While Robin Coste Lewis’s poetry collection, Voyage of the Sable Venus, finds its inspiration and emerges from Thomas Stothard’s 18th-century painting Voyage of the Sable Venus, from Angola to the West Indies, the image on the collection’s cover seems curiously contemporary (though it is not), featuring a lone Black woman gazing intensely on an unknown object in a store. The sepia-toned image, titled Window Shopping, was taken by the celebrated American writer Eudora Welty in 1930s Mississippi and is evocative for a host of reasons—not only is the photo elegant, with a quiet, powerful air of introspection, longing, personality, and verisimilitude, but it also obliquely highlights the central themes and aspects of the collection.
For one, the notion of perspective is a major narrative question in Lewis’s collection. Who is doing the looking? Who or what is being looked upon? How are these positions informed by the weight of history or imbalanced power dynamics? And how can these hierarchies shift through language and narrative? Indeed, while we may be looking at the woman, it appears, if only for an instant, that she is in a world entirely of her own making and we cannot attend to it (at least directly). All that we can know of her is what we either project or imagine. And there is great beauty in this opacity. There is a sense of freedom, movement, and ethics.
Yet the risk of misunderstanding or distorting the meaning of an image is also quite high, which is a tension that Voyage of the Sable Venus explores. A photograph is not only captured but also contained, ostensibly stuck in place forever. And with the history of slavery in the Western world, in which Black people were made object and capital, confined to a life of hard labor, dishonor, and degradation, the concept of image, indeed, takes on greater metaphorical (and perhaps even material) power, one that should not necessarily be disentangled from what it means to narrate new histories and offer new perspectives.
As you continue to read Lewis’s poetry collection, I invite you to join your fellow California Book Club members in the Alta Clubhouse for an ongoing conversation about Voyage of the Sable Venus:
WHY I WRITE
“I think we read and write poetry because we are looking for a voice—any voice—courageous enough to resist the pastel propaganda of our lives,” Robin Coste Lewis says of her relationship with language and selfhood. Alta
MYSTERY AND ART
In a review, Paula L. Woods considers how Maria Hummel’s Lesson in Red, the sequel to her debut novel, Still Lives, “advanc[es] critical discussions on the complex interrelationship of gender and violence and art.” Alta
In preparation for our upcoming CBC gathering, consider this close reading of a Robin Coste Lewis poem. Alta
SILENCE VS. ACTION
“What I didn’t fully expect was the abiding and overwhelmingly white silence many Asian people have encountered from even would-be allies,” R.O. Kwon writes about bystanders of anti-Asian violence. Vanity Fair
Harmony Holiday posits backstage as a historically sacred Black space for performance in the West, “where the masquerade could not pass, where the heart broke and settled into its private fantasy.” Believer
AUTOFICTION AND IDENTITY
THE BEAUTY OF ART-MAKING
Michelle Zauner recounts her experience pausing an album release, revising her first book, and making art during quarantine. Creative Independent
ANTI-BIDEN BOOK DROUGHT
“His presidency may be young, but industry insiders have told me in recent weeks that the market for anti-Biden books is ice cold,” McKay Coppins notes about the world of conservative publishing. Atlantic
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