October 25, 2012KR BlogBlog

Politics, erasure, and a ‘sometimes genuine music’

The question I want to ask is whether or not the act of erasure produces another voice—if the process of effacing (or defacing, as such may be a more accurate term in some cases) a lyric “I” only creates another lyric “I,” or some degree of one. Whether or not it negates one’s reason for pursuing erasure as a poetic technique, is this so? And, whether or not it is so, is it important to consider the panoply of problematic questions about ethics and politics in relation to aesthetics which tend to eke their way into the open when we talk about any instance of poetic technique that’s taken to be confrontational and interrogative? Erasure can take as many tacks as the writing it deconstructs to construct its own text, and so sometimes an “I” will appear when at other times it will be rendered invisible; conversely, this “I” can be “brought out” of a text in which it was not present as such before. Erasure is, in this way, a mode of citation that allows its source text and its voice, or voices, a reworked existence as newly delineated material—via the imposition of limitations that may not, at the end of day, be all that different from what damage is done to texts when we “cite” them appropriately (or when we otherwise dismember them under the guise of preserving—and even honoring—them). But the authorial “I,” or at least the sense of the singular voice, carries with it a tremendous sense of agency. It enacts, on the page, the possibility that one might speak coherently as a singular unit and have both oneself and one’s words understood.

Tampering with this sense of agency, on the other hand, disturbs us in just the way that a book like Stein’s Tender Buttons was (and is) disturbing to critics and readers whose affective sensibilities fall more closely in line with notions of speech as beholden to linearity and clarity. Take James Thurber’s recapitulation of Stuart P. Sherman’s evaluation of Stein’s 1922 Geography and Plays, for instance: he “arrives at the conviction that it is a marvellous [sic] and painstaking achievement in setting down approximately 80,000 words which mean nothing at all.” Which mean nothing at all—as if Stein’s most “gnomic, repetitive, illogical” works, as F.W. Dupee put it, were not experiments in forging new meanings out of old ones, or attempts to approach that forging by way of smelting together the components of common language as it then existed already. Stein’s writing, on the whole, has been extensively construed as political if largely for its significance to a tradition of feminist modernism, as a demonstration of dissent from heterosexual norms and linguistic normativity (which can be one and the same thing just as they can be separate things), but there are also questions emerging about Stein’s attitudes toward the Nazi occupation of France and the Vichy regime, the latter to which she was directly connected. It’s clear, then, that the question of the political in relation to a writer is a twofold question: one interest in the living “I,” which is the author as a flawed and multifaceted human being, and another in the writing “I,” which may be a mimeograph of that human being but which is forgiven certain shortcomings. The politics of the text as construed separately from the politics of a human being might be two avenues for entering this centuries-long tug of war (or synthesizing, as in the case of Wittgenstein) of ethics and aesthetics, but they are growing increasingly closer. Barbara Will, writing about Stein’s politics in Humanities, puts forth a similar dichotomy in postulating that perhaps Stein’s writings are on the one hand “patently disconnected from views and opinions, or even from politics,” or on the other inseparable from her projects. She ends her article by calling for a new critical standpoint that will produce “a more inclusive, complex, and realistic portrait of our modernist predecessors and their work”—on which, put plainly, will not let the work stray too far from the body that birthed it.

