And never to forget beauty,
however strange or difficult
Beauty is a central narrative and thematic concern in Lewis’s debut poetry collection, which attends acutely to the effaced, elusive, and erased figures of Black women throughout the Western world. Her centerpiece poem, “Voyage of the Sable Venus,” catalogs the names and descriptions of Western art objects and reconceptualizes the power of naming and of a reestablished archive to extraordinary effect. The result is, indeed, something of beauty, wherein we become witnesses to the feminist force of definition.
Yet as we read the poem (and, in fact, the entire collection), it becomes quickly apparent that this beauty does not exist in a vacuum—that such awe-inspiring literary grace and momentum were the result of centuries of violence, erasure, and confinement. (We must not forget that the Middle Passage, invoked by the very title of the collection, is a specter that haunts and shadows our meaning of the text itself.) Nevertheless, it seems that Lewis does not argue that this history diminishes the beauty of what we know of art and narrative: she does not attempt to render objects into subjects nor does she recount the histories that can never be known. Rather, the relationship among beauty, violence, and history in Voyage of the Sable Venus is in productive tension, one that makes beauty something that we cannot exactly describe fully (again, “strange or difficult”) but only circle around and hover above, trying to name both its impact and its future.
Voyage of the Sable Venus is a long journey of a book: it treks through thousands of years of art history in surprising and sprawling poetic forms and structures. As you read Lewis’s poetry collection, I invite you to join your fellow California Book Club members in the Alta Clubhouse for an ongoing discussion of the work:
Check out our list of highly anticipated books coming out this month by writers from California and the West, including Maria Hummel’s Lesson in Red, Julie Poole’s Bright Specimen, and many more. Alta
HOME LIKE NO OTHER
“Poetry was both a message board and a form of social trust,” Dan Chiasson says of the distinct cultural and literary landscape of Bolinas, where some of the most iconic California poets lived and cultivated community. New Yorker
John Steinbeck wrote a never-before-seen werewolf mystery years before the publication of his most highly regarded novels, like The Grapes of Wrath. Now, a British academic is urging his estate to release the full manuscript. Guardian
Jonathan Russell Clark explores how, in their new book The Last Man Takes LSD, Mitchell Dean and Daniel Zamora recount Michel Foucault’s trip to California in the 1970s and how it reoriented his political commitments. Los Angeles Times
BAY AREA LEAVING
“To live in the Bay Area is to wonder whether or not to leave,” Grant Faulkner says of his complicated relationship with San Francisco. Literary Hub
Have a day to spare? Here is a list of Rachel Kushner’s favorite films on the Criterion Collection, including Robert Altman’s 3 Women and Michael Ritchie’s Downhill Racer. Criterion Collection
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