It took me some seven years to clear my writing of the imprint of legal diction. One could argue that the stiff, formalized, even dead, language of the law is in direct proportion to the potentially adversarial, explosive, and often acrimonious disputes that are stuff of human interactions. Legal language and diction is dry and formulaic, filled with whereas’es and wherefore’s; it is a language of shalls and wills—language that compels. But the law is also magical in its ability to create substance where there was none before—a contract, for instance, engenders a network relationships where none existed; it can also erase materiality such that being, the African person, becomes a non-being—a thing to be bought and sold. And legal diction can work as spells do, conjuring a host of possibilities as in “We hold these truths to be self-evident...”
Interestingly, the two books of poems I wrote while I practised law, Thorns and Salmon Courage, were deeply lyrical. She Tries Her Tongue; Her Silence Softly Breaks, published a few years after leaving law represents a profound break with the lyric and it does so through the use of legal diction, albeit legal diction that is being challenged and in tension with something not quite yet realized. The central poem, Discourse on Logic of Language, whose title itself advertises an engagement with the issue of reason and logic can be considered a form of pleading, in the legal sense, whose task is to outline the case of the plaintiff or the defendant, usually in a formal submission before the court.
The diction of the centre section or movement of the poem is spare and the central refrain— “English is my mother tongue” can be read as a sort of chant in the lyric mode which contradictorily appears rooted in syllogistic and deductive reasoning: English/ is my mother tongue./A mother tongue is not/not a foreign lan lan lang/language/l/anguish/anguish/—a foreign anguish./ English is/my father tongue,/A father tongue is/a foreign language,/therefore English is/a foreign language/not a mother tongue. This refrain alternates with the question—“what is my mother tongue”. The centre section is the crux of the pleading not only in the legal sense, but in the ordinary sense of the word. The form on the page echoes the adversarial system: on the right side of this plea, you have the cold, indifferent language of the law represented through the Edicts and on the left, the woman’s story which will continue through her blowing words into her newborn baby daughter’s mouth. This story is told through the plain, unadorned diction of story telling and appears an ephemeral counter to the hard, unyielding quality of the law, which continues over two pages. The first recto page continues the scientific language and diction about the brain and how speech takes place; the second and final recto page concludes with a series of multiple choice questions, again continuing the diction and language of logic and reason.
I was not conscious that I was exploring this idea of competing dictions in this poem when I wrote it some 32 years ago, or even setting it up as a pleading and an exercise and performance of a legal argument, especially given that I was trying to cleanse myself of legal thought, language and diction. Formal concerns are always at issue for me, and I was far more conscious at that time of the formal constraints of the poem, ensuring for instance, that the woman’s story require an effort on the part of the reader to turn the page to be able to read it, rather than the issues of diction. That issue would, however, become central in Zong! as the legal text is forced to jettison its formulaic diction for an alternate form of speech, and what was unrealized in She Tries...would manifest itself in that later work.
M. NourbeSe Philip is a Canadian poet, novelist, playwright, essayist and short story writer. Philip is the author of four books of poetry: Thorns (1980); Salmon Courage (1983); She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks(1989), which was awarded the Casa de las Américas Prize for Literature while still in manuscript form; and Zong! (2008). She has written two novels, Harriet’s Daughter (1988) and Looking for Livingstone: An Odyssey of Silence (1991), and five books of collected essays, Frontiers: Essays and Writings on Racism and Culture (1992), Showing Grit: Showboating North of the 44th Parallel (1993), Caribana: African Roots and Continuities – Race, Space and the Poetics of Moving (1996), Genealogy of Resistance and Other Essays (1997), and Blank: Essays and Interviews(2017). She has also published three plays, Coups and Calypsos (1999), The Redemption of Al Bumen (1993), and Harriet’s Daughter (2000). Born in Tobago, Philip received her undergraduate degree from the University of the West Indies and holds graduate degrees in political science and law from the University of Western Ontario.