The potential consequences are major: either Stein is a literary hero, a literary hero and a human hero (the latter inadvertently, and in virtue of her literature), or neither. She has certainly been both to many, as Sherwood Anderson’s valorization of her in his introduction to Geography and Plays attests. There, he writes that Stein forewent “the privilege of writing the great American novel, uplifting our English speaking stage, and wearing the bays of the great poets to go live among the little housekeeping words, the swaggering bullying street-corner words, the honest working, money saving words and all the other forgotten and neglected citizens of the sacred and half forgotten city.” But for those who would both chalk up Anderson’s fawning to his smelling the whiff of a major talent and minimize debates about her Vichy connections as sidebar conversations to the work itself, more startling facts remain to trouble what’s left of a coherent modernist narrative—specifically, Stein’s endorsement of Hitler for the 1934 Nobel Peace Prize, or her enactment of the Nazi salute when she visited his bunker in Berchtesgaden following the end of the war, two incidents that Will cites. The politics of influence, responsibility, and culpability in literature being this difficult to parse, it’s no wonder that a common critical-conventional reaction is to take the authorial “I” for granted in a way: it’s allowed, at least, to put forth its hypotheses. But the erasing of texts radically and roughly wrestles with the established stability of that reaction. It assumes the political nature of speech from the get-go and fights fire, as it were, with fire—it applies the logic of manipulability that reigns over language either in whole or in part to its own attempt to combat that very same logic. Critics might say this only produces endless iterations of the same problem within a closed loop, but proponents might say otherwise: that it is possible to productively interrogate language even when the host of sign-signifier referential relationships we depend on for communication is misguided at best and insidious at worst. Some critics felt that Stein fluctuated between these extremes—Edmund Wilson wrote that “there is sometimes genuine music in the most baffling of her works, but there are rarely any communicated emotions,” charging Stein, if indirectly, with an inability to be authentic, to be sincere: to be apolitical.

Within the small but significant (and persistent) echelon of erasure as a practice in contemporary poetry, a number of works have emerged with political concerns beyond that of the fact of taking another’s voice as one’s own. The latter argument, these erasurists might argue, only amounts to a basically trivial obligation about language as it already exists—as a system that constantly undergoes the stresses and abuses of creation and re-appropriation; it is a system that must simultaneously accommodate notions of individual and collective ownership. Given this conception of language as political, it makes sense why this handful of postmodern writers would deem particular projects of erasure worthwhile as more than mere aesthetic or material experiments (though they’re worth their weight in terms of this experimentation, too), even permitting them to moments of remarkable insights which somehow transcend the inheritance of a failed linguistic structure. A major work in this mode, one that’s taken up political issues highly specific in terms content but broad in scope, is Srikanth Reddy’s 2011 erasure Voyager, in which Reddy moves linearly through the text of In the Eye of the Storm, the memoirs of former United Nations Secretary Kurt Waldheim—a man who, it turns out, excluded any mention of his stint as an intelligence officer in the Nazi Wehrmacht in World War II in those memoirs.

In a publicly-available document titled “A Note on Process,” which purports to explain the process behind Voyager, Reddy makes no mention of this exclusion as a motivating factor for his project: “I began to delete words from Kurt Waldheim’s memoirs in the autumn of 2003, hoping, for reasons beyond me, to discover something like poetry hidden within his book,” he writes. But the question of Waldheim’s involvement in the Wehrmacht was also a question around his tenure as the ninth president of Austria from 1986 to 1992; others had already expressed qualms about his history. Reddy’s resultant text is the combination of three erased copies (erasure being what Reddy himself terms the project, “for lack of a better word”) of In the Eye of the Storm compiled as three books within Voyager; in the first two, Reddy employs punctuation and enjambment to “make the poetry legible,” which is a curious phrase in itself—as though foreign elements introduced in the process of an erasure clarified something latent within them—and in the third he occasionally leaves “the lacunae visible.” But why the title? Voyager is described by UC Press, its publisher, as exploring the notion of there being a “plurality of worlds,” which fits with the oft-repeated observation of there being a variety of texts inside of one text, a plurality of histories inside a singularized narrative (“The world is legion,” Reddy writes in Book I of Voyager. Indeed, the titular connection is to the pair of American space probes both named Voyager, launched in 1977 to explore Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. These crafts carried onboard copies of the Voyager Golden Records, which contained images, diagrams, and sounds (from Bach to Chuck Berry) of Earth, as well as printed messages from President Jimmy Carter and Kurt Waldheim himself. The contents of Waldheim’s message read as follows:

“As the Secretary General of the United Nations, an organization of the 147 member states who represent almost all of the human inhabitants of the planet Earth, I send greetings on behalf of the people of our planet. We step out of our solar system into the universe seeking only peace and friendship, to teach if we are called upon, to be taught if we are fortunate. We know full well that our planet and all its inhabitants are but a small part of this immense universe that surrounds us and it is with humility and hope that we take this step.”

