In the notes to the title poem of Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems, Robin Coste Lewis speaks through an epigraph from Gwendolyn Brooks: “Art hurts. Art urges voyages—”, and while both of the notions are reasons why many of us go to poetry as readers and writers, Lewis’ collection sets new standards in magnitude and scale. But, Lewis is a writer aware of what both of these properties of poetry can do; for pain, her boundary is “catharsis” and for a voyage, the boundaries are those of language and history. As for the cathartic, in a recent interview with the PEN American Center, she remarks that its usefulness is, itself, limited—speaking on one of the poems in the book, “Lure,” she accepts catharsis
[a]s a tool, sure, but as a goal I remain suspicious. So what if we all cry. Who cares…Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against crying. I hope my work allows the reader to access sensations that have been locked away or ill-considered. But when we make that the sole mark or goal…we miss out on poetry’s deeper properties, which can take us far beyond emotional release.
If pain is enacted or described by language and recorded in history by language, neither is mutually exclusive; each of these holds the almost certain potential of begetting the other. Lewis’ work presents, explores, and disproves any false dichotomy that might still separate the two. The goal of her work is not, then, merely cathartic—it sets us on the various journeys present in the Voyage of the Sable Venus which aim to transform, translate, and orient the reader simply by handing them a map of history and experience saying “Go. Now.” and sending them toward an uncertain territory whose boundaries are imperceptible and variable. As Lewis writes in “Pleasure & Understanding,”
All is suffering is a bad modernist translation.
What the Buddha really said is: It’s all a mixed bag. Shit
is complicated. Everything is fucked up. Everything is gorgeous.
One of the focal points for many who read the book is the second part of the three-part text—the title poem “Voyage of the Sable Venus,” a 79-page long poem in sections composed of a mix of titles of artwork and gallery/collection notes about collected and selected art objects. Lewis lets the reader in on the seven major restrictions in both sourcing and usage which she allowed herself in the composition process such as reinscribing (in Lewis’ words “re-erasing”) the titles to undo linguistic sanitization, not allowing titles to be separated (except in lineation), or giving herself the ability to remove and insert punctuation. These rules seem to enact conceptualist thought rather than merely presenting themselves as enabling constraints, and many have commented this poem endows the manuscript with a sense of the Conceptual. It immediately resonates with work like that of M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! or projects by fellow Los Angeles poet Doug Kearney.
But, like those poets, the resulting poem is a surprising work of juxtaposition, fragmented ekphrasis, and archival narrative. Lewis creates arrangements of art objects that are not practically possible, and could not come together outside of her text. Each of the cited titles are evocations of an art that is also nearly completely imaginary; without intimately knowing each work, it is impossible to picture them, and so the titles stand in as a kind of condensed ekphrastic statement on their own, many of them describing action taking place in an unperceivable medium. As such, the reader is put in a liminal position in which the only choice is to watch the titles as they are placed on the field (or “screen” to adapt the continuous present metaphor of film) for limited durations, in a set order, accomplishing the creation of a narrative. And from the myriad of titles used to construct the piece, the narrative begins to emerge across the various “Catalogues” that provide progression in time. In the fourth section of the poem entitled “Medieval Colonial,” Lewis provides narration of slave ships crossing the Middle Passage through the use of the etching from which the book derives its title,
Ship in Middle
Distance: a Black Woman Kneeling
in a Storm, Her Hands Clasped.
in Prayer and her Eyes
Nude Black Woman
in an Oyster Shell
Drawn by Dolphins
through the Water
and accompanied by Cupids,
Neptune, and Others.
While sections shift between formic structures that emphasize listing versus other more common stanzaic formats, the sense of story is never lost. Even though it is one of which readers, to varying degrees, have awareness, Lewis’ telling of it is both distanced and intimate as these art objects are of our collective American history, and demonstrate, without mitigation, how artists pictured both their pictorial subjects and themselves.
The section uses the way that artists and painters used their own mythologies as a means of crafting a moment of fantastical appropriation, the placing of bodies in both position and space, and within Western mythological traditions that enforce various levels of prescription and description. Lewis’ ability to create a nonlinear telling of linear history within the space of only a few stanzas of titles is beautiful, disheartening, surreal, and despairing all at once. This sense is heightened by the broad inclusion of both black and white artists (though the reader never definitively knows which title are attributed to which artists), and even though the reader is not necessarily able to call to mind the exact pictures which Lewis incorporates, it is nonetheless clear what is being depicted.
Wrenched out of the all-too-easy defensive position of “context,” Lewis’ isolations and reformulations take on a new, unpredictable power.
And though the second section of the book is as massive a success as it is, Lewis’ work in the two lyric sections that begin and end Voyage of the Sable Venus are no less fantastic, jarring, and powerful. To a certain extent, they carry on the work of the title poem in how, for the first time, a poetry book reads as if it were a real conversation with other artists and poetic tradition. This review’s early comparisons to M. NourbeSe Philip and Douglas Kearney give some of the contemporary poets to which this work speaks, but it is reminiscent of the work of Harryette Mullen at times, and at others Gwendolyn Brooks (independent of her use in epigraph), not to mention many, many others to which Lewis adds her own register.
Lewis grapples with history inasmuch as she works with poetic voice and form, placing the book in as natural a position as any that I’ve read in recent years. In poems such as “The Wilde Women of Aiken,” Lewis seems to speak to the historical in lines that demonstrate stark defiance such as its closing in which Lewis’ speaker claims “[y]ou/cannot/prevent me,” as if to telegraph the triple-transgressive quality of the act and fact of being in addition to the speaker’s assertion of the fact, in either speech or writing.
Voyage of the Sable Venus is at once ironic, grave, angry, honest, deceptive, hopeful, despondent, and distressed—an accurate picture of what Lewis translates the Buddha to have meant with the improper translation of “all is suffering.” But Lewis’ take on the subjects of race, history, and the appropriations enacted upon them is clear, even if ultimately undecided, erring on the side of some glimmer of hope as to what the complex and fraught history of the black female body implies for the future. As “Félicité,” the closing poem of the book, contends, Lewis’ own family history is complicated by a resistance to “not to say these words:/The black side of my family/owned slaves,” in reference to the title figure whose sister Françoise, the subject of an indeterminate history, “is the only one/who can still cross the River,//the only one still flying/backwards, over the Gulf/without landing.”