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Book Review: “Zong!” by M. NourbeSe Philip

by Emma Bozenda

In late November of 1781, The Captain of the British slave ship: Zong, ordered 133 African slaves be thrown overboard so that insurance money could be collected. The greed of the Captain and crew proved to be meaningless, as in the following court case that ensued, Gregson v Gilbert (1783), the court determined that that the insurance company did not owe anything to the Zong crew. Although attempts were made, none of the Zong crew were prosecuted with the murder of the slaves.

Zong!, by M. NourbeSe Philip, is a collection of harrowing poems that serve to immortalize the lives that were senselessly lost on that November day. Zong! is an excavation of the legal texts of the Gregson v. Gilbert case. Philip pulls every word from court papers surrounding the massacre. The language of Philip’s poetry authoritatively reflects feelings of helplessness, anger, betrayal, fear, and shame. Highly fragmented, Philip completely tears away from and rewrites traditional poetic form. Blocky and immobile stanzas that have defined poetry for hundreds of years have no place in this collection. Philip paints with words. There is a formidable and attention-grabbing physicality to Philip’s word choices. Each page is filled differently. Some swirl like salty ocean waves. Others pour like the rain did when the massacre occurred. This collection powerfully curses the events that occurred, but most significantly, the poems force the reader to both react, and feel. Compellingly uniting real history and creative poetic forms, Zong! deserves to be read by all lovers of literature.

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