At least since Adorno's admonition about writing poetry after the Holocaust, poets have struggled to document or engage historical atrocities (e.g., the Atlantic slave trade, Rwanda, etc.). That Adorno eventually retracted his dictum only underscores the moral and ethical dilemma: how to accord the deaths of the slaughtered the silence they are believed to deserve while recovering their voices for posterity. However, descendants of the African diaspora, including poets and novelists, have evinced few qualms about documenting the various horrors of European and Arab colonialism and chattel slavery. Thus, the exceptions are noteworthy. Toni Morrison concludes her best-selling novel, Beloved, with just such reservations: the story of Beloved is both a story to pass on and not pass on. Marlene Nourbese-Philip echoes these sentiments within the body of her book-long serial poem Zong! as well as within the prose commentary that follows it. Yet what is significant is the difference between the underlying motives for each author's dilemma. For Morrison, the story to be passed on and not to be passed on dramatizes the Janus-faced responsibility of all victims of slavery: one must acknowledge obligations to the past and to the future, to one's ancestors and one's descendants. Since one must also be responsible to the present, Morrison's cautionary tale entails that one simultaneously remembers and forgets.
The source of Nourbese-Philip's qualms is not as clear, and her afterword, largely on the genesis of the poem, only muddies the water. Her "shock" that the [End Page 785] names of the slaves aboard the slave ship Zong were never recorded is perhaps telling, and is of a piece with her consternation that a Ghanaian spiritual elder tells her that her very existence means her family line was not wiped out by slavery—unlike those of the Zong slaves deliberately thrown overboard. Nourbese-Philip is stunned by what she reads as his indifference, or worse, callousness. That this man has heard similar and worse reports of atrocities past and present, seems never to occur to her. Nourbese-Philip's anxieties about paying proper "respect" to the victims of the Zong are indices of her—and our—distance from indigenous rituals regarding the dead. Her anxiety about the lost "names" of the victims alludes to the importance of naming in African and African diasporic traditions, but the living pay respect to the "ancestors" in general, not to specific "names." The significance of the concept of "ancestors" is precisely its general, abstract quality; it encompasses those names, those individuals, who have been forgotten because those who knew them, knew of them, have themselves been forgotten, consigned to an oblivion only partially blunted by their status as "ancestors."
Nourbese-Philip's solution to the unavoidable absence of the dead Zong slaves is to provide a running scroll of African names (largely Shona and Yoruba) at the bottom of the pages of the first part of the book. As readers we are reminded that the "victims" were real people with real lives even if the names are not necessarily those of the victims. But this is a poem, a work of art, and one of its characteristics, like that of a great deal of contemporary poetry, is its oblique rhetoric and ambiguous indirection. Even the predominate narrative and lyric modes of "mainstream" American poetry cannot disguise their object status as artifices. Thus, apropos Muriel Rukeyser and Carolyn Forche, for example, documentary is the preferred mode for many poetries of witness, presumably because reportage seems less "artificial" than imaginative re-creations. That Nourbese-Philip goes in the opposite direction by deploying a "field" aesthetics in the manner of Charles Olson and Susan Howe, dismembering sentences, phrases and words, however appropriate to the subject, attests to the irrepressible aesthetics of making art from the materials of history. Nourbese-Philip cannot not "create" a story, even against her own intentions to "merely" document. As she remarks in the afterword, she was surprised to hear the voice of a white European male (who figures prominently in the book) emerging from...