Comparative Literature
Emma Montgomery

Lost Histories

Limits of the Archive

  • Faculty Advisor

    Tristram Wolff

Published On

July 2018

Originally Published

NURJ 2017-18
Honors Thesis

“Memory that yearns to join the centre, a limb remembering the body from which it has been severed, like those bamboo thighs of the god.” [1] –– Derek Walcott

“Our entrance to the past is through memory. And water. It is happening always—repeating always, the repetition becoming a haunting.” [2] –– M. NourbeSe Philip

“Of course, the ultimate archive for me, is black memory. Of course.” [3] –– Robin Coste Lewis

1. Paula Burnett, Derek Walcott: politics and poetics, University Press of Florida, 2000.

2. M. NourbeSe Philip, Zong!, (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press), 2008: 203.

3. Robin Coste Lewis, “Robin Coste Lewis: ‘Black Joy is My Primary Aesthetic,” Interview by Claire Schwartz, Literary Hub, November 14, 2016.  

As M. NourbeSe Philip’s quote highlights, our “entrance to the past” is a constant process where memory opens the door to earlier histories, be they individual, familial, collective or cultural. The relationship she suggests between memory and water both emphasizes the constant, fluid, and wave-like patterns through which memory enters individual consciousness, and grounds the particular memory she discusses in the ocean it inhabits. For Philip, that entrance is a haunting; each wave that crashes ashore brings with it remnants of the last one. The repetition ensures that throughout time and across generations, traces of the same memory are brought forth. This process is both metaphorical and literal; the particular memory at stake is Robin Coste Lewis’ “ultimate archive,” black memory.

Water is a key symbol in theory and literature of black and African Diaspora studies, where a primary aim is expanding and filling gaps in the existing archive. For Paul Gilroy, the slave ship is symbolic of the points connecting the black Atlantic diaspora. [4] The present and history are linked to the ocean as both a site of pain, rupture, violent dislocation, and of connection to an ancestral home. Lewis and Philip are both contemporary poets of the black Diaspora, whose writing calls to submerged histories by engaging with memory and archival silences. Their quotes suggest considering both water and black memory as an “archive,” challenging the prevailing definition of the archive and its limitations.

4. Paul Gilroy, The black Atlantic: Modernity and double consciousness. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), 16.

Considerable academic research, across a wide range of disciplines, has explored the concept of the “archive” and its ability to shape our understanding of both the past and future. Jacques Derrida’s Archive Fever is one of the dominant theorizations of the concept, and has contributed to widespread recognition and interrogation of the archive. Derrida traces the etymology of the word itself to the Greek root arkhē, meaning both “commencement”, according to nature and history, and “commandment”, according to law. [5] Commencement refers to the physical or historical sense, which can be captured in the physicality of the archive as an “accumulation of memory on some substrate and in an exterior place.” [6] Yet, still hidden in the double meaning is the reference to “commandment,” or the rule of law at work in the creation of the archive. This second meaning is traceable to the Greek arkheion, or the residence of “the superior magistrates, the archons, those who commanded.” This reveals the concept’s connections to political power. For Derrida, political power [7] cannot exist without control of the archive, or even of memory itself. [8] Memory and water, the poets’ entrances to the past, are thus separate from Derrida’s conception of the archive. Derrida’s archive requires an inscription onto an exterior, while both memory and water are fluid and intangible, in contrast to the supposed reliability and stability of the archive that is represented through the image of the arkheion.   

5. Jacques Derrida, Archive fever: A Freudian impression, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 9.

6. Derrida, Archive fever, 15.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid., 11

The question of the archive for Derrida, is where this outside begins. The archive as a place marks the “institutional passage from the private sphere to the public sphere.” [9] In this passage, it takes on the nature of commandment, privileging certain information, and losing the essence of commencement. What is left is not memory at its origin, but a “vestige of origin.” [10] For Derrida, the “archive takes place at the place of originary and structural breakdown of the said memory.” [11] He acknowledges that the archive will never be memory as an “alive and internal experience.” [12] Furthermore, no archive would exist at all if it weren’t for the possibility of forgetting or repressing. From this destructive nature emerges the passion or drive for an archive. Archive fever is a result of these tensions between conservation and destruction, with the added consideration that what is preserved through the archive is only ever a trace of what was, inherently linked to exclusionary powers. Derrida’s analysis implicitly maintains a highly Eurocentric conception of what is considered part of the “archive.” The means of printing and recording are linked to cultural institutions at the exclusion of oral transmissions of history or cultural records preserved in non-European languages. It is precisely this exclusionary archive, however, that becomes the basis of the poetic experimentation at the core of this paper.