Regardless of what one thinks of Waldheim and his involvement with the Wehrmacht, his statement here and his exclusion of the Wehrmacht from his memoirs doubtlessly merit scrutiny. And that scrutiny is what Reddy applies in Voyager: the difficult query of how to treat, broadly speaking, the voice of a man who has silenced parts of his own history (and therefore the history of others; a history shared with those who, because they are dead, cannot speak for themselves) and who purports to symbolically speak for humanity when the opportunity presents itself. Book I of Voyager reads aphoristically, telegraphically; Reddy presents his assembled lines as individual fragments, as lines not enjambed but left to hover independently. In this sense they remind one of samples of evidence, an exhibit put together for the purposes of a trial or investigation. And though Reddy introduced a rigorous methodology to his erasure by choosing to move through the words in the text in the order in which they were presented, the coincidences produced are uncanny: “Carry out the bodies. // The body in the line means little,” reads one excerpt, an eerie imperative to remove the human casualties which Waldheim removed from history, and also to excise Waldheim’s own body from the text it produced, for the body “means little,” cannot signify for itself. Within its intense tripartite demarcation of form, through which Voyager presents itself as three characteristically distinct parts, motifs recur: the names of nations, like Namibia, are repeated (“The Namibian people journey through the story of Namibia,” Reddy writes in Book I), as are references to Chagall and his works (also from Book I: “To complain about love in front of the famous Chagall window does not make a difference.”), and belief (“To believe in the world, a person has to quiet thinking.”). The book’s opening invocation sets forth the misleadingly declarative tone that will prevail throughout the erasure: “The world is the world. // To deny it is to break with reason.” This construction of a logical identity, a one-to-one tautology, establishes a sense of certainty which just as quickly becomes fractured in the third line, which reads, “Nevertheless it would be reasonable to question the affair”—a line that imports bureaucratic legalese into its own undertaking of interrogating the opaqueness of that very mode of discourse. Across Book I, shadowy figures and themes cut through the transmissions: references to a vague “he” (Waldheim, or some prototype?) who knew the “topography of injustice,” anaphoric repetition, claims about war and facticity. In a moment of particular potency, Reddy employs numbers—as he does at numerous points in Book I—in a systematic way, as referees for the claims interspersed between them:


He is fashioned in the assembly of this book.


Kurt Waldheim is a formal negotiation.


A collective music circles history.

The quiddity of the repeated “One” undermines the force of the declarations, and vice versa, but here we have some direct claims about Waldheim himself—that he is made in the assembly of “this book,” either Voyager or In the Eye of the Storm, and that he is a “formal negotiation.” When I first read the fourth line of the above excerpt, I misread “negotiation” as “negation,” and then pondered the differences between the two: negotiation, as through a text via erasure, can also be a form of negation, a ceding of dominion or principles in order to reach the equilibrium of compromise. It seems, though, that the deeper comment here is on personhood: that the self is a multivalent construction of forms, a constellation of formal features, all of which are in conversation and even conflict with each other. It seems also to be a comment on the nature of political discourse: that it demands from those who would successfully navigate it a certain dexterity in self-manipulation and the manipulation of others. There is the category of United Nations Secretary, for instance, a position of relative power and influence—mainly figurative influence, one might say—and the corresponding image and speech it requires; Waldheim’s self-censorship may be a manner of negotiating the forms and, to put it differently, formalities of the life of one in such a position. What Reddy’s project seems to want to indicate is the treachery of both that construct itself and the intention to facilitate the creation of that construct, for in doing so one alters not just oneself but the archive of history. What transpires or does not transpire on the Voyager Golden Records will inevitably wind its way back to “the record” itself, that fundamental but abstract representation of human memory. Voyager itself becomes mimetic of this memory, repeating erased words and phrases across the individual books and the collection itself as a whole. The first page in Book I contains the lines, “The dead do not cease in the grave. // The world is water falling on a stone.” And in Book II, which is compiled into square, center-justified paragraphs, those lines recur: “Even if he had intelligence of disquieting matters, I do not wish to judge here the person of Dr. Waldheim. The dead do not cease in the grave. The world is water falling on a stone.” What seems at first mention like a condemnation and frustration (the erased dead still matter, now, though history is a relentless process of erosion) becomes, upon second mention, an explanation by way of disavowal. “Kurt Waldheim is a formal negotiation” and “A collective music circles history” are also repeated; whether or not Reddy finds these phrases in the same locations, or assembles them from different ones, is unclear (and perhaps unimportant). Into these vortexes of repetition, references to America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan find their way in, if only by oblique reference:

