Robin Coste Lewis’s Journey of Art

Voyage of the Sable Venus hopscotches across geography, time, and history.

archibald j motely jr, brown girl after the bath, african venus, charles henri joseph cordier, the kitchen maid, diego rodríguez de silva y velazquez, the voyage of the sable venus from angola to the west indies, w grainger

Just over a half century ago, Chicago mayor Richard Daley asked Gwendolyn Brooks to write a poem. The occasion was the unveiling of the “Chicago Picasso,” a monumental steel sculpture designed by the Spanish artist and installed in what’s still called Daley Plaza. On August 15, 1967, the work was unveiled before a crowd of thousands, and Brooks delivered her poem, capturing the public’s unease. (One alderman joked that he’d have much rather had a statue of Ernie Banks, the late, great Cubs first baseman and shortstop.) “Man visits Art, but squirms,” her poem begins. And then, just as she does in so many of her poems, Brooks folds a universe of complex feeling into the next line. “Art hurts,” she writes. “Art urges voyages—”

You’ll find this part of the poem near the end of Robin Coste Lewis’s breathtakingly brilliant debut book of poems, Voyage of the Sable Venus. Lewis’s collection is an exhibit of exhibits, an ode to Black joy, and a meditation on the metaphysics of the Black body—in particular, a Black woman’s body. At its heart pulses a stunning found poem fashioned from the titles, catalog language, and plaque descriptions of art in which a Black woman appears, from sculpture that dates to 38,000 BCE to photographs from the present day. The paintings, objects, and sculptures Lewis refers to live in collections in Copenhagen, Rome, Melbourne, Rio de Janeiro, Zanzibar, Khartoum, and Washington, D.C. Talk about a journey.

The real journey, though, is how far so much of this art has to travel to even begin to approximate the feeling of life, the thrum of joy, the intimacies of, say, motherhood or erotic pleasure in a Black female body. And so Lewis does not begin with this catalog. Instead her book begins in the poet’s own body with the most inclusive word in the English language: “And.”

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
I could tell you the black side
of my family owned slaves.
I realize this is perhaps
the one reason why I love you.

“To be in love,” Brooks wrote in her great poem “To Be in Love,” “Is to touch with a lighter hand.” Lewis writes like a poet who lives in the wake of this wisdom. In the first section of the book’s title poem, she writes with infinite tenderness, using a grip so light it can touch the weightiest of matters—like motherhood and dignity, like the history of slavery and how it has made bodies—and juxtapose gestures of intimacy against the scale of, say, pain.

Lewis’s eye is warm and visual, and it comes imbued with her own art historical method, a framing of deliberate design. Bodies do not feel separated from personhood in her poems—quite the opposite, even when what’s being described is activity done in silence. “The Mothers,” for instance, describes a brief shared moment of togetherness between two mothers, meeting for an instant of great intimacy.

No need to articulate the great restraint,
No need to see each other’s mouth lip
the obvious. Giddy. Fingers garnished
With fumes of onions and garlic, I slip
Back into my shift, then watch her hands—wordless—
Reattach her stockings to the martyred
Rubber moons wavering at her garter.

What would the history of art look like if such moments of radical queer love were not secreted into margins but celebrated with luminous clarity? Lewis’s project appears to be, among others, asking that very question, posing it in poems and glimpses of how a body can tell many stories when it is not separated—by projections and violence—from the soul that possesses it.

The scale of this project is massive, epic. Although Voyage of the Sable Venus is a mere 176 pages, reading it feels like setting out on an enormous search. The hopscotch of its global settings adds to this sensation, as does Lewis’s mastery of many poetic lines, from the long, thin, barely punctuated stanzas to the cascading quatrains in “On the Road to Sri Bhuvaneshwari.” The latter, one of the book’s great poems, describes a night the poet spent on a narrow hillside road in the Himalayas, her passage blocked by a buffalo about to give birth.

We wait with the whole tribe, wait with the whole night, wait
  for her to stop bucking. Her hip bones
are as tall as my eyes. Her neck is a massive drum.
They do not force her, but they will not let her run.

