2015 National Book Award for Poetry
In Voyage of the Sable Venus, Robin Coste Lewis explores the black female figure's appearances over the span of Western art — to sometimes startling outcomes — in this breathtaking debut collection. Recommended By Maya M., Powells.com
Synopses & Reviews
WINNER OF THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD
stunning poetry debut: this meditation on the black female figure
throughout time introduces us to a brave and penetrating new voice.
Robin Coste Lewis’s electrifying collection is a triptych that begins
and ends with lyric poems considering the roles desire and race play in
the construction of the self. The central panel is the title poem,
“Voyage of the Sable Venus,” a riveting 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 autobiographical poems, “Voyage” is a tender and
shocking study of the fragmentary mysteries of stereotype, as it
juxtaposes our names for things with what we actually see and know.
Offering 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 has art played in this ancient, often heinous
story? From the “Young Black Female Carrying / a Perfume Vase” to a
“Little Brown Girl / Girl Standing in a Tree / First Day of Voluntary /
School Integration,” this poet 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 and how they define us all, including herself, as she
explores 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.
“Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems reframes the black figure, most specifically the black female, by pointing out the borders of black beauty, black happiness, and black resilience in our canonical visual culture. Tender and masterful opening and closing poems bookend the archival, lyric masterwork, “Voyage of the Sable Venus,” at the center of the collection. This title poem upends the language of representation, collected from the cataloging of the black body in Western art. Robin Coste Lewis takes back depictions of the black feminine and refuses to land or hold down that which has always been alive and loving and lovely. Altogether new, open, experimental and ground-breaking, Lewis privileges real life in all its complications, surprises and triumphs over the frames that have locked down the scale of black womanhood.” Claudia Rankine
“Robin Coste Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus is an experimental tribute to a human history that embraces truth and adventure. She shows how cultures traverse terrains and comingle. These poignant poems, through a poetic excavation, unearth figures that make us question racial constructs. The body is at the center of this imagistic inquiry, and each line is a blind stitch in the psychological metrics of the whole. Lewis’s first collection, a detailed tapestry of ancient and modern behavior — names, dates, and emotional marginalia — is one of a kind.” Yusef Komunyakaa
About the Author
Robin Coste Lewis is a Provost’s Fellow in Poetry and Visual Studies at the University of Southern California. She is also a Cave Canem fellow and a fellow of the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities. She received her MFA in poetry from NYU, and an MTS in Sanskrit and comparative religious literature from the Divinity School at Harvard University. A finalist for the Rita Dove Poetry Award, she has published her work in various journals and anthologies, including The Massachusetts Review, Callaloo, The Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review, Transition: Women in Literary Arts, VIDA, Phantom Limb, and Lambda Literary Review, among others. She has taught at Wheaton College, Hunter College, Hampshire College, and the NYU Low-Residency MFA in Paris. Lewis was born in Compton, California; her family is from New Orleans.