Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip is unlike any poetry I’ve ever read before both in content and style. If you are a fan and avid reader of experimental poetry then I recommend going straight to the book rather than reading this as there is no way to write about it without spoiling some of the experience of reading it. However, if you don’t have a ton of experimental poetry experience then I would still recommend it but proceed with the expectation of disorientation. Don’t be surprised if you start it and have no idea what’s happening because, for some of it anyway, that’s the point. It may help you to know the backstory of both the real life story these poems are drawing from and how the Philip went about utilizing that story.

Cover of Zong. A leg bone with a red dot at the knee in front of a body of water.

Zong! is based on the true story of the slave ship Zong. In November of 1781 the captain ordered about 150 Africans thrown overboard so the ship could collect insurance money off of their deaths. The only repercussion of these horrendous actions was a court case not for murder but for insurance fraud. The transcript of that court case is the only historical record of this mass murder. Philip uses the transcript to tell the story through poems. She confined herself to using words only found in the transcript of the court case for her poems. Because the court case was not extensive or even about the murder of 150 people she got creative with the form and structure of the poems. Many of them can be read in different directions and many them are hard to decipher.

I found it to be a bit of a frustrating reading experience but this is an occasion where I think frustration in reading may be the point. Zong! is about a tragedy that is nearly impossible to fathom. Philip was not just trying to tell the story, she was trying to give a voice to those that died. If you walk away from these poems feeling disoriented, frustrated, and confused imagine how these feelings would have been intensified for those thrown off the ship to drown. I was left with less of the story and more of the emotion, which is, I think, a quality particular to poems. Poetry is usually going for maximum emotional impact and Philip’s poetry is doing it’s job in an effective and unique way. Even if you don’t particularly like experimental poetry the book includes a little history of Zong and M. NourbeSe Philip’s writing process which I also found quite fascinating.

Common Place Book Entries

“the order in destroy”

Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip

“Some–all the poems– need a great deal of space around them — as if there is too much cramping around them, as if they need to breathe…”

Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip

“Within the boundaries established by the words and their meanings there are silences; within each silence is the poem,”

Zong! by NourbeSe Philip

“I deeply distrust this tool I work with — language.”

Zong! by NourbeSe Philip

“The disorder, illogic and irrationality of the Zong! poems can no more tell the story than the legal report of Gregson v. Gilbert masquerading as order, logic and rationality.”

-Zong! by NourbeSe Philip

“This language of the limp and the wound.”

Zong! by NourbeSe Philip

Keep reading. Keep learning. Keep listening. Keep creating.




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