The exclusion is manifested countless times in the archive of the black Atlantic in the Middle Passage, where only traces of the original event are included, and often deliberately represented to justify the slave trade, and to negate the existence and humanity of those captured. It is from these limitations of the archive, illuminated by Derrida’s Archive Fever, that M. NourbeSe Philip and Robin Coste Lewis create poetry that speaks to the silences and gaps in the historical record. In the process of reaching closer to the “origin,” or the original event before its recording, each poet gives voice to what –– or who –– is silenced in the institutional passage that leaves only a trace on the “exterior,” physical location of the archive.

9. Robert Vosloo, “Archiving otherwise: some remarks on memory and historical responsibility,” Studia Historiae Ecclesiasticae, Oct/Okt 2005, Vol XXXI, No/Nr 2: 379-399.

10. Ibid.

11. Derrida, Archive fever, 14.

12. Ibid, 14.

These silences are particularly evident in the history of the 1781 Zong Massacre of some 150 slaves aboard the Dutch ship of that name. This event is the basis of Philip’s 2008 book, Zong!. The existing archive of the massacre justifies the killing in legal terms, without witness or even record of the names of those thrown overboard. Philip includes a reflective essay section at the end of Zong!, in which she expresses her desire to “tell the story that cannot be told.” [13] Philip stretches and dismantles the logic of the legal text that constitutes her archive, giving space and voice to the silences that result from erasure and violent censorship. Eventually she breaks language altogether, resulting in utterance, chant, and song that “tell” what “cannot be told” by gesturing towards the voices of the drowned slaves.

Lewis’ Voyage of the Sable Venus also attempts to tell “the story that can only be told by not telling,” particularly in its title poem, a narrative constructed from titles or descriptions of Western art objects, including the black female figure, tracing its course from 38,000 BCE to the present day. Each poet draws language from an institutional framework, engaging in the conceptual project of appropriation. For Philip, this framework is the law, where the particulars of legal texts contained the buried histories of the drowned bodies, masquerading in language of reason, property, and “justice.” For Lewis, this framework is both visual culture, as well as the institutions that serve as gatekeepers of that culture –– both so often positions occupied by the most powerful. The artworks Lewis draws from are filled with great beauty and deep pain, while refusing to turn away from, or cover up, either.

13. Philip, Zong!, 191.

Both poets implicitly argue that poetry, as an expressive form, is uniquely suited to confront the archive’s limitations. Language, the mode of communication through which the archive is constructed, is tied to the same components of power and exclusion as the archive. As Barbara Johnson writes, “language is always also an articulation of power relations inscribed by, within, or upon the speaker.” [14] Poetry, then, can re-inscribe power relations by using language to subvert the assumed order. Although I have focused on Derrida’s concept of the archive, Michel Foucault proposed a more abstract concept in which the archive is a “system of discursivity” that dictates what can be said, focusing on the relationship between knowledge and power as it relates to the archive. [15] Philip and Lewis each use material from Derrida’s archive, as both the legal case, and the art catalogs printed onto a material substrate. Yet, considering Foucault’s concept of the archive alongside Johnson’s discussion of power relations in language points to a larger topic: that modes of discourse as archives are necessarily exclusionary. Though this paper does not focus specifically on language itself, as do many pieces of postcolonial and Caribbean poetry, it is worth calling attention to the dynamics of colonizing language at play in the African Diaspora’s literature, and in Philip’s and Lewis’ works in particular. [16] In the rupture of the supposed order of the archive, each poet also invokes resistance to linguistic domination. The relationship to the archive that I trace in this paper is a piece of a larger project of “oppositional” poetics, a term Erica Hunt introduced in 1990. For Hunt, dominant modes of discourse bind and organize the oppressed and marginalized through “convention” and “label.” [17] The limiting and silencing language of the archive is part of this dominant mode and those oppressed by the discourse are bearers of its containing codes. [18] Both Philip and Lewis allow this tension to play out with innovative language that is both self-consciously restraining, and painfully liberating. Both poets break with language and order, the restraining systems of the archive that silence the stories they wish to tell.

