Robin Coste Lewis’s debut poetry collection, Voyage of the Sable Venus—which Alta Journal’s California Book Club will discuss at its June 17 meeting—takes its name from Thomas Stothard’s 18th-century painting Voyage of the Sable Venus, from Angola to the West Indies, which was itself inspired by Sando Botticelli’s 15th-century classic The Birth of Venus. While the goddess Venus is featured in Botticelli’s work, an African woman, standing on an open shell, surrounded by cherubs in the middle of the sea, is seen in Stothard’s work. Nonetheless, it was not simply the Sable Venus’s storied and distinctive figure that captivated Lewis: it was what her presence demanded of our understanding of history and art-making.
Voyage of the Sable Venus is a collection of poems that interrogate many things—slavery, colonialism, sexuality, beauty, family, notions of selfhood—but at its center, it is invested in charting lost, obscured, violated, and effaced Black women throughout the Western world. The result is something like that of the titular poem, which spans most of the book and indexes the titles and descriptions of Western art exhibitions in which the figure of a Black woman is present (or present through her absence). The collection is an ambitious book, one that confounds, surprises, and makes music out of loss.
The forcefulness of Lewis’s language and the clarity of her images are arguably the most stunning aspects of the collection, which was awarded the 2015 National Book Award for Poetry. Trust me, reader, it is a text that requires one’s utmost attention and participation, but the rewards are immense—indeed, Voyage of the Sable Venus offers us new meaning on the intersection of the visual and the textual and exciting avenues for how to rethink history through borrowed and innovative language.
Lewis, whose work has appeared in various journals, including the Massachusetts Review, was the poet laureate of Los Angeles. She was the recipient of a 2019 Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellowship and a 2019 Guggenheim Fellowship. A former Cave Canem fellow, she lives in California.
To join Alta’s California Book Club conversation with Lewis on June 17, click here.
Did you miss last week’s CBC event with Rachel Kushner, John Freeman, and special guest Myriam Gurba? If so, then be sure to check out our recap and recording of the event. Alta
BOOKS AND UNIONS
Booksellers at Skylight Books, a Los Angeles independent bookstore, have unionized, becoming the latest to join a unionization campaign across West Coast bookstores. Publishers Weekly
HISTORY AND TRUTH
Scott Ellsworth, who helped reveal the events of the Tulsa massacre to a national audience, talks about reparations and why we must inform young people about painful and difficult history. Los Angeles Times
Three scholars—Arielle Zibrak, Ana Quiring, and Kyla Wazana Tompkins—discuss “guilty pleasures” in academia and what it means to have “bad” feelings about an artistic object or aesthetic experience. Los Angeles Review of Books
BIG TECH THRILLER
David Yoon, author of the young adult novel Frankly in Love, drew on his experience in tech to write his first adult novel, about a programmer who attempts to thwart the plans of his powerful employer. Kirkus Reviews
Kaya Press and the Diasporic Vietnamese Artist Network (which was cofounded by Viet Thanh Nguyen) announced the launch of a new imprint, Ink & Blood, which will focus on the publication of Vietnamese literature in English. Kaya Press
BOB DYLAN LECTURE
To celebrate Bob Dylan’s birthday (which took place yesterday), take a look at his 2016 Nobel lecture, which he recorded in a Los Angeles studio. Nobel Prize
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