The Smoke That Thunders

October 2022

the ache       in chasm
stretched the word
                               too   tight
                               too   close
                               too   loose
nestled in the flesh
in the or of either1

        —M. NourbeSe Philip, Looking for Livingstone


As I was saying to my son last night, if we understand what was broken, it’s really not that difficult to understand what has to be repaired.2

        —Philip, Ga(s)p: Writing as Reparative Care, 2020


It, um [pause]. It really took the stuffing out of me, in a deep way.3

        —Philip, Words Aloud 7 Spoken Word Festival, 2010
        (online 2011)


1. How many ways can you order silence? No punchline.

2. 23 March 2010, Kelowna: Word Ruckus 

1-guard Philip. And “Zong! #18.” “[M]eans / voyage,” silence. “[M]eans market,” silence. “[M]eans / slaves.” Her reading packs a danger and restraint. Her voice is tensioned by a touch for silence, or in-betweenness, pacing itself.

“[M]eans more / means / dead / means want,” and again, the in-between. “[M]eans water.” With the benefit of hindsight, a mere beginning.

She moves into “Zong! #19”: “[D]rowned the law / their thirst & / the evidence.”4 Something about the book itself then handled by her with a different kind of care. Some place, some time, not traveled yet.5

It feels big, now, this and her other baited starts with performing this work. If she’s not done now, how not-done was she back then?

3. 0300 hours: WHERE WAS I GOING

In Looking for Livingstone: An Odyssey of Silence, there’s only two ways I’m sure the Traveller travels: inward and through time.

In real time, the work begins, as Philip puts it, with the last poem in She Tries her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks: “Between speech and magic / Force and word.”6 It begins with the idea of silence, “a split in bridge,” along Philip’s way to the “ultimate silence of the archive” and Zong! (5).

In Livingstone, the work begins with the Traveller and her “primitive” map and with Livingstone’s words taken up as her own: “I will open a way to the interior or perish” (9). She has questions for those words. She moves forward with them, back in time:

Perhaps he discovered something else—the same thing I search for— (10)


4. What will break last? The silence? Or the word? No punchline.

5. 10 November 2021: Black Portraiture[s]: “Absent/ed Presence”

Philip on Instagram: “On the plane back from Ghana to London, I suddenly realized that—and this may shock some people—but I had to ask permission of the Europeans onboard that ship as well. And I remember feeling very upset about that.”7

Ghana, 2006, a talk with elders, a foray into performance training, and that journey through the things that needed to be done, at that point, with Zong!:

Just as there was this need to name these people who had lost their names. . . . I felt I had to go to Liverpool, which is where the ship set sail from. I bought some whiskey. I went down to the harbor and poured a libation to ask their permission to bring their voices forward.8

And that was that.

6. 1500 hours: ECNELIS

The ECNELIS are preparing to go to war again. “Every hundred years by our calendar, during the month of Cassiopeia,” the Traveller notes. Whether they fight for the primacy of Word or Silence, the Traveller will never find out. The loser of each war is “condemned to follow the beliefs of the winner” (Livingstone, 16).

The eldest ECNELIS woman speaks of the “whole that once was silence” (14). The youngest, Chareem, speaks of the “offspring of God, Word, seamed by silence” (15).

Who abides, who remembers, who knows.


7. The discovery or the recovery of silence? Which comes first? No punchline.

14. 1 March 2012, Berkeley: The Holloway Series

It’s just a handful of weeks after the Ravine incident. A man took his own life on the second Tuesday of that January, in Toronto, in the Ravine, moments after Philip crossed paths with him.

She recounts the dearth of compassion for this life “so brutally and abruptly ended”: “Someone who works in the soul business—I use those words advisedly—says to me, ‘That is the path of his soul, don’t let it affect you.’”

“We live in times when we are made to feel entirely responsible for everything in our lives, even our thoughts. This is the legacy of The Secret.” What does it mean to concern ourselves with each other? To account and be accountable for others, affected by them, even apart from us, even gone?

“If I knew he was drowning, not waving, what would I have done?” What if she hadn’t been there, on that footbridge, to pass him at all?9

9. 2500 hours: LENSECI

The Traveller sees a ghost image of Livingstone among the stalks of cane. As quickly as he appeared, he’s gone. She knows she has to follow “in his footsteps to the interior” (Livingstone, 19).