The history of Iraq developed long ago, along the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The Ottoman Empire followed years later. In Baghdad, the formalized line in the Persian fashion deteriorated when the Arab world appeared to dissolve in turmoil and disorganization. So, for some Iraqis, silence became a figure for the infinite. Thus sink each day’s dead softly in the hearth. The china, meanwhile, approached home, but not directly, and in pieces.

The dissolution of “formalized” structures becomes not so much liberating as obliterating: the dead, though they “do not cease in the grave,” sink further down and out of sight. Voyager might be read as an attempt to defeat silence, if only temporarily, and to stave off the inconceivable infinity into which specificity—and all of its possibilities for interrogation and, hopefully, righteousness—blurs and disappears. Another reference to the current military havoc in the Middle East rears its head in Book III, in the line “In the Middle East of life”—an interesting line for its inclusion of the phenomena of leaving an erased word present in the text by not completely removing it (something that happens in other parts of Voyager, too; a phenomena worthy of a longer discussion that I can apply here), but made doubly interesting by its invocation of the beginning line of Dante’s Inferno. Henry F. Cary’s translation of Canto I, published in the early 1900s, reads as follows: “In the midway of this our mortal life, / I found me in a gloomy wood, astray…” The book’s references to Dante are condensed largely in its third section, where the staggered triplets invoke terza rima and the narrative they unravel mirrors, in many respects, the journey Dante takes through the underworld. Reddy’s own path, if that is what is depicted here, becomes surreal and Dali-esque, as absurd and contradictory as one might expect a foray into the annals and bowels of history to be. The two narratives gyrate away from and toward each other, and seem to intersect vividly in a few segments, such as this one, which recalls Dante’s impressions of being herded through hell’s tunnels:

It was rather haunting—
the gate of shadows,
the path unlit,

and ahead,
also dark,
an abandoned fortress.

Carried along by the crowd,
our way lit by flashlights
through dim corridors,

I said Citizens,
                 no         no.
Ahead, a door opened.

The already-implicitly-political allegory is made even more so by the inclusion of “Citizens, /no  no”—the interjection of political terminology into a mythological tale. By addressing Dante and the Inferno, another plane of meaning is introduced into Voyager: the political implications of appropriating someone else’s story as one’s own. This raises questions of how much individual authors can be said to “own” the narratives that they write, or even the idiosyncratic details of those narratives; Voyager would seem to be borrowing both structure and props from one of the most (if not the most) significant poem of the last millennium. If this is actually what the book is doing, then its statement is brash: nothing, really, can be said to be “off limits,” whether it be the polished speech of a public figure or a well-guarded gem of the canon. Putting aside these hypotheticals about authorship, however, it’s easy to see how an allegory of the Inferno would be both relevant and beneficial to an erasure of Waldheim’s memoirs. Both Reddy and the spacecrafts named Voyager (and, one might argue, Waldheim himself, blameworthy or blameless as he may be) are moving through the silence of the infinite that manifests itself as darkness in outer space or as unwritten—nay, erased—text in the records of history. And it is such a revolutionary, tenuous expedition that to draw parallels between it and Dante’s odyssey through hell with Virgil might not be too far-fetched.