14. Barbara Johnson, A world of difference, JHU Press, 1988.

15. Marlene Manoff, "Theories of the Archive from Across the Disciplines,” portal: Libraries and the Academy 4.1 (2004): 18.

16. Another poetic strategy for resisting exclusionary language is creolization, which asserts a counter-hegemonic discourse. See Simon Gikandi’s Writing in Limbo: Modernism and Caribbean Literature.

17. Erica Hunt, "Notes for an Oppositional Poetics," The politics of poetic form: Poetry and public policy (1990): 197-212.

18. Ibid.

Although Lewis and Philip use the language of the archive as a linguistic store for their poetry, the resulting works do not attempt to fill in, or fictionalize the record. Importantly, Derrida recognizes that the archive is always open to the possibilities of reinterpretation and reconfiguration. This suggests a future-directed outlook, in addition to recalling the past. A vision of equality for all would include a more inclusive and complete archive, something historians and scholars of postcolonial and gender studies, among others, work towards. Despite its limitations, the archive does challenge oblivion and death. The work of a historian compiling the archive is also a work of mourning. [19] Historians such as Dominick LaCapara have suggested that the archive is only a substitute for a reality of the past that is already lost for the historian. [20] It is only ever an attempted reconstruction, always assembled to point a certain way. [21] By acknowledging that the archive is never raw, the silences and exclusions come to the forefront of its research. Indeed, historians “read for what is not there,” expanding our understanding of events by exploring precisely what was left out of their telling. [22]

19. Vosloo, “Archiving otherwise.”

20. Manoff, "Theories of the Archive from Across the Disciplines,"14.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid.

Although Derrida maintains that the archive begins at memory’s destruction, he describes it as always open. Derrida argues that the gaps in the record are often filled by scholars. The historian, trained to read for these gaps, attempts to fill them in, completing the archive. How, then, do the poet and the historian differ? I propose that Philip and Lewis use poetry as a gesture towards the memory that is “already lost to the historian.” [23] The poet does not fill in the gaps with fiction or imagined memory, but rather looks beyond the archival tendency, toward order and meaning. Zong! and Voyage of the Sable Venus serve as exemplars of powerful “oppositional” poetics within the literature of the black Atlantic Diaspora, where disorder is a tactic that calls attention to the limitations of the concept of the archive, as well as to one that explores more complex, and often paradoxical forces of race, gender, and diaspora. Each poet claims that language excludes, silences and buries. In both Philip’s Zong! and Lewis’ Voyage of the Sable Venus, poetic interventions are staged against a historical archive that was controlled by dominant powers. Poetic appropriation of the archival materials and formal constraints are employed to demonstrate the limits of the archive, and reach toward the memory that is lost. Writing backward from the contemporary moment, both poets assert a present and a future, against a past that negates the particular memory to which each work gives life through innovative poetic form.

23. Ibid.

Beyond the Archive: “Flesh Memory” as a Form of Resistance

Beyond Philip’s and Lewis’ particular relationships to the concept of the archive, both poets write within a black diaspora tradition that is heavily influenced by collective history, fluidity, and the rupture of oppressive systems of discourse. This tradition can be connected to Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic, where the ocean is a site of origin, in terms of the forceful dislocation that created a diaspora, and the subsequent modernism that resulted from slave labor. [24] Without negating the developments and history of West African communities prior to the Atlantic slave trade, the ocean can be considered the point from which an archive emerged. This origin upheld the trade’s legality, and silenced the voices of captives. Although Gilroy acknowledges the Atlantic as an origin, the metaphor is not developed beyond its usefulness in integrating space and the “diaspora temporality and historicity, memory and narrativity” of black modernity. [25] Gilroy ultimately glosses over the significance of the ocean itself, using its image only as a metaphor for both the Middle Passage, and the concept of a black Atlantic diaspora.

