“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.”
— Robin Coste Lewis, “Plantation”
National Book Award Winner, Robin Coste Lewis, unleashes her debut collection, Voyage of the Sable Venus (Knopf, 2015), in September. This invigorating collection tributes human history of the self in relation to race, culture, and art. Lewis journeys through both ancient and modern artifacts in hopes of understanding what it means to be a black female hosting a black body in this day and age. The poems not only crawl from the depths of history, but yank and pull at Lewis’ own biography; questioning racial constructs, femininity, and beauty through lyrical poetry and triptychs.
In the first section of the book, we are given poems addressing the female body and sentiment. In the poem, “On the Road to Sri Bhuvaneshwari,” we are taken on a journey through language and landscape. The speaker communicates their ability to understand the complications of language as it relates to the surrounding environment–“In Trinidad, one says clot. / The h is quiet. / A wafer of breath–just / like here. There’s no telling / what languishes inside the body”–then throws herself into a journey of the body. Soon, we are tossed into a jarring scene of a buffalo giving birth:
The calf is born dead. A folded and wet black nothing.
It falls out of its mother–still-onto the ground.
We watch it in the headlamps. Empty fur sack.
A broken umbrella made of blood and bone.
The mother tries to run. Several men hold her, throw
broad coils of ropes around her hooves. Two men, barefoot
in dhotis, grab her on each side by her horns. And wait.
They wait through her heaving. They sing
to her, they coo. Men who are midwives.
Through four translations, they say it is her first time.
She must turn around and see
what has happened to her, or she will go mad.
There is something beautiful about the way Lewis describes this scene. Although, it is horrifying to watch a mother lose her child then be forced to see it, Lewis is able to draw a patience to this. In a way we, too, are the mother being forced to see our child. The poem continues as the speaker ties the mother buffalo to herself. Confessing the horrors of birthing a black child in this society. How she must not be afraid–she must face it.
This sentiment of motherhood continues as the first section moves. In the poem, “Summer,” the speaker compares snake skin to the act of knowing you lost something that was once attached to your body. Here, we see the speaker upset at God for having a high expectation of loving something after creating it. Again, we see Lewis comparing the act of birth to godlihood. How a mother must love her child even when she is scared of what will happen to them–“I showed / my son the papery dead skin so he could / know, too, what it feels like when something shows up / at your door–twice–telling you what you already know.”
The central panel is the title poem, “Voyage of the Sable Venus,” an enthralling narrative made entirely of ancient to present Western artworks and artifacts–with titles that feature or comment on the black female figure. Lewis uses the word, “voyage,” as a compelling way to travel through ideologies of femaleness. “Voyage” becomes a study of fragments and mysteries used to describe Lewis’ biography and placement in the world. We are continuously thrown into a history where we question the self and the self in culture. There a multiple questions that arise from this section: what is female? Who belongs to female? Who uses female? What is the history a female? All of these things are unearthed, tarnished, and made beautiful as Lewis bombards us with multiple works of art.
The Queen Has Her Hair Done
Attendants with jewelry, sun shades,
and a mirror, move from right to left.
Mask of a Woman with a large coil
of Plaited Hair Mask of a Woman
with her hair in a Small Knot Mask
of a Woman with Her Hair Rolled
at the Forehead and Temples Mask
of a Woman with Austere Hair Style Mask
of a Woman with Radiating Waves of Hair.
Small and Magical Stela Anhydrite Mummy Mask
of a Woman with a Jeweled Garland Shroud Bracelet
richly adorned diadem with rosette gold
and in Lay Two Linen Marks from the Tomb
of a Tattooed Woman Sporting Boat
A Cleopatra holding a–?
Cornucopia Attendants moving
from left to right linen,
from mummy-wrapping Aphro
Dite rising from the bath. I Sis Aphro
Dite clasping a garment
rolled about her hips:
The Place of Silence
What I loved most about this section is the amount of artwork used. We are swallowed by a history where the black female body was seen as a variety of things: property, sex, mother, sister, etc. However, as the section continues, the reader grows weary and begins to understand the female body is just another object.
The final section is nothing like a “wrap-up.” In this section we are taken through the questions of generational tradition and culture, race, and family structures. Here, Lewis is mediating on her placement as it compares to the history of her family.
In the poem, “The Body in August,” we are given generations of “God”–her mother(?), herself, and her son. She expresses what it meant to be a human and wanting a way out but not taking it. How she only wishes there was something dangerous, but doesn’t wish to be in danger–“Because if the planet had a back door, we’d all still be there-waiting for the air to approve our entry. Because your eyes were the only time the peonies said yes to me. Because no matter how many times I died, I always woke up again.”
There is no resolve. There is only the water and the landing–Lewis strives to ground herself. We are left questioning our own histories. Our own cultures and race, and what it means to be a black body searching or answers that may never come in the shape of language:
she is the only one
who can still cross the River,
the only one still flying
backwards, over the Gulf
–Robin Coste Lewis, “Félicité”
You can purchase Voyage of the Sable Venus here.