The pull of possession—if only she can find it, her silence, and make it hers. A new map is presented to her. The LENSECI woman who gifted it points at it, then points at her heart.

“Where it was and how to get there,” the Traveller writes. “I still didn’t know” (20).


10. What’s bruised by the tongue? The kernel of silence? The language ground out? No punchline.

17. 7 December 2025, Toronto: b current studio

A five-minute edit, of what very quickly feels like it must have been hours, on Philip’s own YouTube channel.10Zong! shrunken way down, tucked away, inside a collective groove.

Just the thought of being in this room. Who said finding and blurring the limits of the travel back had to be pretty work? It’s messy like dialogue is messy: the readers, the booty dancer, the bass player, a dozen or so participants entered into a noisy, haptic feedback loop. Working through it all.

12. 1000 hours: SCENILE

After nine hundred happy years earning her keep with the SCENILE, after a few hundred years transcribing ancient books in an esoteric script for the privileged few—“It was my ignorance that got me the job, they told me” (Livingstone, 24)—after no obvious clues to what she seeks, the SCENILE put the Traveller to the test with three questions before they let her go on her way:



The Traveller fails miserably in her answers, as she puts it. The SCENILE laugh and laugh—particularly the women. There’s an upswing, though, on her last answer, her second try at the Stanley question: “What if he had said, ‘Dr. Livingstone, I presume?’” Taking the obviousness out of it, the SCENILE are keen to riff on presumption.

Together with the Traveller, they chant, “We presume, we presume, oh, how we presume! Long live I presume!” (26).

When they see her off, the SCENILE gift her a couple of anagrams to solve, the solutions of which are supposed to help.


13. What did Shakespeare have to say about silence? No punchline.

11. 8 August 2017, Durham, North Carolina: The Black Outdoors

“Every time I perform Zong!, I feel as if I’m outing myself.” She pauses, scoffs, ponders a moment. “As a closet [pause] performer. As a closet [pause] spiritual Baptist.” She laughs a bit. “You’ll see what I mean.”11

Later, before she begins to read, she’ll feel her way around with her bell, her link of rattles, her bright whites. The audience will furrow their brow, harbor variations of an almost pained expression. She’ll lug a white sack, a tome-shaped object within, as if she’s preparing its opening, Zong! inside.

But then she’ll set it aside with the rest. And Ed Roberson, sitting on stage with a transfixed, sort of concerned look, will hand her the tattered book. She’ll begin to read from “Zong #5.”

15. 0100 hours: CESLIENS

“Silence and how wrong, how very wrong, I had been about it” (Livingstone, 44).

The Traveller finds herself writing the solutions to the anagrams given to her by the SCENILE while sequestered to a circle drawn in the earth by Mama Ohnce, a CESLIENS elder.

She tries to force her way out of the circle; she measures it with a curious bit of rope—sometimes it becomes a snake, sometimes an umbilical cord; she recognizes pi. All the knowledge she’s accrued (pi included) is useless now. She’s left with nothing to fall back on but the language of the CESLIENS’ silence; she’s become fluent. She draws her own circle within the circle. And the solutions just come. She scores them in turn into the earth. SURRENDER and WITHIN.

The CESLIENS clap—“but how they could clap—long, loud applause” (48). The Traveller steps out of the circle and the circle into hugs. Back on her way to Livingstone and her Silence, “‘or perish.’ Perish Livingstone!” (49).


16. What arranges the quietest silence? And the magic around it? No punchline.

8. 7 April 2016, New York: Asian American Writers’ Workshop

“The sea was not a mask.”12 She starts right off the top.

She begins by working her way down the aisle to the back of the audience, in crouches. With each crouch, she pours out a bit of water from a plastic bottle onto the carpet and calls out a name.

[“Masuz”] A bit of [“Zuwena”] silence [“Ogunsheye”] accompanies each [“Ziyad”] permission and gulp.

Right on to “Zong! #2.”13

18. 5001 hours: CLEENIS

The Traveller is tired, and is sounding it, by the time the CLEENIS women send her into the sweat lodge. Birthing, vomiting, sweating all words out, she’s left with only the three she chose to take in with her: birth, death, silence.

“To drink deep of my own silence—is there no bottom to it?” (Livingstone, 57). She leaves the lodge one calendar year after entering it, and exits it crying, thousands of words lighter.

