She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks
M. NourbeSe Philip
Wesleyan University Press, $15.95 (paper)
Documenting your own past becomes a political and spiritual imperative when established institutions are not doing it for you. Today’s black poets are busy in the bellies of libraries; they are kneeling at overgrown graves; they are—as Alice Walker wrote—“in search of our mothers’ gardens,” involving past voices in contemporary conversations.
But black archival activity has always extended beyond preservation, in part because there hasn’t always been much to preserve beyond records of violence. In place of names, genealogies, and narratives, there are numbers, ciphers, and fragments. Historian Vincent Brown notes a perverse advantage here: the archive of slavery is so mute on the subject of black life that it is hard to mistake recorded history for what actually happened. Doing justice to what actually happened has sometimes entailed doing damage to what has been said about it. Black poetry has a history of transfiguring the radical archival impulse into a radical aesthetic, writing directly into the wound of what we don’t know.
Recent work scavenges some of the most corrupt archival materials to “imagine the past” and “remember the future,” as Carlos Fuentes demands. In Voyage of the Sable Venus (2015), Robin Coste Lewis crafts a seventy-nine-page poem entirely from the “titles, catalog entries, or exhibit descriptions” of objects in Western art depicting the black female form. In Hymn for the Black Terrific (2013), Kiki Petrosino interweaves her own lines with Thomas Jefferson’s 1785 Notes on the State of Virginia. M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! (2008) breaks down transcripts from trials concerning events on the slave ship Zong: the slavers wanted to claim insurance money for the human cargo they had tossed overboard when water rations ran short.
The New World African experience has been formed and deformed by language systems hostile to its flourishing.
This moment in the history of Philip’s work raises both kinds of archival questions—practical and aesthetic—as Wesleyan University Press republishes a book she wrote almost twenty years before Zong! In 1989 She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks won Cuba’s prestigious Casa de las Américas Prize for works by Latin American and Caribbean writers. Philip was born in Tobago and has lived in Toronto for most of her adult life, producing a steady pulse of poetry, essays, plays, and novels since 1983, when she left a legal career to write full time. Despite her prominence in Canada, she was not widely read by the mainstream (read: white) American literary public until Zong! went viral among poets who think of themselves as postmodern, conceptual, or experimental. It is now a predictable presence on certain syllabi and a touchstone for both sides in contemporary debates about the racist exclusions of the conceptual canon. But She Tries Her Tongue has so far bypassed both Europe and the United States. How will its alternative trajectory—and the doubled-back timeline of its republication—inform the role Zong! has come to play in today’s poetic perturbations? What will Philip’s archival gestures compel us to remember and imagine?
Philip has explained that writing Zong! involved “breaking and entering” the legal text that classified the people locked in the hold of the slave ship as commodities, a “salvaging operation” that amplified ghostly traces into “the collective voice of the ancestors.” It is impossible to read Zong! without thinking of this founding taxonomy of people-as-things, but the text does not foreground the process of categorization. Instead, the fragments, strewn over white space, leave us floundering in the dismemberment that results from categorization’s inevitable failure. She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks does something different: it tries to catch the deadly dictionary in the act of definition. Philip snatches the language of (Greek) myth, (colonial) law, (English) grammar book, and (Christian) catechism with all its “eucharistic contradictions” to perform the many ways the African experience in the New World has been formed and deformed by language systems hostile to its flourishing.
The book is dominated by three long poems-in-parts: “Discourse on the Logic of Language,” “Universal Grammar,” and “The Question of Language is the Answer to Power.” Sometimes her sources seem straightforward: “Edict II: Every slave caught speaking his native language shall be severely punished. Where necessary, the removal of the tongue is recommended.” But more often, multiple discourses are juxtaposed within a single poem, even a single stanza. In the following lines, Philip mixes the authoritative language of anatomical treatise and schoolroom multiple-choice questions with natal longing and historical critique:
Air is forced out of the lungs up the throat to the larynx where it causes the vocal cords to vibrate and create sound. The metamorphosis from sound to intelligible word requires
(a) the lip, tongue and jaw all working together.
(b) a mother tongue.
(c) the overseer’s whip.
(d) all of the above or none.
We might associate the mandatory structure with the abstracted voice of the colonial master, but in an earlier poem we hear “the code of mama—‘now you’s a young lady / you can press your hair’” ventriloquizing white supremacist demands. What Philip emphasizes is not so much who presents the requirement, code, or test but that “the metamorphosis from sound to intelligible word” often takes the form of a test under colonial conditions. The prospect of “intelligible” expression—She Tries Her Tongue—is not guaranteed. This stanza wonders what conditions must be met for communication to succeed. Does it require nothing more than correct embodiment? Access to a “native” linguistic heritage prior to English—an uncorrupted point of origin? Or does it only come like a false confession in response to the violent demand that the black poet say something?
Though these questions demonstrate a critical relationship to the colonizer’s language, Philip shows how they perpetuate a punishing illusion of choice: if only the black poet chose correctly, she could speak freely. But Philip also gives us the opportunity to refuse choice entirely: “or none.” In that alternative we are allowed to imagine an “intelligible word” that would not require a body or a past or the violence that forms them: a cosmic nothing “honed keen / as the feel of some days.” She also opens, by implicit contrast, the communicative potential of the un-intelligible word. “Ai! ai!” another stanza calls out, echoing the sounds that flood the mind when Édouard Glissant writes, “Din is discourse.”
