Fugue it!

Hello fellow classmates! I hope you all enjoyed reading parts of Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip! There is so much to dissect here, but what I found intriguing and also quite engaging was Philip’s use of fugue. So, if you all don’t mind, I’m going to hash out all the ideas I have here.

Fugue is typically seen in a musical sense, which is fitting because Philip sees Zong!’s structure as “…more towards the lyric and less towards language” (197). She uses fugue as “…a frame through which I could understand Zong!” (204). For a while she wrestles with the poems as a whole, saying that there are in fact two poems at play here, “… the one I want to write and the one writing itself” (192).

First, I would like you all to re-read and compare poems Zong! #1 (3-4) and Zong! #5 (8-13), to Zong! #8 (16) and #9 (17). How did you read them? Did you use the same voice throughout, or a different voice? Did you notice any repetitiveness or common themes? This is essentially fugue, defined by The English Oxford Dictionary as “a contrapuntal composition in which a melody or phrase (the subject) is introduced by one part and successively taken up by others and developed by interweaving the parts”, and also “a loss of awareness of one’s identity… associated with certain forms of hysteria and epilepsy” (“fugue,” [English Oxford Dictionary]).

*Here is an example of a birthday fugue, if you’re like me and need extra help understanding the definition! *

Both definitions of fugue are utilized by Philip to place the reader on the Zong during those long, cruel weeks with little to no water, and of course the slaughter of 150 slaves. She appeals to our sense of hearing, and by arranging her poems in this way, gives up snippets of what one might have heard on the Zong: moans, cries, and chants from the enslaved (3), as well as the cold calculative voices of those who doomed them (5). Sometimes, these even occur on the same page (9). There is a feeling of mass hysteria, and loss of individuality. Most likely, many of the slaves could not understand each other because of the many different African languages. Even more likely is that they could not understand the crew’s command to be thrown overboard and sentenced to death by drowning, adding to the hysteria effect. They are no longer Bantu, Ibo or Yoruba; now they are just humans fighting for “…sustenance…” (5,9,11,12, 17) and “…preservation…” (6). We could even venture to suppose that the poems she wanted to write was the voice “…of someone who appears to be white, male, and European” (204), but the poem that seemingly wrote itself were the voices of the slaves.

In this video, if you skip to minute 20 you will get to see Philip preforming Zong! #5, and I believe about five minutes in she switches to another part in the book that I have yet to find. However, I think it’s a commanding visual, and you can also hear the different voices I discussed earlier.

Here is another live reading, much different than the video above. What voice/s do you hear in this reading?

Some questions to consider:

  1. How is this book an anti-narrative? (please give specific examples or page numbers!)
  2. How did your inner voice read the poems, more like the first video of Philip or the second? Which do you prefer?
  3. Did you read the poems in a non-linear way? And if so, how did it change your interpretation, if at all?

Works Cited

“Fugue” def. N 1.2 Oxford English Dictionary, 2019, en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/fugue. Accessed 8 April 2019.

Philip, Marlene Nourbese. Zong! Wesleyan University Press, 2011.

*Also, sorry for the formatting, this was copied/pasted from Word because I found it easier, I know there’s an issue with formatting of my first work cited, I can’t figure out how to fix it!*

7 thoughts on “Fugue it!”

  1. Paige, thank you so much for your insightful interpretation of Zong! I really appreciate the inclusion of the author reading her work. Like you, I found it especially interesting how her persona changed between the two videos. I think this book can be treated as more of a theatrical piece than a work of poetry. NourbeSe Philip’s inflections between readings give off different tones that I found compelling: the first had a mournful and sorrowful tone while the second one seemed to hold a factual tone.

    To answer your second question, my inner voice mimicked the second video while reading the poems. I’m not sure which voice I would prefer. I feel that both have their merits; the second video allows the audience to savor and focus on the story while the first one encourages the audience to savor and experience the emotion of Zong!. I hope this answers your question!

  2. Hi Paige, I thought this post was really interesting and gave me a different outlook on the poems! I never considered the idea of differing voices and tones but the fact that you mentioned it makes a lot of sense! The suggestion that this book is anti-narrative is very intriguing with the fact that there seems to be a lot more interpretation as you begin to realize the different speakers and diction that is scattered throughout the page. In Zong #1, the repetition of words and the disorganized letters and words further prove that the story can’t truly be told because of the horrific situation that is occurring. I read the poems in one voice because most of what I have encountered almost always have one speaker, unless clearly specified by quotations or italics. It was interesting to see Philip utilize this as the significance is to force the audience to feel a pain for the victims. By the way, the videos were very helpful and a great tool to emphasize your argument!