24. Gilroy, The Black Atlantic.

25. Ibid., 91.

In response to Gilroy, Natasha Omise’eke Tinsley echoes Philip, proposing the ocean as a concrete historical presence. [26] For Tinsley, as for Philip, the ocean waters are an archive to be plumbed, both materially and physically. The oceans hold the remnants and bodies from the Middle passage, and “convey the drowned, disremembered, ebbing and flowing histories of violence and healing in the African diaspora.” [27] For Tinsley, Gilroy’s black Atlantic has always been the queer Atlantic, where queer is a “praxis of resistance and a marking of disruption to the violence of normative order.” [28] This mix of violence and order is perhaps best exemplified in the concept of the archive. Both the Gregson vs. Gilbert case, and the descriptions of Western art violently control the black body through language.

26. Omise'eke Natasha Tinsley,"Black Atlantic, Queer Atlantic-Queer imaginings of the middle passage," GLQ-A JOURNAL OF LESBIAN AND GAY STUDIES 14.2-3 (2008): 191-215.

27. Ibid.,194.

28. Ibid.,199.

In Tinsley’s queer Atlantic, “erotic resistance” is one way that “fluid black bodies refused to accept that the liquidation of their social selves — the colonization of oceanic and body waters — meant the liquidation of their sentient selves.” [29] The “erotic resistance” begins to elucidate the relationship between ocean and body, and body and memory. If queer resistance marks a disruption to order aboard slave ships in the Middle Passage, the fundamentally queer project of reclaiming the black body continues, becoming a part of the resistance to archival exclusion. [30] In Zong! and Voyage, there is an intrinsic relationship between water and the body. In Zong!, the ocean holds the drowned bodies that contain the memory absent from the archive. Voyage evokes the journey across the Middle Passage through its title, while its content explicitly reclaims the body. In Hunt’s “oppositional poetics,” Johnson’s linguistic relations become a means of opposition. Yet, the poet is still the bearer of codes that inscribe power to contain the speaker. Each poet is constantly in dialogue with the language of the archive, both in terms of what it means or states logically –– and for Philip, legally –– as well as with what is not said. The poetic appropriation of the language of the archive becomes a tool by which both poets attempt to reclaim the body and memory. Philip accomplishes this through language that breaks with our understanding of syntax and thresholds of significance. Syllables become utterances, and broken words become chant and song. For Lewis, it is the images and words describing the body itself that are re-appropriated to impart memory and subjectivity in descriptions that silenced and restrained.

29. Ibid.

30. Michelle Wright, personal communication, April 6th, 2017.

Any separation of body from memory is a part of the “order” of the “New World,,” as marked by the Middle Passage. This order was projected and maintained through institutions, including the law and museums. In her notable essay, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: an American Grammar Book,” Hortense Spillers identifies implications of the captive condition. For African and indigenous peoples, this so called “New World” order represents “a scene of actual mutilation, dismemberment, and exile.” [31] The institutions that created the archive from which Philip and Lewis write justified the “theft of the body,” and reduced bodies to commodities. Derek Walcott’s opening quote connects memory back to the body. The splitting of the “captive body from motive, will and active desire” parallels a phantom limb. [32] For Spillers, the Middle Passage’s crimes were against the flesh. She takes “flesh” as a primary narrative, noting its “seared, divided, ripped-apartness, riveted to the ship's hold, fallen, or “escaped” overboard.” [33] The drowning of captives aboard the Zong, and the images of mutilated, bound, and fractured bodies in Voyage constitute these crimes against the flesh, creating what Spillers deems “a kind of hieroglyphics of the flesh” whose disconnection is masked by skin color. [34] Philip’s and Lewis’ return to the original damage emphasizes the intergenerational longevity of this “hieroglyphics,” as well as its connection to memory. Spillers suggests that this “marking and branding actually ‘transfers’ from generation to another,” thereby relating the individual body back to the diaspora collective. [35]