In any case, Voyager contains so many valences it ultimately seems less oriented toward the development of usable theses about politics, language, and history (though its methodology, as I have argued somewhat here, could easily be taken to imply certain theses) than toward the articulation of potential paths through that infinite silence, paths through Hades which might come out in purgatory or, at best, paradise. It does entertain theses at times, especially ones that might be employed in a justified polemic against Waldheim: “Wherever possible alleviate the misery of others” appears near the end of Book I, a basic ethical command but one that is troubled by the speaker’s declaration that he or she does not “wish to judge here the person of Dr. Waldheim.” The third book’s terza rima is variously interrupted by moments of erasure that are not compressed after the fact to make “legible,” presentable lines; these moments of erasure, as with the erasures of Ronald Johnson and Janet Holmes, retain the spatial aspects of the source text. In them, we are told of an “[Assembly / of the globe], of a figure who “points / to / a text / under / the / world].” That Voyager is a process of uncovering the dead who do not “cease in the grave” is made even more apparent by the book’s Epilogue, which appears, fittingly, thrice. In each section the same selection from In the Eye of the Storm is reproduced. The words that Reddy “erased” are allowed a ghostly existence here as gray-colored, struck-through text while the words constituent of Voyager stand in black type; it is here that Reddy’s text seems at most a revelation, a resuscitation of meaning from a memoir that means to smother it. “The / silent / alone / lie / United,” the first of these epilogues concludes, echoing the end of Book I and reinforcing, again, the idea that the artifice of each history, no matter how persuasive it may be, will never subdue the gravity that those subdued by it retain: an objective truth beyond the realm of the editable.

While Voyager charts a meditative vector through the plurality of all possible interpretations, other texts lean more toward the mode of discourse favored by the indictment and the invective. While Travis Macdonald’s 2008 collection The O Mission Repo—subtitled a Repo of the o mission error Attacks on Unit, or the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States treated with erasure—can’t, like Voyager, be said to put forth any hard-and-fast positions or stipulations regarding political speech or the media flurry around 9/11 in general, its title foregrounds it as a space for discovery: in the national (and perhaps international) narrative surrounding the events of September 11, 2011, there is a hole, an omission that needs to either be filled in or excavated; there is also a “repo,” a repossession of cultural or geographical territory lost or falsely claimed. Its subtitle, too, indicates an attitude toward pre-existing narratives and entities as purported wholes, as “units,” a word derived from the phrase “United States” in Macdonald’s case. Akin to Reddy, Macdonald’s book proceeds in segments, with different techniques of erasure prevailing in different sections in order to undo the shell protecting and obscuring the mechanical configurations at work behind the perimeters of those “units,” whether they be nations or newspaper articles. A long history of redaction, government and otherwise, is both precursor and predicate to The O Mission Repo and other texts that lend struck-through texts political weight: Bob Brown’s Gems, for instance (erasures of Victorian-era poems), or Jenny Holzer’s artistic redactions. In the book’s “CON           S,” page—its “contents” page—Macdonald outlines, via representation, the various approaches that the segments of the book will take: in the preface, blackout is the preferred method of erasure; in the second, strikethrough; in the third, a blurring of the text that’s targeted for exclusion; in the fourth, erasure á la Johnson or Holmes is executed, and the spatial arrangement of the original text is preserved while erased words are obliterated; in the fifth, the methodology of the fourth is adopted, but the words are made into a kind of music via their juxtaposition against a musical score, replete with treble and bass clefs. While the text as a whole wanders, all of this wandering takes place within the specific scope delineated by the title and by the opening salvo of the first section, which establishes a voice for the words allowed to remain:

We present the narrative of this report and the recommendations that flow from it to the President of the United States, the United States Congress, and the America n people for their consideration. Ten Commissioners—five Republicans and five Democrats chosen by elected leaders from our nation’s capital at a time of great partisan division—have come together to present this repo rt without dissent.

We have come together with a unity of purpose because our nation demands it. September 11, 2001, was a day of unprecedented shock and suffering in the history of the United States. The nation was unprepared. How did this happen, and how can we avoid such tragedy again?

To answer these questions, the Congress and the President created the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (Public Law 107-306, November 27, 2002).

Our mandate was sweeping. The law directed us to investigate “facts and circumstances relating to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001,” including those relating to intelligence agencies, law enforcement agencies, diplomacy, immigration issues and border control, the flow of assets to terrorist organizations, commercial aviation, the role of congressional oversight and resource allocation, and other areas determined relevant by the Commission.

