Has there been a more ambitious single poem in recent years than Robin Coste Lewis’s “Voyage of the Sable Venus”? Seventy-nine pages in length, the title effort of Lewis’s 2015 debut collection offers a collage “comprised solely and entirely of the titles, catalog entries, or exhibit descriptions of Western art objects in which a black female figure is present, dating from 38,000 BCE to the present.” The result is an audacious act of recapitulation and reassessment, a reimagining of both race and gender across the span of recorded human history.
The poem begins with a list of images under the heading “The Ship’s Inventory.” It is a vivid and a necessary clue. In the pages that follow, Lewis means to trace the arc of Black experience from the Middle Passage to the present. She means to unravel, to reconfigure, all of it. “At Auction Negro Man in Loincloth,” she writes, “serves liquor to Men Bidding // on The Slaves while a Slave Woman / attends Two Women Observing the Sale.” The implications of such an image are clear and grievous, evoking the institutionalized inhumanity of a world in which the enslaved must comfort their captors, even at the moment when other slaves are being sold.
Lewis’s eye is equally ruthless throughout the collection. She never lets anybody off the hook. “And then one morning,” she writes in “Plantation,” the first poem here, “we woke up / embracing on the bare floor of a large cage.” In part, her subject is complicity: “I could tell you,” she acknowledges, “the black side / of my family owned slaves.” But even more, this, like every poem in the book, is a work of witness, invoking “fingers on the floor / and the split bodies of women / who’d been torn apart by horses / during the Inquisition.”
In Voyage of the Sable Venus, Lewis seeks to represent those women even as she represents herself. What gives these poems such power is their context, personal and historical. For Lewis, history is no abstraction; it moves through, and mediates, every moment, every page. “What can History possibly say?” she asks. “…Into the barbed nectar / of this story I have stared / my whole life.”•