featured book: Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems by Robin Coste Lewis

($26 Knopf)

This is a most remarkable book. Offered in three sections, the collection opens and closes with personal poetry of gender, motherhood, childhood, race, grace, and rage; poems of uniformly deep intelligence and deep feeling. Ms. Lewis’s work sits firmly alongside the work of the great Gwendolyn Brooks with its sly formal elements and clear-eyed relationship to black life, female life, and all life.

* * *


At last, a dark murderous lunatic
to whom they are allowed to respond.
Here, no one expects them to be strung
up by their necks—dangled—and then left

to be cut down from a tall tree—and not cry.
No law—here—will require them to watch
their families hurled on top of the world’s bright pyre,
over generations—without complaint—

unattended by rage’s holiness
or the clear mirror of grief. They find some
chalk to celebrate. While one loads, one lifts,
then checks. Just before they ignite the bomb,

they write on its shell—FROM HARLEM, TO HITLER—
then stand back for the camera, smiling.

* * *

Art & Craft

I would figure out all the right answers
first, then gently mark a few of them wrong.
If a quiz had ten problems, I’d cancel
out one. When it had twenty, I’d bite my tongue

then leave at least two questions blank: ______ ______.
A B was good, but an A was too good.
They’d kick your ass, call your big sister
slow, then stare over your desk, as if you’d

snaked out of a different hole. Knowing
taught me—quickly—to spell community
more honestly: l-o-n-e-l-y.
During Arts and Crafts, when Miss Larson allowed

the scissors out, I’d sneak a pair, then cut
my hair to stop me from growing too long.

* * *

The core of the book, the second section, is Voyage of the Sable Venus, which is, in Ms. Lewis’s words, “a narrative poem comprised solely and entirely of the titles, catalog entries, or exhibit descriptions of Western art objects in which a black female figure is present, dating from 38,000 BCE to the present.” The piece is indescribably moving, allowing the language of curation, wherein ‘others’ are object, are ornamentation, to act as its own critique.

* * *

(from) Voyage of the Sable Venus

Catalog I:

[Two Nubian Prisoners Bound
to a Post] Protome [Probably

the Handle of a Whip
or Other Implement] Oil Flask Back

View Head of an African Prisoner
Statue of Prisoner Kneeling Arms

Bound at the Elbows
Left Arm Missing

Bust of a Nubian Prisoner
with Fragmentary Arms

Bound Behind Funerary Mask
of a Negro with Inlaid Glass Eyes

and Traces of Incrustations
Present in the Mouth

Censer in the Form of a Nude Negro
Dwarf Standing with His Hands

at His Sides upon an Ornate Tripod
and Supporting on His Head

a Small Cup
in the Shape

of a Lotus

* * *

Such elegantly moving work. The presence of history is most often cloaked by our daily, arm’s-reach concerns. Robin Coste Lewis’s book profoundly makes history palpable. She does so beautifully.