Documentary Poetry in the Gaps and Silences
“I want poetry to disassemble the order, to create disorder and mayhem,” writes M. NourbeSe Philip in her afterword to Zong!, “so as to release the story that cannot be told, but which, through not-telling, will tell itself.” The source text of the preceding documentary poetic work is Gregson v. Gilbert, a legal document containing the court’s decision regarding the massacre aboard the late 18th-century slave ship, the Zong, from which 150 slaves, of course considered private property, were jettisoned so the ship’s owners could collect the insurance money. Philips reenacts this historical violence in her work: “I mutilate the text…I murder the text,” she writes. The result is an open field poetry in which words appear as if gouged in a recurring wave of negative space. “She treats each page as a field, a canvas—more accurately the sea,” writes Tyrone Williams. “The visual effect of viewing so many de-worded letters, de-sentenced words, is astonishing; one seems to be looking at bodies in the ocean” Shards of language move in every direction, disorienting us; our reading experience becomes painful. As we attempt to recover a narrative from Philip’s poetic tempest, we are able to reflect on the unimaginable pain experienced by the slaves aboard the Zong. From the poem “Ferrum”:
It’s difficult to reproduce the effect of these lines as they appear in the book, but here we encounter the mutilation and murder Philip intends. A human skeleton stretches across the page. Our horror is amplified by the realization that it isn’t a single body but 150 bodies, the bones of the murdered slaves mingling together. As Philip writes: “[Our] eyes skimming the text for phrases, words, feelings, as one would cast one’s eyes over the sea looking from bodies—so much flotsam and jetsam.” Human beings have been reduced to objects. As the language enacts their dismemberment, we’re swept into the sinkhole of the Zong’s long historical silence. Here we encounter “the facts / a / gape,” which testify with awe and chasmic horror to the story’s untelling. As Giorgio Agamben writes: “[T]estimony is the disjunction between two impossibilities of bearing witness; it means that language, in order to bear witness, must give way to a non-language in order to show the impossibility of bearing witness.” Philips does this by employing, as she writes, “the language of grunt and groan, of moan and stutter…this language of pure sound fragmented and broken by history.” Within the syntactic squall of her poetic investigation, by making available to the reader endless routes through the cut and splice of appropriated legal discourse, Philip refuses a totalizing narrative of the massacre. Flashes of the plot emerge, however, as dialectical images calling into the gap between representation and the past it addresses: “[I]mage,” Walter Benjamin writes,” is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation.” “[S]uddenly emergent,” this image is “blasted out of the continuum of historical succession.” In other words, this image, rather than creating a definite relation of past events to present, like Philip’s text, instead disorients and disrupts. It builds as it dismantles frameworks for historical understanding. “To articulate the past historically,” Benjamin writes in “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” “does not mean to recognize it “the way it really was”.” Instead, we identify an image as it flares up at “a moment of danger.” This danger overthrows ideology and politics on behalf of “a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past.” This is what Philip accomplishes in Zong! In her work, as she writes: “I am forced to make meaning from apparently disparate elements–in doing so I implicate myself.” Because Philip does not believe the Zong atrocity can be comprehended. Because it exists outside of language, we encounter in the text the failure of history as well as our failure to know and understand what transpired aboard the ship. By thus complicating the “the” of history, Philip strains the historical gaze. Even so, by radically refusing closure, the text impels us to “make sense” of what happened on the Zong. A fractured narrative glares back at us through the linguistic maelstrom Philip creates. Forcing us to look the massacre squarely in the face, so to speak, and, at the same time, confront the way in which we are actively shaping our view of it, we see our seeing. We therefore implicate ourselves in a past that destabilizes our present by compelling us to encounter it both as the historical and as history; we must take responsibility (or at the very least acknowledge) the implications of this vision on that former world and all those to come, which converge in our reading. The poetry’s diverging and indeterminate possibilities lead us into a series of dangerous moments in which image and vision become metatexts troubled (and troubling) as they are placed into new focus.
In “Report,” a documentary poetic work from Caroline Bergvall’s Drift, we’re implicated in a somewhat different fashion. Here Bergvall revisits the 2011 case of the Left-to-Die-Boat in which “72 migrants had been left to perish on their way from Tripoli to Lampedusa in full view of a number of patrolling vessels.” Using as a source a forensic document, “Report on the ‘Left-to-Die Boat,” and an interview on the case, the narrative proceeds in short bursts of facts and survivor’s testimony. Bergvall’s spare prose paragraphs recount the events in a seemingly straightforward manner. As examples:
Witnesses state it bore the English writing ARMY or RESCUE ARMY.”
