M. NourbeSe Philip, She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks

(Wesleyan University Press, 2015)

I’ve been re-reading She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks, M. NourbeSe Philip’s lyric work from the late 1980s that is now back in print. Philip’s poems are profoundly attuned to the ways language—slipping like an old machine between “anguish” and “English”—has been deployed to discipline, to capitalize, and to exploit. But they also provide evidence that words can, with an equal and opposing force, interrogate the ongoing effects of the violence with which they are complicit, and affirm emerging patterns of relation.

Something is being tried, something breaking. The tongues of some people are always on trial, and silence breaks into both positive and negative space. In this “trying” of the voice, I hear the groundwork of what would become Philip’s later work, Zong!, a powerful poetic interrogation of the legal record pertaining to a slave ship, a work that proceeds directly through the trying, breaking, and sounding of words. A similar practice informs later texts and performances, including an extraordinarily beautiful recent collaboration with Omar Berrada.

Don’t miss Philip’s afterword, “The Absence of Writing or How I Almost Became a Spy,” which tracks the emergence of poetry out of conditions of observation and vigilance. At a time when the power of precedence—legal, linguistic, political—is relentlessly called into question, the implications of language being tried (experimented with, tested, held accountable) are profoundly compelling. These are poems of an ongoing practice: “lessons for the voice” in which to “adorn the word with meaning” and “mourn the meaning in loss.”


Elizabeth Willis