This din does not drown out Philip’s clear concern with pedagogy. She Tries Her Tongue works and reworks the didactic forms of the test, the manual, the fable: the promise of a usable lesson remains in play even as we come to doubt the liberating potential of education. Her version of the “Three Little Pigs”—“How To Build Your House Safe and Right”—concludes with sound Marxist questions:
The first pig built his house of straw; the second of wood. Did the third pig buy his bricks or was he given them, and why? Where did he get his money to buy his bricks with?
Straw, wood or brick. The moral of this tale, is that the right choice of materials secures safety.
We have been given a moral, but we have also been given the tools to ask how there can be a “right choice” in a world where there may not be “money to buy” what is best. Earlier, in “Universal Grammar,” Philip quotes from an imaginary manual called Mother’s Recipes on How to Make a Language Yours or How Not to Get Raped:
Slip mouth over the syllable; moisten with tongue the word.
Suck Slide Play Caress Blow—Love it, but if the word
gags, does not nourish, bite it off—at its source—
Spit it out
The lush promise of “Love”—love of language, love of men—remains just as precarious as the promise of safety in a brick-built house. These words of advice might communicate useful scraps of strategy—shore yourself up as best you can, bite back—but they don’t stop the wolf from circling back for blood. The desperate patchwork of fraying forms suggests no single one will keep you warm.
Still, Philip seems to believe it is possible to school us. Like Zong! this book is framed with an essay, here placed as an epilogue, that stakes out the theoretical ground worked over by her poetry. There is also Evie Shockley’s introduction to the new edition, which calls the book “a crash course” in Caribbean cultural history and critical race studies. Despite Philip’s critique of the teacherly position, she is not afraid to assume it herself. And she repeatedly returns to the figure of the mother as the ideal or primary pedagogue. The mother’s voice invades the margins in horizontally oriented blocks of capitalized text or appears cordoned off by a line at the bottom of the page: “THE MOTHER THEN PUT HER FINGERS INTO HER CHILD’S MOUTH—GENTLY FORCING IT OPEN; SHE TOUCHES HER TONGUE TO THE CHILD’S TONGUE, AND HOLDING THE TINY MOUTH OPEN, SHE BLOWS INTO IT—HARD. SHE WAS BLOWING WORDS.”
This is not a moderate mothering. Philip seems interested less in Alice Walker’s romantic journey “in search of our mother’s gardens” than in what theorist Hortense Spillers calls “the monstrosity” of “a female with the potential to ‘name.’” Once again, Philip destroys the illusion of free choice. But now we are reminded that the conditions of slavery are not the only conditions of force. There is a counterforce: the force-feeding of life itself, the choicelessness of being born and spoken into language. The dream of emancipation from bondage cannot and should not emancipate us from our human bonds, though these too may chafe.
Neither does Philip completely discard the bonds of “old” forms, as she receives, mouth-to-mouth, the feminist tradition of retelling the Proserpine myth. But, here, Ceres’s frantic search for her kidnapped daughter traverses the black diaspora in the wake of slave ships: “down by the just-down-the-way sea,” “up in the humpback whereabouts-is-that hills,” “Stateside, England, Canada—somewhere about,” “try the Black Bottom.” These are the lyric poems that open the book, before the discourse poems implement their apparatus. Philip’s use of the lyric might be discomfiting for those who would prefer to call her a conceptual poet, but, as she reminds us in an interview with Kenyon Review, “Any strategy, even the lyric, can be political depending on context and intent.” The lyric can be political, but can it be postmodern? And as Layli Long Soldier asks in her recent poem “Whereas,” “mother-to-child and child-to-mother relationships, is that postmodern”?
Philip is well aware of the taxonomies that attempt to contain her texts. In her reflections on Zong! for a Jacket2 roundtable, she remembers someone describing She Tries Her Tongue:
she tries . . . is a postmodern text the german critic insists to me many many years ago and I remembering the socratic method used by a former law professor reply it is if you say it is
Beyond the mansplaining is the larger concern articulated in Heather Love’s Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (2007): “for those marked as temporally backward, the stakes of being identified as modern or non-modern” have been “extremely high.” Calling a black poet “postmodern” too often takes the form of a hall pass issued by the literary establishment: all y’all can stay put back there, but she’s coming with us. Philip clearly has a different us in mind and at heart. Even where this kind of exceptionalism is not implied or intended, questions may linger for the black artist: Does postmodernism involve “moving on”? A free-for-all in the archive where everything becomes equal-opportunity “material”? What, or who, gets lost if I or my book become postmodern?
Philip has more to say to her interlocutor: “you losing something perhaps the most significant aspect of it if you don’t understand how the kya kya kya kari basin postmodern long before the term was coined.” Terms, for Philip, are “coined”: they are part of an economy of value that she knows was not minted with poets such as her in mind. Remaining outside of—or at least in vocal disagreement with—a system of literary classification is important because it allows us to see how these systems function. It archives the way bodies such as hers were and remain both overclassified (priced and shipped in the past; surveyed, diagnosed, and convicted now) and outside the classifications that confer protection and sympathy: poet, Citizen, human.
“Human” might seem like a coherent term, but Philip begs to differ. For those enslaved in the “kari basin” and beyond, many of the Enlightenment’s most beloved key words—“freedom,” “will,” “reason,” and yes, “human”—have always been highly paradoxical. The idea of postmodernism might need some historicizing, and republication might be just the gesture to remind us that the cutting edge drew blood a while back. Getting in the cut with M. NourbeSe Philip means inhabiting the maternal paradox that “dis place” between the legs always involves “displacement.” Honoring “all the mothers” to whom the book is dedicated—honoring Philip—does not mean reproducing particular formal strategies, whether lyric or conceptual. As Alice Walker wrote of Phillis Wheatley, “It is not so much what you sang, as that you kept alive . . . the notion of song.”