I introduced M. NourbeSe Philip’s performance April 30 to the Northeast Modern Language Association:
“If no one listens and cries / is it still poetry?” M. NourbeSe Philip asks in her second book of poetry, Salmon Courage. The question carries over to more recent work as well, and conveys what Fred Moten describes as the author’s “heroism, which amounts to nothing more than a radical disavowal of the heroic, consisting [in] a deep and a fatal sounding.” That deep and fatal sounding is tested most notably in Zong!, a book-length poem based on an eighteenth-century court case, Gregson vs. Gilbert, the only public document related to the lives and deaths of 150 Africans murdered for insurance money aboard the slave ship Zong. This work, undertaken “on behalf of the living,” attempts, as Philip acknowledges, to “re-humanize[…] dehumanized figures.” Her investigation sounds the fragile exposure of human life against the infernal codes of legal and economic systems, all in a language that disrupts its own certainty. Philip’s self-mastery as a poet enables her writing toward an event that resists any imposition of meaning, and so poetry is used to enter an abyss of dreadful imaginings.
“Creat[ing] disorder with poetry, though with an accuracy of language,” Philip announces an ongoing process of arrival. Her writing is circumscribed by features of modernity shaped and extended by slavery, colonialism, and the borderline mechanics of sovereignty and discipline whereby the world is apprehended. What she encounters is nothing less than a “socio-ecological” catastrophe. The disruption of the violent history that encompasses and conveys the murders on the slave ship is disclosed through a “fugal anti-narrative” that discovers song in the legal records of Zong. The poem bears witness to the “resurfacing of the drowned and the oppressed” in a world where immigrants even now drown in desperate voyage into the African Mediterranean. Philip addresses the ongoing violence of modernity through the scale of human abduction, where language and its orienting features give shape and consequence to the brutal linearity of trade, law, and the subjective harrowings that underwrite a vicious global contest over natural resources and human labor. Such intersections of desire and economy find origin in Europe and Africa at the beginning of the modern era, and the languages and imposed silences of those relations between nations and people haunt us still. It is this “hauntology,” as Philip puts it, that concerns the startling clarity and terror of her work.
Philip was born in Tobago and moved to Canada to attend Western University, where she graduated with a law degree in 1973. Besides the investigative and linguistic achievement of Zong!, other major works include the novels Harriet’s Daughter and Looking for Livingstone: An Odyssey of Silence, and the poetry collection She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks, winner of the Casa de las Americas Prize in poetry. Author of four collections of essays and other writing, Philip’s work spans and interweaves contrasting genres. Her writing situates themes of colonialism, race, memory, identity, and place at the contrasting intersections of political and poetic innovation. Please join me in welcoming her here tonight.