31. Hortense J. Spillers,  “Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics, vol. 17, no. 2, 1987, 67.

32. Ibid.

33. Ibid.

34. Ibid.

35. Ibid.

Walcott’s opening quote uses the body metaphorically to address the disconnected, rootless sense of the Caribbean people, as “memory that yearns to join the center.” [36] The separation appears in the black Atlantic diaspora, where gaping silences in the archive leave only traces and echoes of real people and events. However, by considering the metaphor as literal, the body is also the location of memory’s origin, before Derrida’s “trace” is recorded onto an archive. When the so-called “order” of the New World imposed a violent separation of flesh from active “will and desire,” an attempt was made to sever memory from the body. [37] In Walcott’s image of phantom limb, the limb itself contains memory of a center, of a body to which it longs to be connected. The same can be applied across generations, where the body contains echoes of its ancestors and history. Despite the crimes enacted against “flesh,” Philip emphasizes that, “When the African came to the New World, she brought with her nothing but her body, and all the memory and history which that body could contain.” [38] Both Philip and Lewis reach for the memory held in the body –– not by creating counter-archives, or even attempting to inject narrative into the archival gaps. Instead, each poet engages with its material and language, while turning away from its logic to express this memory through the bodily form in which it travelled across the Atlantic.

This reconnection fits poet Akilah Oliver’s definition of “flesh memory”:  

36. Burnett, Derek Walcott: politics and poetics.

37. Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” 67.

38. “In the Matter of Memory,” Fertile Ground: Memories & Visions, eds. Kalamu ya Salaam & Kysha N. Brown, Runngate Press, New Orleans.

flesh memory 1. a text, a language, a mythology, a truth, a reality, an invented as well as literal translation of everything that we’ve ever experienced or known, whether we know it directly or through some type of genetic memory, osmosis, or environment. 2. the body’s truths and realities. 3. the multiplicity of language and realities that the flesh holds. 4. the language activated in the body’s memory. [39]

39. Laura Trantham Smith, "From rupture to remembering: flesh memory and the embodied experimentalism of Akilah Oliver," MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the US 35, no. 2 (2010): 104.

Flesh memory emphasizes the language and experience held in the flesh, activated in the body, and transmitted over generations. By locating this language within the flesh, it is not merely a “trace,” recorded in the archive. [40] Flesh memory recognizes the body as the site of “historical knowledge,” focusing the act of recording on the body/flesh, and not in the archive. For writers of the black diaspora, flesh memory also asserts itself against the capture of African bodies as a crime against flesh. While the slave trade reduced bodies to commodities, flesh memory can be seen as affirming wholeness and humanity. Although the term has not been explored extensively beyond Oliver’s own poetry, it provides a useful frame through which to view Philip’s and Lewis’ works, in their treatment of history that challenges the broken archive. Returning once more to Philip’s discussion of water as entrance to the past, the search for bodies lost to the ocean represents a struggle to create flesh memory. For Lewis, thousands of years of images form this “language, a mythology, a truth,” of everything known through the representations of the black female body, particularly in the tendency to fall into certain limiting tropes.

40. Ibid., 109.

Lewis’ title alludes to a trope of the “Sable Venus” as well as to Sarah Baartman, the “Hottentot Venus” whose body, specifically her large buttocks, was exhibited in 19th century Europe. The exhibitionism indicates ways by which the European imagination constructed the black female figure, and enacted both physical and symbolic acts of violence. The display of captive flesh severed the relation of human personality to the body’s anatomical features, and stripped cultural institutions of an ethical dimension. [41] In Voyage, Lewis works within the constraints of this visual culture that marked a “total objectification,” adopting scientific terms for viewing the black female body as a “living laboratory.” [42] Even after the 19th century and “liberation,” Spillers stresses that:

41. Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” 68.

42. Ibid.

“the ruling episteme that releases the dynamics of naming and valuation, remains grounded in the originating metaphors of captivity and mutilation so that it is as if neither time nor history, nor historiography and its topics, shows movement, as the human subject is “murdered” over and over again by the passions of a bloodless and anonymous anarchism, showing itself in endless disguise”

43. Ibid.

Lewis’ Voyage illuminates this endless disguise, which also reverberates through Philip’s Zong! as the sense of order, and law, that “underwrites enslavement” is broken apart. Liberation, for Spillers, can emerge from either the violent rupture of the very laws of behavior that make  “such syntax possible,” or from the introduction of a “new semantic field” more appropriate to the historic movement. [44] The behavior that makes such syntax possible is upheld by various institutions, and can be located in the archives left behind. The “order” of the archive “murders” the human subject over and over, by upholding the representations and problematic logic that “separates” flesh from active will and memory. Philip and Lewis engage in this rupture of language and order, creating a semantic field that resists the exclusionary syntax of the archive.