As she was before she went in, she’s focused on the CLEENIS women and their massaging ways. She’s temped to stay with them but gets back on the trail.


19. If the swell is my silence, where is its source? No punchline.

20. 6 March 2022, Montreal: “Who’s Listening: Artists, Audiences & Language”

I can’t quite let go of that story of Philip pouring one out for the murderers at Liverpool harbor.

It reminds me of the “two Ancestral mentors” discussed in Bla_k: “Male, white and Oxford-educated, he stands over my right shoulder; she is old, Black and wise and stands over my left shoulder.”14

John-from-Sussex, along with the law, on the right, and Abiswa, along with Black Caribbean contexts and traditions, on the left. Over time, writing gives her the courage, as she puts it, to turn her back on the former, “listen to Abiswa and leave the practice of law.”15

John-from-Sussex becomes someone she faces off against, visits at the big office, of whom she does occasionally, upsettingly, seek permission. Abiswa, meanwhile, is all patience.

The harbor in Liverpool brings them to mind because they must be around. Him, hovering, no permission sought. Her, benevolently presiding, at least from the plane ride on.

21. 4155 hours: NEECLIS

“Bitch! Bitch! Bitch!” (Livingstone, 66). Silence.

Trapped by her lover, Arwhal, after two hundred years of relaxing into the surroundings—the NEECLIS and their weaving, colors, hours of debate about the right yarn, right pattern, and many stories. “I had come to take for granted every waking hour would be an encounter and engagement with beauty” (63). A processual kind of people and place. She grows restless anyway.

Which maybe explains why Arwhal ends up locking her in a room full of yarn. “[To] piece together the words of (my) silence” (66).

She yells and screams and excoriates: no response. She’s in that room seven hundred years, by her count. Working her way to grasping “two separate strands of threads”: word and silence. “To weave anything I first had to make the separation” (69–70).

She begins with her own Silence and ends up with a multicolored quilt. “My many silences—held together by the most invisible of stitches” (72). A bit of warmth as she travels on.


22. How seamless can the word be? When it’s the seam? No punchline.

26. 8 August 2017, Durham: The Black Outdoors

I go back but forward: this is where I first heard about the Ravine. “So that created a whole other [pause] area where I began to think of how events can actually change a space for you.”16

She speaks of the five or so years it took her to walk the Ravine again. How she promised herself she wouldn’t return to the space until she could write about the incident.

I revisit this video after hearing her read from her essay on the subject in Berkeley in 2012, a matter of weeks after the incident.17 And then I think about the years it took her to write about it again, in a different way.


“Seven billion years,” the Traveller writes, “that’s how long I had been travelling” (Livingstone, 73). And she notes there’s been nothing quite as strange as the Museum of Silence.

“‘In such and such a year, this piece of silence was taken from the ______’” (73).

“One of the world’s wonders,” or so “they” fancy the museum, and even her silence features among the silences taken, an edifice the Traveller can walk around, contemplate, lick, even (“cold to the tongue”) (74). All these silences removed from where they belong, split from their meanings. She considers pissing on the place.

Only one group’s silence is missing: the CESLIENS’. They had chosen their silence over the word, even given up the latter. “They were richer for it” (75).


25. Silence the noun? Or the verb? No punchline.

23. 28 March 2017, Toronto: An Evening with M. NourbeSe Philip

I’ve had to remember the first time I saw Philip perform because there’s no video I know of.

At the University of Toronto Art Museum, a month before Durham, North Carolina, there are little dunes of what looks like salt all over the gallery. She begins with the bell here, too, but it goes on much longer, I think. After the performance, she says she never tried anything quite like that, the extent of the staging: set pieces, a young performance partner with her on stage.18

The way they waded through, attempted to traverse, even to repair—all of that sticks with me, but I remember both nothing and everything. I can’t tell you which “Zong!” numbers. But I remember wa. I remember wa s sow. Wa ter. Thirst and cold.

27. 2800 hours, 31st of June: SILENCE

“Nothing that had happened to me along the way prepared me for this,” the Traveller writes. “He and I . . . and Silence . . . my silence” (Livingstone, 78).

But what to call him, really? “Foe of darkness”? Livingstone-I-presume? Pith helmet?

