Voyage of the Sable Venus
and Other Poems
This National Book Award-winning debut poetry collection is a "powerfully evocative" (The New York Review of Books) meditation on the black female figure through time.
Robin Coste Lewis's electrifying collection is a triptych that begins and ends with lyric poems meditating on the roles desire and race play in the construction of the self.
In the center of the collection is the title poem, "Voyage of the Sable Venus," an amazing narrative made up entirely of titles of artworks from ancient times to the present—titles that feature or in some way comment on the black female figure in Western art. Bracketed by Lewis's own autobiographical poems, "Voyage" is a tender and shocking meditation on the fragmentary mysteries of stereotype, juxtaposing our names for things with what we actually see and know.
A new understanding of biography and the self, this collection questions just where, historically, do ideas about the black female figure truly begin—five hundred years ago, five thousand, or even longer? And what role did art play in this ancient, often heinous story? Here we meet a poet who adores her culture and the beauty to be found within it. Yet she is also a cultural critic alert to the nuances of race and desire—how they define us all, including her own sometimes painful history.
Lewis's book is a thrilling aesthetic anthem to the complexity of race—a full embrace of its pleasure and horror, in equal parts.
Lewis's astonishing debut full-length collection works as a triptych, with the title poem's central panel flanked by autobiographical lyric poems that investigate intersections of blackness and gender, geography, alienation, and the formation of the self. The speakers of these poems adopt a variety of tones, ranging from sarcastic or tongue-in-cheek to gut-wrenchingly sincere. While the book's first and third sections shine with uncompromising and brilliantly constructed poems, it is the eponymous second section that is truly extraordinary: a narrative sequence composed entirely of titles, catalogues, and exhibition descriptions of Western art objects in which a black female figure is present. Through her recombination of found texts, Lewis denotes an assimilation of black femininity in the preexisting rhetoric of white-patriarchal depictions of the black female form in art and the museum setting. The procedure she employs is intentionally violent, parsing source material as it pertains to images of the black female form in a way that mimics the valuation of the black female body. As Lewis reworks fragments contextually rooted in ahistorical depictions of blackness, her meditations on the real origins of blackness are made visible. The result is a book that is formally polished, emotionally raw, and wholly exquisite.