How ‘Voyage of the Sable Venus’ Urges Readers' Involvement

Let’s take a close look at the opening of Alta Journal’s CBC June 2021 selection.

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Robin Coste Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus is a collection of poems, structured in three parts, that interrogates the history of slavery, colonialism, and kinship through the elusive and concealed figures of Black women throughout the Western world. While her poems are certainly cohesive in theme and poetic power, Lewis explores thousands of years of art history in many forms and structures. Her centerpiece poem, “Voyage of the Sable Venus,” as one example, indexes the names and descriptions of Western art objects in which a Black woman is present. As she said herself about the titular poem: “I wanted [it] both to talk about the history of visual culture (race, gender, power) while also performing the history of poetic forms in English, simultaneously. That was very conscious on my part—to perform poetic history over time, formally, on the page, while using the language itself to discuss the visual culture that flourished aside that poetic tradition.”

Voyage of the Sable Venus speaks to the delights and terror of examining and speculating on troubled history, keen to depict the shapes of and tensions between movement and capture. Consider, for a moment, the poem titled “Plantation,” which opens the collection:

And then one morning we woke up
embracing on the bare floor of a large cage
To keep you happy, I decorated the bars.
Because you had never been hungry, I knew

The coordinating conjunction “and,” along with the word “we,” both refers to the poem’s characters and encompasses readers, inviting narrative participation in a story already in motion. There is a sense of urgency, as we are propelled toward the historical scenes of racialized violence in the Western world. The second stanza nonetheless announces a dual function or an ambiguity of the “we”: at the same time readers are directly implicated in a collective address, the “we” fractures and becomes “I” and “you.” Thus, the reader is made to understand a proximity to the scenes of the poem, yet there is distance still—the speaker of the poem could be addressing another figure.

As horrific as the cage is—with “fingers on the floor / and the split bodies of women / who’d been torn apart by horses / during the Inquisition”—there is joy (or at least an attempt to accrue pleasure and delight from imposed degradation): “We laughed when I said plantation / fell into our chairs when I said cane.” Of course, it is not clear whether the subjects of the poem understand the full extent of their circumstances or are humoring themselves with derision and understatements.

The first poem continues as such: a propulsive dialectic between ostensibly contradictory and negating terms because Voyage of the Sable Venus isn’t invested in an “either-or” relationship but a “yes, and” one—what is and what isn’t, what could be and what is still emerging.

To join Alta Journal’s California Book Club conversation with Lewis on June 17, click here. And tell me what you think of this reading in the Alta Clubhouse!•


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