Sunday, June 19, 2011

Poetry & Law: M. NourbeSe Philip's Zong!

(cross-posted from law.arts.culture)


Poetry and law may seem to some as incommensurable as dancing and architecture. Not so, according to M. NourbeSe Philip: “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.” But language may be used to very different ends in each realm: “The law uses language as a tool for ordering; in the instant case, however, I want poetry to disassemble the ordered, to create disorder and mayhem so as to release the story that cannot be told, but which, through not-telling, will tell itself.”

The story that cannot be told, the subject of Philip's most recent collection of poems, is that of the Zong massacre. In September 1781, the slave ship Zong set sail from the east coast of Africa bound for Jamaica under the stewardship of Captain Luke Collingwood. The "cargo" consisted of 470 Africans. The voyage should have taken six to nine weeks but, due to navigational errors, stretched into four months. By the end of November, sixty Africans had died "for want of water for sustenance," and forty more had thrown themselves into the sea "through thirst and frenzy thereby occasioned." A further 150 Africans were then flung into the sea to their deaths on the orders of the Captain who believed that if they died on board by "natural causes," the owners would have to bear the loss, whereas if they died by drowning, the loss would be covered by the owners' insurance policy as attributable to "the perils of the sea."

Back home in England, a famous case resulted: Gregson v. Gilbert. It was not a murder trial, since the Africans who had been killed were regarded as chattels not as human beings, but rather a legal dispute that turned on the finer points of insurance law. The insurers refused to pay the owners' claim, and the owners challenged that refusal in court. The owners won in the initial trial, but the jury's decision was overturned on appeal by the Court of King's Bench.

Philip describes that King's Bench decision, the only part of the litigation to make its way into the law reports, as "the tombstone, the one public marker of the murder of those Africans on board the Zong," and she opts to limit herself to that text, using it as "a word store" for the composition of her book-length sequence of poems. She literally deconstructs the decision, pulling apart the words with which it is composed, then rearranging them to construct her own text. Through the alchemy of poetry, she also thereby reconstructs the African passengers, so present aboard the ship, yet peculiarly absent from the legal decision. "In Zong!," Philip writes, "the African, transformed into a thing by the law, is re-transformed, miraculously, back into human."

These are poems in which the placement of the words on the page is as important as the meaning that those words convey. In the early poems, the words are spread thinly across the page, the spaces making visible the absence of African bodies and voices. But as the sequence continues, the poems become denser and denser, the words tumbling over one another, sometimes scoring one another out. The effect is disorienting, disturbing, and, ultimately, extremely powerful.

I recommend reading the book at least twice, the first time approaching the poems fresh, taking them on their own terms. Then again after having read the material appended at the end (Philip's essay on the writing of the book, from which I've quoted above, and a copy of the Gregson v. Gilbert decision) to more fully appreciate how Philip has illuminated injustice by making poetry out of law.

2 comments:

Buried In Print said...

"The effect is disorienting, disturbing, and, ultimately, extremely powerful."

This combination so often makes for the most memorable reading experiences: I'm on the lookout for this one. Thanks!

K. Robinson said...

I didn't know about the "dancing about architecture" controversy. I always thought it was Elvis Costello. Interesting! (And the rest of the post, too.)