A poetry of disorder and mayhem: M. NourbeSe Philip

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Matthew Reynolds

On 26 June the Tobago-born Canadian writer M. NourbeSe Philip read from her work and joined in discussion at TORCH as part of the Great Writers Inspire at Home series. NourbeSe’s great, fractured, multilingual poem Zong! commemorates 133 slaves murdered by the crew of the ship Zong in 1781, and the court case which ensued when the ship-owners tried to make an insurance claim for the loss of their ‘property’. As part of the event at TORCH, Matthew Reynolds, Co-investigator of the Creative Multilingualism research programme, discussed the multilingual and translational aspects of NourbeSe’s poetry. Here's part of what he said:

I am not going to speak with any kind of authority but just as a reader and admirer, which means as someone whose sense of my own use of language has been challenged, disrupted and expanded by the encounter with the work of M. NourbeSe Philip. This means that the work of using my language to talk about her language, or ‘talk it over’, is not straightforward. Instead I will try to do something more like talking with, or talking under.

Zong! starts from the language of the legal judgement that was handed down in the court case about the massacre, which was called Gregson v. Gilbert, in 1783. NourbeSe decides ‘to use the text of the legal decision as a word store; to … lock myself in this text in the same way men, women, and children were locked in the holds of the slave ship Zong.’ She sets about breaking that hold; breaking up this ‘language which promulgated the non-being of African peoples’; ‘murdering the text, literally cutting it into pieces’ so as to create a poetry of ‘disorder and mayhem’ through which the story which cannot be told can be ‘released’.

This mayhem is a mixture of different languages; different tongues. Among the mayhem of Zong! are words in Yoruba, Spanish, Latin, Shona, Portuguese, West African patois, Hebrew, Greek, Italian, French, Fon, Dutch and Arabic. It is a counter-blast to the language policy of the slave-owners as recorded in Edict 1 in NourbeSe’s earlier poem ‘Discourse on the Logic of Language’: ‘Every owner of slaves shall, wherever possible, ensure that his slaves belong to as many ethno-linguistic groups as possible. If they cannot speak to each other, they cannot then foment rebellion and revolution.’ In Zong! the words do speak to one another, and a memorial rebellion, a monumental revolution, is created.

NourbeSe writes that the later poems in Zong! ‘translate’ the earlier ones; and her work has a probing, continual connection to translation. Back in 1989, her book She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks draws its title from the episode of Io, in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, translated by Dryden. Several poems in the collection take epigraphs from other parts of the Metamorphoses as translated by Mary M Innes, and again by Dryden. ‘All Things are alter’d, nothing is destroyed’, writes Dryden, translating Ovid, thereby embodying his point (or is it Ovid’s point) in his own words (whose words?): translation is a form of metamorphosis.

People tend to think of translation as something that happens between separate, standard languages, say French and English; translations can be marked as right or wrong; the more fluent they are (i.e. the more they conform to standard norms) the better. But in fact languages are not separate in themselves. What separates them is politics: institutions of state, education and law. Language is a continuum which gathers into communities of practice whose borderlands are porous and continually shift. 

Translation can mix kinds of language, and change them. NourbeSe quotes Sir Thomas Elyot from back in the sixteenth century, describing the metamorphosis of Latin words into English, the augmentation of the language as he called it, which he, with a group of other scholars, was promoting: ‘I intended to augment our Englyshe tonge, whereby men should as well expresse more abundantly the thynge that they conceyved in theyr harts (wherefore language was ordeyned) havynge wordes apte for the pourpose.’ NourbeSe adds: ‘That the African needed to express “more abundantly the thynge … they conceyved in theyr harts” is undisputed; that the English language lacked “wordes apte for the pourpose” cannot be denied.’ This expression is a matter of using ‘the language in such a way that the historical realities are not erased or obliterated, so that English is revealed as the tainted tongue it truly is’, and of ‘trying to engender by some alchemical practice a metamorphosis within the language from father tongue to mother tongue.’ 

The making of poetry ‘begins in the body and ends in the body’, says NourbeSe, quoting Stanley Burnshaw. The word ‘tongue’ shows this, in particular the horrifying punishment of the tongue outlined in Edict 2 from ‘Discourse on the Logic of Language’: ‘Every slave caught speaking his native language shall be severely punished. Where necessary, removal of the tongue is recommended. The offending organ, when removed, should be hung on high in a central place, so that all may see and tremble’. In Harriet’s Daughter, a compelling and much-read young adult novel which M NourbSe Philip published in 1983, we see how bodies are continuous with language. There is a scene in which a young girl says something important to an adult: ‘her whole body listened to what I had to say’; and then the adult says something difficult to the child, re-living an old grief: ‘Her body had collapsed … into itself, she looked like she didn’t have any bones.’

Reading NourbeSe involves our bodies as well as our minds. You have to turn your hands or your head to read ‘Discourse on the Logic of Language’; reading the scattered and fragmented words of Zong!  you become aware of the movement of your eyes, and tongue. You can scan the words like a coastguard looking at a satellite image of the Mediterranean, waiting for meaning to leap out at you; you can step carefully from word to word; you can find jolts and rhythms sounding from the page and find yourself mouthing them; you can feel your shoulders, your torso beginning to weave from side to side as you follow the zigzag slippages and surges of the words.

In her essay on the Toronto carnival, Caribana, NourbeSe puts slavery in the context of a general European disposition to control movement. Reading her poetry, you develop a disposition to move.

Matthew Reynolds is Professor of English and Comparative Criticism at the University of Oxford. He is Co-Investigator of the Creative Multilingualism research programme and leads our 6th strand: Prismatic Translation.

Where next?

Helping to balance the European argument – John le Carré speaks out for language learning

Creative translation: bending the rules to keep it personal

Creative Multilingualism in opera and song: Roderick Williams visits Oxford