of the book. The dual possibility impossibility of mediating the voice of another tenses at the very core of Zong!, for however adrift we may feel cast within the text, one cannot ignore the author’s own notes in the appendices that speak of definitive narrative voices that arise from the watery chaos, from a dramatis personae of justices (193), to the surety in identifying ‘women’s voices surfacing’ (201), and the unexpectedly strong presence of a personality the author acknowledges to be ‘white, male, and European’ (204). Philip’s poem could never have been so simple as giving a voice to those lost and without:

the east the	                                                                                sun the dunes
	                                                       & gold
	                 tunis it is                                         a yarn i
	                                       spin a tale                                      to be
	                                                               told not	                                        heard nor
read                                                                    a story that can
	                                                                               not be                                                un
old… (107-8)

5.5 These increasingly impossible poems – and indeed perhaps all works of erasure to varying degrees – seek to at least resist if not escape the commodity form, railing against all notions of singularity and valuation that underpin the taking of slaves and insuring them as fungible chattel objects. More than just standard fare disruption of the stable and definitive text, Zong! attacks the very convention of analysing language through its elements and structure, yet with a world-conscious liberatory energy entirely alien to the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets. The logic of spatial fidelity or perceptual clarity evaporates in the face of a resolution so intensively packed that we cannot see the woods of the image for the noise of the trees. The same materials are endlessly reconstituted, affording us the opportunity to see something new without needing something new.

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