In pursuing our mandate, we have reviewed more than 2.5 million pages of documents and interviewed more than 1,200 individuals in ten countries. This included nearly every senior official from the current and previous administrations who had responsibility for topics covered in our mandate.

We have sought to be independent, impartial, thorough, and nonpartisan. From the outset, we have been committed to share as much of our investigation as we can with the American people. To that end, we held 19 days of hearings and took public testimony from 160 witnesses.

Underneath the effaced title of “REFACE,” which instantiates the project’s goal as not an effacement so much as a reconstruction, Macdonald construes the voice that speaks throughout so much of The 9/11 Commission Report as a “repossession” of a very particular history: a “history of the / how,” of a repurposed explanation that or may not be beholden to ideas of factualness and fairness. The notion that this voice has “been took” from the very beginning is this voice’s confession of being deceived, an act of claiming responsibility for suffering deception. That this happens at the “outset” of a book that so obviously depends on acts of interference with received materials means that this declaration could be entirely genuine or disingenuous; that we can’t easily discern which is it highlights one of the main concerns of The O Mission Repo—the reliability of any voice in the wake of an event that is itself an ongoing, uncontained chaos. The erased text invites readers into that chaos early on: “All / aboard / the morning / that America’s / ‘Fasten Seatbelt’ sign / turned / on.” Also like Reddy, Macdonald’s text produces its own set of symbols and motifs which it continually refers to—one of the most prominent being the word “opera,” derived, expectedly, from permutations of “operation,” a repetition that foreshadows the book’s use of musical scores in its last section. The word “opera” also evokes a grand, decadent, or highly artificial narrative: “Everything will be okay. If you / Just stay quiet / the / opera / thus / began,” reads one compiled sentence.

The O Mission Repo seems interested in parallelisms and resurgences, and the ways in which history can behave as a looped film: the third section, titled “ERRORISM EVOLVES,” begins, “In Chapter 2, we described a new kind of error / In this / chapter, we trace the parallel evolution of / Unit…,” sentences which triangulate the notions of terror, error, and the United States. There is also an elliptical comment on writing, and perhaps erasure itself, throughout the text. Comment is made on the potentially insidious impetus to write, or to erase: “At 9:34, / vice / pointed toward the Pen and / advanced the throttles…” Writing is also compared unfavorably to politics, and its potential for favoring “process / over purpose” brought out—but at the same time there is a flash of redemptive hope, “areas for / author to police / the torn / and limiting language” and maybe salvage something from its wreckage. A variety of productive confusions ensue. Macdonald leaves the diagrams of The 9/11 Commission Report that charted the trajectories of the hijacked planes intact, but deviates from the strikethrough he adopts in the first section to erase, by rendering white, the words beneath them; each “flight” thereby turns into a “light,” something to be guided by. And in the section titled “THE FOUND                ERROR,” where a picture of Osama bin Laden’s face (“face / a faith based / flammable / an explosive compound”) appears, it is blurred like the text around it—but not blurred to such a degree that it is unrecognizable. Macdonald’s usage of blur in this section of The O Mission Repo is brilliant precisely for this reason: it doesn’t make the physical characteristics of the text so foreign that they can’t be recognized as text, but it deprives the text of its ability to signify, much like disastrous events of international significance are so blatantly there while their there-ness allows us no entry, no access to the potentially endless or irresolvable meanings which we will attempt to assign them. In this section, a character, “Lad,” emerges—out of “bin Laden”—much like Bill Toge emerges in Tom Phillips’s A Humument. In “ERRORISM EVOLVES,” Macdonald’s habits of excerption change, too; longer phrases and even sentences poke up through the censored text. One part, which I might charge as being emblematic of the project as a whole, reads:

Speaking to the American Bar Association in July 1985, the President characterized terrorism as “an act of war” and declared: “There can be no place on earth left where it is safe for these monsters to rest, to train, or practice their cruel and deadly skills. We must act together, or unilaterally, if necessary to ensure that terrorists have no sanctuary—anywhere.” The air strikes against Libya were one manifestation of this strategy.