This paper explores the particulars of this strategy of resistance by a close examination of Zong! and Voyage of the Sable Venus, situating both within a particular moment in contemporary poetry that marks a tension between race, politics, and the experimental movements associated with the avant-garde. This first section of this paper will explore how M. NourbeSe Philip draws from the archive of the Zong Massacre and imposes constraints on her use of the text, in order to create a formally innovative work that calls attention to silences and limitations, while giving voice to the drowned bodies. The next section will explore Robin Coste Lewis’ Voyage of The Sable Venus, where Lewis similarly imposes rules upon herself to create a narrative poem from text that has catalogued the black body in Western art over generations. In comparing the works, I hope to bring attention to the rich body of poetic work produced in recent years by black women that explores themes of history and identity formation while using experimental poetic strategies. Finally, I will conclude with a coda that traces the development of this research project from its initial stages, where it began with Harryette Mullen’s Muse and Drudge. This concluding section will situate Zong! and Voyage of the Sable Venus within a growing tradition of daring, innovative, and lengthy works that challenge both our contemporary understanding of records of historical events as well as the often limiting constraints set upon poets of color by categorization and critical reception.

44. Ibid.,79.


Emma Montgomery is from Riverside, CT and graduated from WCAS with majors in Psychology and Comparative Literature and is now living in Barranquilla, Colombia on a Fulbright ETA teaching grant. She is currently teaching English at Universidad del Norte and leading a literature-based English class at a public high school.


Burnett, Paula. Derek Walcott: politics and poetics. University Press of Florida, 2000.

Derrida, Jacques. Archive fever: A Freudian impression. University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Gikandi, Simon. Writing in Limbo: Modernism and Caribbean Literature. (Cornell University Press.) 1992.

Gilroy, Paul. The black Atlantic: Modernity and double consciousness. Harvard University Press, 1993.

Hunt, Erica. "Notes for an Oppositional Poetics." The politics of poetic form: Poetry and public policy (1990): 197-212.

“In the Matter of Memory,” Fertile Ground: Memories & Visions, eds. Kalamu ya Salaam & Kysha N. Brown, Runngate Press, New Orleans. 1996.

Johnson, Barbara. A world of difference. JHU Press.1988.

Lewis, Robin Coste. “Robin Coste Lewis: ‘Black Joy is My Primary Aesthetic.'” Interview by Claire Schwartz. Literary Hub. November 14, 2016.  

Lewis, Robin Coste. "Voyage of the Sable Venus: And Other Poems." New York: Alfred A. Knopf (2015).

Manoff, Marlene. "Theories of the Archive from Across the Disciplines." portal: Libraries and the Academy 4.1 (2004): 9-25.

Mullen, Harryette. Recyclopedia: Trimmings, S*PeRM**K*T, and Muse & Drudge. Graywolf Press, 2006.

Philip, Marlene Nourbese, and Setaey Adamu Boateng. 2011. Zong! Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Smith, Laura Trantham. "From rupture to remembering: flesh memory and the embodied experimentalism of Akilah Oliver." MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the US 35, no. 2 (2010): 103-120.

Spillers, Hortense J. “Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics, vol. 17, no. 2, 1987, pp. 65–81.

Tinsley, Omise'eke Natasha. "Black Atlantic, Queer Atlantic-Queer imaginings of the middle passage." GLQ-A JOURNAL OF LESBIAN AND GAY STUDIES 14.2-3 (2008): 191-215.

Vosloo, Robert. “Archiving otherwise: some remarks on memory and historical responsibility.” Studia Historiae Ecclesiasticae. Oct/Okt 2005. Vol XXXI. No/Nr 2: 379-399.