The buffalo’s calf is born dead, and she cannot be allowed to move until she sees this, understands, as Lewis puts it, “what has happened to her.” Across this book, Lewis keeps shining this question toward women around her. In the example of poems she herself has written, in the history of places she has lived, and also in the sweep of her own journey.

Here is the alternate, perhaps ironic meaning of the book’s title. Lewis has reclaimed from the sweep of historiography and art history the ability to voyage, the entitlement to regard and to see and not simply be seen. “Self Portrait as the Emerald City Nairobi, 2009” begins with these memorable lines:

Is there a street that can anticipate
our tenderness? A corner or a curb
that stands still waiting for me?

In the book’s title work, we get a glimpse of the many reasons the poet must pose this question. A series of poems built from lines in which figures are often described and erased simultaneously. “Female Figure with Child Kneeling…Young Black Female Carrying / a Perfume Vase with Necklace.” “Rope / Head and Shoulders Girl / Portrait of an Unidentified Girl.” The effect in montage is profoundly arresting, disturbing, more Picasso than Picasso ever was.

The depth and complexity to the patterns Lewis has found in plain sight are sharpened by her use of juxtaposition. She presents us with bodies in supplication; bodies as utilitarian objects; bodies wearing masks; bodies writing; bodies missing parts of themselves; bodies used to tell stories; bodies that withhold parts of stories; bodies that are virginal; bodies that are owned; bodies that cannot be possessed, no matter how flamboyantly they are named; Black Madonnas; the Venus of Compton; bodies.

Clapping Christening Cleaning
Club Women Cooking Class
at the Benjamin Banneker!
The Green Chair People in a line.
Queens of the Boat hear animals dancing,
wrapping it up at the Lafayette:

Swerving between abstraction and gesture, from the names of institutions to monikers for Blackness—so many of them lit by the fantasias produced by whiteness—Lewis vividly captures the degree to which the images of Black bodies exist within an atmosphere profoundly charged by desire and history.

Managing this sequence requires a contradictory set of skills. Layering words together like this, in borrowed brushstrokes, demands a superior feeling for syntax. It means a poet must begin with sonics. Lewis does this and more. Drawing us through the centuries, from sumptuous brocades to the slogans on posters of the civil rights era, Lewis creates a soundscape of the racial imaginary. We feel its percussive beat, the repetition of melodies made from dreams.

When we return to the poet’s life in the final section of this book, Lewis shows us the lesson such images taught. Drawing us to her young eye, looking at the image of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., shot, figures in the frame pointing up to his fallen body, she writes:

Every year these four photographs
taught us how English was really a type of trick math:
like the naked Emperor, you could be a King
capable of imagining just one single dream;
or there could be a body, bloody
at your feet—then you could point at the sky;
or you could be a hunched-over cotton-picking shame;
or you could swing from a tree by your neck into the frame.

Voyage of the Sable Venus shatters this choice by pointing it out and then presenting the reader with a variety of other options. By making a map of “Lost landscapes within the body—haggard and lush terrains— / North and South Poles suspended between pleasure and understanding,” Lewis excavates her family’s past to find these nodes; she peels the hard container-skin off the fruit of myths; she lingers where bodies are held by one another. She brings art to her lexicon of images, not the other way around.

Has there ever been a more apt rededication from one poet of another poet’s lines? In speaking of her poem in 1969, Brooks told an interviewer that “those of us who have not grown up with or to [art] perhaps squirm a little in its presence. We feel that something is required of us that perhaps we aren’t altogether able to give.” While Brooks’s poem was an invitation to take the journey to art, it was also—fundamentally—a beckoning for art to take a voyage to her. Brooks and Lucille Clifton after her altered the American racial imaginary by drawing art to them, to forms of Black interiority and Black joy they experienced. In this shattering, classic volume, Lewis takes this journey one step farther and brings it all the way home by way of Nairobi, via New Orleans, to Compton, and beyond.•

John Freeman is the host of the California Book Club.
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