Through most of President Reagan’s second term, the coordination of counterterrorism was overseen by a high-level interagency committee chaired by the deputy national security adviser. But the Reagan administration closed with a major scandal that cast a cloud over the notion that the White House should guide counterterrorism.

President Reagan was concerned because Hezbollah was taking Americans hostage and periodically killing them. He was also constrained by a bill he signed into law that made it illegal to ship military aid to anticommunist Contra guerrillas in Nicaragua, whom he strongly supported. His national security adviser, Robert McFarlane, and McFarlane’s deputy,Admiral John Poindexter, thought the hostage problem might be solved and the U.S. position in the Mid­ dle East improved if the United States quietly negotiated with Iran about exchanging hostages for modest quantities of arms. Shultz and Weinberger, united for once, opposed McFarlane and Poindexter.

Error is both a theoretical imperfection and a deadly influence, as here it is painted as the purveyor of destruction—no doubt in a way that allows Macdonald to hark back to the questions about the bits of acquired intelligence the United States used as justification to begin its two most recent wars. This sense of history as being embedded with error, embedded with injustice, and needing correction is also a sense that runs through M. NourbeSe Philip’s watershed book Zong!—a gestalt of found text, erasure, re-appropriation, and spatial experiment that takes as its source text the legal decision Gregson v. Gilbert, which pertained to the murder of 150 Africans who were ordered to be thrown overboard by the captain of Zong, a slave ship, so that relevant parties could obtain a financial windfall by declaring the loss of human property to insurance companies and collecting compensation. The back cover of the work describes it as an “anti-narrative lament” that cultivates the “poetics of the fragment”—which is an intriguing description, because the project of Zong! seems to want to pull in two directions: that of the destruction of narrative as stated and the reconstruction of a correct narrative, which has sadly become an alternative to the mainstream one in which it has been erased. Zong! is, then, an erasure used to protest a larger, more metaphysical instance of erasure—much like Reddy’s Voyager erases Waldheim’s memoirs to examine what might be concealed there. The work’s prefacing pages indicate that it was “told to the author by Sataey Adamu Boateng,” Philip’s name for the ancestral spirit that facilitated her exploration of the text of Gregson v. Gilbert; it is, then, a collaborative investigation—as the epigraph to the third section of the book, “Ventus,” makes clear with a quote from Thomas More: “The poet is the detective and the detective a poet.” (That the poet is the detective while the detective is a poet seems to place a premium on the poet’s powers of inquiry.) The work moves through phases of tension with regard to authorship or responsibility; in the Acknowledgments section of Zong!, Philip writes that the collection is “apparently authored by one person” but thanks “the Ancestors for bestowing the responsibility of this work” on her. The “I” is a conduit, a receiver, a transcriber: but nothing that is transcribed through such a conduit is an identical mimeograph.

Zong! proceeds in a series of sections much like those of Voyager and The O Mission Repo—separated, that is, by differentiation in formal technique. Zong! begins with what looks like a series of numbered poems that resemble lineated avant-garde works; here, Philip preserves some of the syntax and sense of ordinary speech. Both the poem and the book move into and out of order on the level of the line and beyond; poems will entertain patterns of consistency just long enough to avoid rendering them gimmicks. For Philip, the language of Gregson v. Gilbert is pliable, and a certain amount of torqueing it will exorcise the repressed voices that live between its lines. Eventually, Philip more regularly decays the language into the level of the letter, the word, and the syllable; but for most of the first few portions of the book, some amount of bureaucratic comprehensibility remains. Take, for instance, “Zong! #26,” which starts out with a series of conditional attributions: “was the cause was the remedy was the record was the argument was the delay…” These attributions soon link back up to the first “cause,” which is itself a cause, giving insight into the circular nature of bureaucratic obfuscation: “…was the therefore was the this was the that was the negroes was the cause.” In “Zong! #12,” Philip stages the anaphora inherent in Gregson v. Gilbert against itself—stating a list of properties of some mysterious “it”:

