There are a host of poetry collections that challenge that old adage—don’t judge a book by its cover: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen (2014), Bhanu Kapil’s Ban en Banlieue (2015), and Nate Marshall’s Wild Hundreds (2015) are but a few recent releases that are as gorgeous as objects as they are powerful in language. The cover of Voyage of the Sable Venus, Robin Coste Lewis’ stunning debut poetry collection—which won the 2015 National Book Award—features an elegant sepia photograph by Eudora Welty. The title is “Window Shopping,” but we can’t see the objects encased in glass—only a slim, sundressed black woman facing the display, one hand on her hip and the other on her chin. Standing on a populated Mississippi sidewalk in the 1930s, she nonetheless seems shrouded in something private, entirely of her own making. If an object in the store catalyzed her imagination, its identity eludes the camera’s capture. We are left only with the woman herself—her posture a gesture toward her vast dreams and desires, which we may behold but cannot fully know. The photograph says something about capitalism, but it says even more about dreaming.
Voyage of The Sable Venus, in three sections, takes stock of systems of capture and containment from the Middle Passage to British imperialism in South Asia, and probes the matrix of representational conundrums left in their wake. “Plantation” 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.” Immediately, we are thrust into an arena of racialized violence and desire—the “I” and “you” in a dynamic aftermath that has accrued wide-flung historical refuse: “There were fingers on the floor / and the split bodies of women // who’ d been torn apart by horses / during the Inquisition.” But the cage is not all horror—“We had books and a waterfall // was falling in the corner”—and desire entangles repulsion and attraction.
. . . Then your tongue
was inside my mouth, and I wanted to say
Please ask me first, but it was your
tongue, so who cared suddenly
about your poor manners?
What does violence look like in this cage that is history? What does it mean to find pleasure with trauma inscribed on the body and the land? What is want here? What is beauty?
Centering black women, Voyage catalogs the creative life force that has always existed within and outside of violent histories of colonial conquest. As incontrovertible as birth and as shape-shifting as desire, Lewis’ collection charts the self’s geography as history through a voyage both interior and exterior. The poems bring us to India and New Orleans; we are led into the “molding” archives and out onto on the porch. Voyage claims as its purview the entire expansive terrain of the black female body in histories of forced movement and elective travel—and the roving imagination that eludes any map.
Bracketed by two lyric sections, “Voyage of the Sable Venus” is a long narrative poem that the prologue tells us is comprised of “titles, catalog, or exhibit descriptions of Western art objects in which a black female figure is present, dating from 38,000 BCE to the present.” From “Catalog 1: ANCIENT GREECE & ANCIENT ROME” to “Catalog 8: THE PRESENT” Lewis’ relentless anaphoric roll call of black women summoned out of their names—“Statuette of a Black Slave Girl,” “Bust of a Nubian Prisoner,” “Black Girl with Her Head // Inclined Toward the Left”—stages something of what Amiri Baraka dubbed the “changing same.”
And Lewis also charts a history of creation. In her catalogs, the titles and descriptions of works portraying black women are interspersed with works “by black women curators and artists” and “by black queer artists of any gender because this body of work has made consistently some of the richest, most elegant, least pretentious contributions to Western art interrogations of gender and race.” Lewis’ own poetic innovation takes its place in this bountiful and ongoing history of black self-making and black world-making.
In “Voyage of the Sable Venus,” two sections precede the catalogs. The long poem begins not with “Catalog I,” but with the “The Ship’s Inventory.” As the eye makes its way through the tercets—tripping over the mid-line capitals, an ongoing reminder of the singular authority claimed by these words in their original contexts—a kind of internal logic builds. The section is characterized by anachronistic vocabulary that coheres powerfully around certain images only to dissolve back into no-sense: “Four-Breasted Vessel, Three Women / in Front of a Steamy Pit, Two-Faced / Head Fish Trying on Earrings, Unidentified.” Yet, halfway through, the section’s regular form breaks down:
Unlike the rest of “The Ship’s Inventory,” this list is stark, straightforward, and concrete. Girl-as-object is a wrenching construction, but it’s not unexpected in a poem whose title calls up the Middle Passage and colonial conquest. But how are we to understand “Empty” as inventory? Are we to read horizontally or vertically? The lines visually stave off the expected form, holding extra space between the words for something not (yet) written to enter.
The second poem in “Voyage” is entitled “Invocation.” Its subtitle, “Blessing the Boat,” summons Lucille Clifton, whose collected poems Blessing the Boats exemplifies her virtuosic fluidity between the living and the dead. In “the death of fred clifton”—one of several poems in the voice of or in intimate communion with someone who has passed—the poet’s husband says of dying: “there was all around not the / shapes of things / but oh, at last, the things themselves.” Similarly, Lewis—exploring the body’s history and how history lives in the body—voyages into what is unknowable to make new forms. “The Ship’s Inventory” and “Invocation” call on traumatic histories and black artistic brilliance, poised together over the eight catalogs that follow.