Nearly all the way back at the beginning of the universe, the Traveller calls him whatever she pleases, chides him, challenges him, and catches him in his mess. Yet all through the encounter—through the coffee and meal and cognac (prepared by his “helpers”), through the questions and answers, the admonitions and avowals—there’s an unwinding, and there’s her eerie sense of recognition.

“He was just an old man—tired like me,” the Traveller writes, “like me obsessed with discovery—for the sake of discovery, perhaps” (94).

She says a lot of things. Some hard, some soft, some funny, some threatening. She asks for a kiss, “to seal this unholy pact of ours,” and is rebuffed, Christianly (92). But things simmer down, finally, by the slow-burning fire. A hundred thousand years later, they’re still sitting there. Now she calls him David. Then all around, silence—waiting, content, enfolding. It grows so black she can’t see him anymore.

“I touched something warm familiar like my own hand.” She reaches out through the SILENCE, “the SILENCE of space the SILENCE of time through the silence of SILENCE,” and finds his hand, holds it all, “his hand and the SILENCE” (95).

She surrenders to the silence within.


David Bradford is an interdisciplinary poet and translator based in Tio’tia:ke (Montreal). He is the author of Dream of No One but Myself (Brick Books, 2021), winner of the A. M. Klein Poetry Prize and finalist for the Griffin Poetry Prize, the Governor General's Literary Award, and the Gerard Lampert Memorial Prize. His second book, Bottom Rail on Top, is forthcoming.

[1] M. NourbeSe Philip, Looking for Livingstone: An Odyssey of Silence (1991; repr., Montreal: Center for Expanded Poetics, 2018), 17; hereafter cited in the text.

[2] Philip, Ga(s)p: Writing as Reparative Care, 12 June 2020; see (uploaded 13 June 2020). All videos I link to on YouTube are cued to the relevant time code. For each of Philip’s recorded talks and readings cited in the text, I use the date of the video’s online upload to reference, first and foremost, the moment the performance became accessible beyond the event itself.

[3] Philip, Words Aloud 7 Spoken Word Festival, Durham, Ontario, November 2010; see (uploaded 5 February 2011).

[4] M. NourbeSe Philip, “Zong! #18,” in Zong! As Told to the Author by Setaey Adamu Boateng (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2008), 32; “Zong! #19,” 33. 

[5] Philip, reading from Zong!, Word Ruckus, Kelowna, British Columbia, 16 January 2010; see (uploaded 23 March 2010).

[6] M. NourbeSe Philip, “She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks,” in She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks (1989; repr., Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2015), 72.

[7] Philip, in conversation with Mark Campbell, following her keynote address for Black Portraiture[s]: “Absent/ed Presence” (virtual), hosted by the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Queen’s University, Kingston, ON, 13 October 2021; see, at 6:33 (uploaded 10 November 2021).

[8] Ibid., at 5:45 and 7:14.

[9] Philip, reading from “Not Waving but Drowning,” the Holloway Poetry Series, University of California, Berkeley, 23 February 2012; see (uploaded 1 March 2012).

[10] Philip, Zong! readings and improv performance, b current Performing Arts studio theater, Toronto, 29 November 2013; see (uploaded 7 December 2015).

[11] Philip, “‘There Is No End to Out’: Readings by and Conversation with Poets M. NourbeSe Philip, Nathaniel Mackey, and Ed Roberson,” the Black Outdoors, John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute, Duke University, 24 April 2017; see (uploaded 8 August 2017).

[12] Wallace Stevens, epigraph to “Os,” in Philip, Zong!, 2.

[13] Philip, “Archive Séance: NourbeSe Philip and Phinder Dulai,” Asian American Writers’ Workshop, New York, 25 February 2016; see (uploaded 7 April 2016).

[14] M. NourbeSe Philip, “Who’s Listening: Artists, Audiences, and Language,” in Bla_k: Essays and Interviews (Toronto: BookThug, 2018), 73.

[15] Ibid., 89.

[16] Philip, the Black Outdoors, (uploaded 8 August 2017).

[17] Philip, “Not Waving but Drowning,” (uploaded 1 March 2012).

[18] “An evening with M. NourbeSe Philip,” in conjunction with the exhibition all our days are full of breath: a record of momentum, Justina M. Barnicke Gallery, University of Toronto Art Centre, 28 March 2017; see


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