is said

has been decided

was justified

appeared impossible

is not necessary

is another ground

need not be proved…

Soon after, the numbers disappear, leaving only the hash sign as if some evidence of a failed endeavor of numeration, of indexing. As Zong! proceeds, the words and phrases become more disjointed until even the smallest textual objects float across the page like a kind of smoke or water, navigating the amorphous surface of history. Like bureaucratic language that empties itself of meaning intentionally, Zong! empties words of their meaning this way and achieves a sort of purity in sound and sonic semaphores to replace it (even in the monosyllabic title); other modes of writing, like cursive, other names, and other languages “float” through the text. In “Ebora,” another one of the book’s sections, the text becomes such a flurry that lines are printed atop other lines, in some cases readable but in others not; this way, they become a sort of ash, a remnant of both text and the semantic load it carries, unable to fully be either. Phillips begins “Notanda” with the statement, “There is no telling this story; it must be told,” and the notion of telling the untellable figures greatly into her discussion of her process. She observes how poetry and law are both concerned with “precision of expression”; she expresses how she aimed to unlock the stories of those slaves murdered by Captain Luke Collingwood, which were earlier locked “in the many silences within the Silence of the text.” But she continues her series of qualifying negations, writing that Zong! “is a story that can only be told by not telling, and how am I to not tell the story has to be told.” In other words, the process must be made clear. In this section, Philip writes of the struggle “to avoid imposing meaning,” and claims that the pieces she likes best “are those where the poem escapes the net of complete understanding—where the poem is shot through with glimmers of meaning.” For Philip, the particular and persistent meaning of Zong! is that which is told via a sequence of negations, and so the deconstruction of language—which Philip notes her distrust for—especially legal language, with its pretension to rationality, is her apparatus of choice. But as an erasurist, she writes, she is both “censor and magician”: one who must act, as she writes, as the fulcrum through which the fugues of creation (in the poem; repetition with the purpose of establishing a new history) and the fugues of memory (lapses or loss of awareness of identity) meet.

Like the other political erasures I’ve looked at in this post, Zong! is also an inventory—Philip reproduces Gregson v. Gilbert in its pitifully brief entirety in the back of the book, and also tracks the languages and terms that appear throughout. Voyager and The O Mission Repo, too, serve as monuments, even if they are also forms of textual sculpture: they bracket a question or group of questions for examination, and while they might not find easy solutions, they at least establish the grounds on which their inquiries can be made. They delegitimize the notion of the text as unable to be physically altered in the service of its meaning and in turn legitimize such confrontational techniques as potential openings into those questions. Both Zong! and Voyager import an additional kind of citation into the text: that of the epigraph, an “objective” sampling that which is also amputated from its larger source and origin. In Zong!, the section “Ratio” is prefaced with a quote from Paul Célan: “No one bears witness for the witness.” No one does, and so the task of telling that which, á la Philip, cannot be told leaves the teller bare and susceptible to risk. But there may be a justice in the telling, one that eventually surmounts the uncertainties inherent in the act of ever setting down an “I”-voice on paper, or assuming another’s voice as one’s own. The phenomena is rampant, and ranges from what might be read as a reference to Eliot’s The Waste Land in Voyager—“I could not accept / that they were so many” versus “I had not thought death had undone so many”—to the poem “The Second Inaugural” from Barbara Claire Freeman’s recent book Incivilities, which incorporates text from George Washington’s inaugural speeches. No matter how much they try, however, neither erasures nor the texts they erase can escape their genealogies; each is a pinpoint in a traceable if difficult-to-trace lineage. Nowhere is the more striking, perhaps, than in the epigraph to Voyager, an excerpt from Canto 12 of the Purgatorio: Morti li morti e i vivi parean vivi, or, as W.S. Merwin translates it in his 2001 edition of the poem, “The dead looked dead and the living seemed alive.” But Reddy treats the text thusly: Morti li morti e i vivi parean vivi. “The dead seemed alive”—or they are already alive, he reminds us, because they do not cease to speak once interred, and because we, often rightfully, never let them rest.