books Rebirth of Venus
Voyage of the Sable Venus
and Other Poems
By Robin Coste Lewis
ISBN: 13: 978-1101875438
Robin Coste Lewis’s début poetry collection, “Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems” (Knopf), derives its title from a notorious eighteenth-century engraving by Thomas Stothard, “The Voyage of the Sable Venus from Angola to the West Indies.” The image was slave-trade propaganda: it shows an African woman posed like Botticelli’s Venus on a weirdly upholstered half shell. She glides serenely across the Middle Passage, attended by an entourage of cherubs and dolphins and escorted by a predatory Triton, who looks as though he’d read the poem on which the engraving is based: Isaac Teale’s “The Sable Venus, An Ode,” which celebrates the pleasures of raping slave women, since black and white—Sable Venus and Botticelli’s Venus—are, after all, the same “at night.”
“The Voyage of the Sable Venus” has made its own voyage—that word’s bitter irony, lost on its original audience, is now its meaning—and ended up in this arresting book, whose title subtly transforms it. Titles establish property; change the title, and you’ve wrested from the history of racism a powerful symbol for the emergence of black women as the depictors of their own lives. But a voyage requires both an origin and a destination, and so the eighteenth-century engraving and the twenty-first-century book operate as two shores in a trip from the lurid past, in which African women were transported to be sold into slavery as property, to the current day, when an African-American woman like Lewis can recast history in her own brilliant, troubling terms. Google the phrase “voyage of the sable venus,” and you will see how these two works are now linked, in both the old and the new senses of that word.
Lewis’s volume, nominated for a National Book Award, takes its place in a line of important reclamations of “Venus” from its use as a humiliating designation for black women and for depictions of them, including Rita Dove’s “The Venus of Willendorf” and Elizabeth Alexander’s “The Venus Hottentot.” (You could argue that Venus Williams, perhaps the most famous Venus since the Roman goddess, has, with tennis as her medium, made her own aesthetic intervention.) Poems can provide the effaced interiority of these caricatures, but the backlog of silenced persons is daunting and the history by no means safely concluded. And so Lewis’s book begins with an aftermath, a morning-after poem, “Plantation,” in which two lovers awake “embracing on the bare floor of a large cage,” bound together by an intimacy that is concomitant with confided, and temporarily pardoned, shames:
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,
because I told you this
and you—still—wanted to kiss
me. We laughed when I said plantation,
fell into our chairs when I said cane.
Those “bars,” reflected in the couplets on the page, stand for the innate possessiveness of our gaze; the “you” whose happiness depends on the cage being made pretty is, partly, the reader, who is lured by beauty to the site of pain, and whose scrutinizing presence there turns a bedroom into a prison, or perhaps a zoo. Sex, far from being a reprieve from the humiliations of the past, expresses them; it promises to soar above social and historical identity, but it’s more like an early Wright brothers plane, skipping and wobbling from one degradation to the next: the lover who laughs one minute, changes “every now and then” from “a prancing black buck”—the white stereotype for black male sexual threat—to a “small high yellow girl: pigtailed, / patent leather, eyes spinning gossamer, begging / for egg salad and banana pudding.” Experience and innocence, the “black buck” and the light-skinned girl, are elements of a single racist trope, whose tensions well up in every act of tenderness:
And then you were fourteen, and you had grown
a glorious steel cock under your skirt. To brag
you rubbed yourself against me. 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?
The poem gets progressively more nightmarish: the “tongue . . . inside my mouth” is an image for speech and for its effacement under circumstances that here seem ecstatic, there violent. Are these lovers, or successive versions of a single person, her sexuality tainted by history? By the end of the poem, both parties have suffered a grotesque, Ovidian transformation: “You said, The bars look pretty, Baby, / then rubbed your hind legs up against mine.”
Lewis is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Southern California with a fellowship in Poetry and Visual Studies, and those disciplines join together in her book’s title poem—seventy-nine pages long, including notes and appendices—which is itself made up entirely of the “titles, catalog entries, or exhibit descriptions” of objects in Western art that depict the black female form, going back to 38,000 B.C. The sheer bulk of material that Lewis turned up in her research, and the relentlessness of the descriptions, suggests that the history of the black female body is inextricable from the institutions that claim ownership of its depictions; the subjugation is translated into symbolic terms but never undone. Two haunting epigraphs hang over the poem: an announcement, from 1939, for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Employees’ Association Minstrel Show and Dance,” and an inquiry by one “Mrs. B. L. Blankenship,” who writes that she is “anxious to buy a small healthy negro girl—ten or twelve years old.” The latter confronts us with the outright barbarism of slavery and its attendant transactions, while the former suggests how thin a disguise racism must wear at any given moment, in any given cultural institution, to pass for what we optimistically call “culture.”
Poems describing works of art are nearly as old as poems and works of art. The name for this hoary genre is ekphrasis, though in Lewis’s hands its conventions are scrambled. The problem isn’t that the works of art are silent and need a voice; it’s that we encounter them inside institutions that title and describe them for us, pre-assigning them meaning. Poetry can’t imagine these artifacts from scratch, since their labels adhere so tenaciously to them. And so Lewis followed some stringent, self-imposed rules in composing this long poem, altering nothing about her source language except its punctuation. This puts extraordinary pressure on the fundamentals of prosody. Line breaks, stanza shapes, the management and distribution of words and silence—this small repertoire of formal options is here weaponized for maximum impact. The poem moves chronologically; this is a passage from one of its early sections, “Catalog I: Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome”:
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
Head of a Young Black Woman Fragment
from a Statuette of a Black Dancing Girl
Lewis’s technique returns the humanity to these anonymous women, which, in turn, makes the objects depicting them feel like examples of, and even instruments of, real historical violence. In a gallery, it seems perfectly natural to see a woman missing her head and half of her body. Here, in a list that feels like a catalogue of atrocities, it’s nearly unbearable.
A later, formally inventive section divides women from the objects that embody them by a method of formal panning, where the residue of personhood is extracted and isolated on the page:
in the form of swimming
in the form of a carved standing
Since form is essentially neutral, its effects are wildly variable; in some instances, the technique redeems the women, who were literally objectified, but only, after all, by objectifying them in a different form. Separated from their subjects, these objects that have taken the shape of black women become formless: the poem’s own form corrects the problem by building a sombre temporal interval between object and person, as our eyes make their own voyage from the left to the right margin.
First books usually spend longer in the chrysalis than later books, and often feel more like finish lines than like starting blocks: a writer never again gets so much time off the clock. “Voyage of the Sable Venus” was made over roughly forty thousand years, if we take seriously Lewis’s continuum of historical and autobiographical time. In its final sections, many of the art works listed are by black women, including a “Venus of Compton,” whose presence suggests not only the tennis star but also Lewis’s own birth in that city. The effect is magical, a little like Hermione’s abrupt transformation, at the end of “The Winter’s Tale,” from statue to living woman. All those women made into serviceable, mute paddles and spoons, missing their limbs and heads, are, by the miracle of verbal art, restored. This may be one reason the poem is dedicated to “the legacy of black librarianship, and black librarians, worldwide”; something of their oblique, channelled genius, expressed in the social space of the library as a “collection” of books by others—black and white, dead and living—is here transferred to the aesthetic space of Lewis’s own many-chambered and remarkable collection.