  3. Paige, I really enjoy the concept of fugue discussed and how you dissected it! In addition to the musical fugue, the fugue state of mind is also synonymous to the actions that are reflected in these works. “Referring to a state of amnesia in which the individual, his or her subjectivity having been destroyed, becomes alienated from him-or herself” (204). I feel like this concept is completely applicable being that the slaves lose their sense of self and really do feel as though they can’t recall who they are in the end. The book reflected this idea beautifully.

    In response to your second question, I definitely read the poems similarly to the second video, lacking more emotion and more so just reading it with the timing in between. I feel the first video has a stronger presentation of what the poet intended. Although the second reading was more simple and less dramatized, it still evokes emotion which is what is so interesting. I don’t believe there is “better” reading, for each has its positive aspects, both still connoting the feelings of pain and hurt. I don’t really have a preference of which reading I liked more; the first reading grabs the audience which volume and diction, but the silence and stillness of the second one also entices the audience.

  4. Hi Paige!
    I really appreciate your insightful and very elaborative interpretation of “Zong!”. Your ideas really helped me gain a better understanding of fugue.

    And in response to your second question of which way I read the poem, either the first speaker or the second. Originally I didn’t read it like either. At first, I found myself reading the poem quite fast, similar to how I would read a novel or another piece of literature. I was unsure of the flow of the poem whether I should read it in a certain way, for emphasis, or simply just read it the best way I would understand it. However, after I listened to both readings, I re-read the poem as well. I used the style of the second reader, I felt a better understanding of the poem as I listened to her read it aloud with her emphasis on certain phrases I noticed which part was of most importance. For example, in poem number three, the first lines are extremely powerful with their harsh language an overall placement. And after listening to a reading of this poem, the reader put a great amount of emphasis on “exist did not in themselves”. he reading of this poem was very similar to that of the second reader with her technique of breaking up each line, and her fluctuation of speed. Hearing Philip read the lines in poem in the second video, helped me gain the mood of the poem, which helped me be fully submerged in the words as well as what these people felt. Philip read the poem in such a profound way that it was hard to stop listening and thats why I really preferred this reading over the first. Overall, from listening to both these readings my conclusion would be that the words on the page are just as important as the way we say them, giving meaning to simple phrases that may have otherwise just been skipped over.

  5. Hi Paige, what an excellent blog post! Your interpretation and analysis of Zong! really helped me better understand the text. When I attempted to read it the first few times, I did try to read in a non-linear way to see if that was more helpful. In “Zong! #9,” for example, I read the left column first and then the right column. I don’t think it’s helpful to read all of them like this (or at least it didn’t help my interpretation) but I found that some of the most important context was on the left side. The words “destroyed,” “subject,” “creature,” were just a few of the ones that stood out. The context on the right, if you were to read it linearly, are given more meaning; however I think while reading it non-traditionally, more is revealed. I’m not quite sure what exactly, and I suppose we’ll break it down better in class. The way the words were placed in columns felt like two opposite sides on a ship, and people are jumping left and right. It didn’t feel orderly (and neither did the other Zongs!) rather it came off as panic and broken sentences. As if people were jumping mid-sentence. I did read this as the actual passengers jumping off, but I also read this as if it were a “white, male, European” observing the event. I hope this made sense!

  6. How is this book an anti-narrative? (please give specific examples or page numbers!)
    How did your inner voice read the poems, more like the first video of Philip or the second? Which do you prefer?
    Did you read the poems in a non-linear way? And if so, how did it change your interpretation, if at all?

    Hi Paige! Your insight on the poems is something I appreciate as it was definitely interesting! For this story, it is an anti-narrative because it is completely all over the place but organized at the same time. At first, it took me a minute to catch on. But reading them in different ways like in Zong #5, the words “water, dead, sea, months, etc..” none of them go together if you just read it. But, it seems as though Philip is having the reader interpret it in the way they would like to.

    My inner voice while reading the poems was telling me “what are you reading and how are you going to process this?” But, I read it more like the second video. The first video seemed as though it was understood compared to the second one.

    I read the poems in a lot of different ways, actually tried connecting the dots in Zong #1 to see if there would be some kind of image involved. But I tried reading them vertically and horizontally. I appreciated how random the words were and how much it took to interpret.

    1. Hi Paige! Your insight on the poems is something I appreciate as it was definitely interesting! For this story, it is an anti-narrative because it is completely all over the place but organized at the same time. At first, it took me a minute to catch on. But reading them in different ways like in Zong #5, the words “water, dead, sea, months, etc..” none of them go together if you just read it. But, it seems as though Philip is having the reader interpret it in the way they would like to.
      My inner voice while reading the poems was telling me “what are you reading and how are you going to process this?” But, I read it more like the second video. The first video seemed as though it was understood compared to the second one.
      I read the poems in a lot of different ways, actually tried connecting the dots in Zong #1 to see if there would be some kind of image involved. But I tried reading them vertically and horizontally. I appreciated how random the words were and how much it took to interpret.

      Sorry, format in the previous one was incorrect!

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