The Significance of Beauty in ‘Voyage of the Sable Venus’

This week’s California Book Club newsletter: Robin Coste Lewis, Michel Foucault, and Grant Faulkner.

birth of ethnic venus
Tony Rubino

And never to forget beauty,
however strange or difficult
—Reginald Shepherd

So reads the epigraph of Robin Coste Lewis’s titular poem in Voyage of the Sable Venus, which Alta Journal’s California Book Club will discuss at its June 17 gathering (click here to sign up).

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:


voyage of the sable venus, robin coste lewis


Alta’s books editor, David L. Ulin, explains why you should read Lewis’s extraordinary poetry collection, Voyage of the Sable Venus. Alta

far from respectable, daniel oppenheimer
University of Texas Press


In a review, Scott Dickensheets considers how Daniel Oppenheimer’s Far from Respectable “evokes the texture and significance of the period in which [Dave] Hickey rose to prominence.” Alta

june book picks


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

bolinas poets
Carson Ellis


“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
Bettmann Archive


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

michel foucault, michael stoneman
David Wade


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

san francisco
Literary Hub


“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

rachel kushner


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

california book club bookplates

Alta’s California Book Club email newsletter is published weekly. Sign up for free and you also will receive four custom-designed bookplates.


Rasheeda Saka is a graduate student in fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
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