“When they resumed movement the migrants tried to approach some fishermen around them to ask for help.
When the fishermen saw the migrants arriving, they drew in their nets and sailed away swiftly.”
But the inquiry Bergvall presents is extended by the silences between paragraphs. Our thoughts are pulled toward questions addressing what the story doesn’t tell: Did the fishermen ignore the migrants so as not to jeopardize their daily haul? Did they fear becoming the focus of an international incident? The helicopter mentioned above soon leaves: What country or organization did it represent? Can we believe the witnesses’ testimony here? Did that helicopter, too, ignore the craft so as to avoid the political consequences of such an intervention? Or were the people aboard too inconsequential to bother with, their suffering considered a mere side effect of international politics?
These narrative aporia presents the reader with “a moment of danger” that pushes against the grain of history. By generating such lines of inquiry within her silences, Bergvall makes the invisibility of the refugees excruciatingly visible, calling to our attention the very thing the victims were denied, their personhood. She allows us to see, as well, that these refugees were not merely adrift on an unforgiving ocean. The tragedy was not merely the result of decisions made by the pilots who chose (or were ordered) to leave the migrants stranded. It was, indeed, historical, a constellation of economic, social, and cultural violence (civil war, economic strife, religious division, racism, etc.) that lead their cruel abandonment, a reading which appears to be echoed visually by the images that follows the text of “Report.” Here we find visual works constructed from data (digital and geospatial maps, radar imagery, and draft modeling) pertaining to the case. These images reconstruct the migrants’ wayward journey, “lift[ing] the inscription of their sailing pixel by pixel from the fog of incessant newsrush and quick apparitions and swift forgetting.” They appear like faded signals, twisted routes, overlaid zodiac maps colliding against one other. As in Zong!, we peruse them for a discernable pattern but can find none. They enact the dire uncertainty and chaos of the migrants’ journey. Thus we can’t hope to “make sense” of this tragedy. In these images, the time of their tragic voyage collapsed into a series of irresolvable forms, we encounter a kind of visual testimony which eludes the story it represents. With each word, each gaze, each entry, we’re drawn closer to the migrants’ experience and pushed further out to narrative sea.
“My role,” says Bergvall of her live performance of “Drift,” “will be to shorten the narrative and relay the report’s complex piece of memorialization, interpretation and investigation through live recitation.” Recitation, she writes, becomes “a resonating chamber, a ripple effect. Everything is connected in the vast chamber of the world, beyond the callous brutal politics.” For Bergvall, it seems, art brings into focus our interconnection with the world and fellow humans. While this interconnection doesn’t allow us to transcend politics, we are able to encounter as literary experience their consequences and proof. To put it differently, in her work we are given space and time to see, feel, and consider our relationship to the other as well as the terms of our humanity. As in Charles Reznikoff’s Holocaust, for example, which appropriates testimony from the Nuremberg trials, Bergvall, by stripping the Left-To-Die-Boat case to its bare plot, universalizes the story of these refugees and allows us to examine our relationship to it in personal and political terms. Our gaze thus turns simultaneously inward and outward, becoming both social and self-examination. Bergvall’s hope for such a work, it appears, is that it may realize itself in the reader as compassion and awareness. In other words, love: “Love as the motivation and driver of art,” she writes. “Love as the transformative driver of more life. Art as a process of shared life. As a process of love acquisition.” (164) But love is a morphological abyss adrift within itself. If we trace its etymology, we find the Old English lufen: hope. Old High German liobōn: to desire. Sanskrit lubh: to be confused. Perhaps, then, it’s more journey than destination. More question than answer: Is it possible, therefore, to understand history as a form of love which joins our confusion and desire? Are poetic indeterminacy and empathy the same? Is love, in other words, locus or vortex? Music or cacophony? Hope or remembrance? In Bergvall’s “Report” and Philip’s Zong!, the answer is language as echolocation device searching its own vastness for Benjamin’s North pole, the deviation that determines the course. Making audible silent or silenced voices, these works engage us in a process of linguistic inquiry moving between the past and the language of the past. In which narrative rift become the story told and not. Like love, history is created in our image. In these important documentary poetic works, we are gathered deeply into this reflection, the self’s endless and inexorable migration toward the history of the future.
Adam Fagin’s recent chapbook is THE SKY IS A HOWLING WILDERNESS BUT IT CAN’T HOWL WITH HEAVEN (Called Back Books 2016). His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in New American Writing, Colorado Review, Boston Review, The Seattle Review, Volt, Fence, and many other journals. He is working on a book of lyric essays about family, home, the intersection of personal and public history, and Cotopaxi, an abandoned 19th-century Jewish agricultural colony.