The doubled beginning of “Voyage of the Sable Venus” is not an either/or, but a both/and—or rather, a yes, all; and this strategy underwrites the long poem’s formal power. Lewis’ catalogs exist simultaneously in the world of poetry and the world of the museum. She charts (art) history’s violence without becoming ensnared in that discipline’s logics. “The focus of cataloging should be twofold: promoting good access to the works and images coupled with clear accurate descriptions that users will understand,” explains the widely used museum guide Cataloging Cultural Objects. In short, the museum catalog grants access. Linked to classification, display, and indexing—those Enlightenment projects that are at once staples of the museum and foundations of modern racial categories—the catalog limits meaning, circumscribes possibility. Lewis unfurls a long historical project aimed at stunting, in Claudia Rankine’s words, “the whole range of what it is to be human.”
Something is fugitive in Lewis’ catalogs, too. This is what you see, the caption and image conspire to say. Loosed from the images, the labels’ broad strokes contour a vast architecture of imagination. Who really is the “Negro Woman seated”? Without the visual, we run smack into the inadequacy of these labels and are forced to contend with our own habits of seeing.
Museums’ catalogs limit meaning—guiding the viewer in a single direction—but poetry’s catalogs can loosen it. An incantatory quality marshals the rhythmic power of repetition in what is simultaneously a making and an unmaking. Too lost already are the unnamed “Black Slave Girl,” “Black Dancing Girl,” and “Black Woman Wearing Earring”; Lewis harnesses the catalog form to re-member them without making invisible the violence that wrenched their names from us in the first place. For example, “Catalog I: ancient greece & ancient rome” opens: “Statuette of a Woman Reduced / to the Shape of a Flat Paddle // Statuette of a Black Slave Girl / Right Half of Body and Head Missing.” The catalog—the list—reminds us of the deep presence of black women in Western Art History, while the line breaks foreground the reduction of black personhood and the fracture of black bodies under ongoing systems of slavery and colonialism.
Lewis’ formal capaciousness requires our continued close looking. The catalogs are compressed in couplets; they toggle between the left and right margins in contrapuntal gesture; they sprawl across the page; and they taper like columns that may not stand much longer. They hold the written histories of Lewis’ found language together with new forms, wresting from the official records that which seems not to have been kept. In the opening of “Catalog 5: Emancipation & Independence” the title’s iconic historical period cedes to domestic intimacy: “A Nun Embracing a Girl / In a Doorway.” Even as the decontextualized image recalls the violence of erasure and the capital letters evoke the museum’s authority, a sweetness persists. The body was there. There is tenderness here. “Voyage” stacks against forgetting without ceding to the logic of collection.
The two sections of lyric poems are similarly characterized by a commitment to looking at the difficult thing. In “On the Road to Sri Bhuvaneshwari,” the speaker—a black American woman traveling with American college students and a local driver—tells of a nighttime encounter with “hundreds of water buffalo. At least / sixty human beings.” As the van pulls to a stop, its occupants witness a water buffalo’s stillbirth. The men of the nomadic clan—who just moments earlier ‘sing[ing]’ and ‘coo[ing]’ have coaxed from the She-Buffalo “[a] folded and wet black nothing”—hold and rope the mother, refusing to release her until she looks squarely at her dead offspring. The lesson of looking directly wells in the speaker after her own act of giving birth:
I have to go back
to that wet black thing
dead in the road. I have to turn around.
I must put my face in it.
“It” is everything difficult in history—that which threatens the self’s cohesive narrative. One “it” in particular stretches over the collection. In the book’s opening poem, “Plantation,” the speaker tells “you”: “. . . the black side / of my family owned slaves.”
The closing poem, “Félicité”—named for the “ ‘favorite’ slave” of Marie Panis, the speaker’s black ancestor—reprises this personal history. While the collection’s opening poem is an ungraspable constellation of violence and desire where “Every now and then you’ d change // from a prancing black buck / into a small high yellow girl,” in “Félicité” we return to the subject not with resolution but with a new clarity forged in the act of reckoning that is the collection’s voyage:
Perhaps she is the answer
to this sensation
I’ve had for years:
that of another body
hovering inside me
waiting for address.
The arc of Voyage is the act of this address. These poems do not offer a homecoming where the blinds can be drawn, the doors shut, and the journey slept off. The body, Lewis reminds us, is the first home and the only vessel. Voyage brings us back to ourselves with new eyes and tongues poised to name the difficult truths of home.
Voyage of the Sable Venus, a collection of reckoning and of difficult truths, is also a collection of roving joy. “History was not a book. It was a smell,” the speaker recalls from her childhood. A smell seizes the body and moves it toward other times and places; like beauty, a smell enters the body before awareness of it or language for it takes shape. “I could smell the world all over you,” the speaker remembers of her father:
You gave it to me—a fresh, sharp walnut—pungent and coy.
You cracked it, plucked out its intelligence,
then dropped it in my hand: this deep black joy.
Joy, too, is the poet’s vital inheritance. Like its cover, Voyage of the Sable Venus thrusts the reader past the readily framed image into the intimate and far-flung realm that is the body’s journey.
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015. 160 pp. $26.00.