Voyage of the Sable Venus is Robin Coste Lewis’ first book of poetry. It also just won the National Book Award. That’s an impressive feat but that’s not why you should read this book.
The collection is split into three parts. The first section consists of several individual poems. Most of them are shorter and play around with form and construction. Read aloud, some of the poems can sound like elegant prose but on the page the sentences are broken up with the last word often affixed to the beginning of the next line, changing the meaning of the abandoned line and the new one. And the third section is a smaller collection of slightly wordier poems with less formal experimentation but the same amount of visceral emotion. The second section is the title piece. There is a note at the beginning where Lewis explains the rules she set for herself in writing it. It’s constructed like a narrative poem but it doesn’t tell a simple story. As a means of exploring how African-American women have been displayed in art, she set a highly conceptual conceit for this work. She found art pieces (of almost all kinds) in museums and libraries around the world that depict African-American women or that were created by African-American women. She then took the titles and/or descriptions that accompany the pieces and rearranged them into multiple poems. Without knowing what she was doing, many of the poems read like engaging and rhythmic abstract poetry. Knowing the rules, an entirely new level of meaning emerges.
These are not love sonnets if that wasn’t clear. Though, several of the poems in the first and third section express deep romantic or familial love. And much of the second section creates the impression of understanding and loving your own identity. The ideas and feelings represented in this brief collection run the range. There might be a poem or two that could be read politely on a sunny day but most of the subjects require thought and discomfort. There are violent images and what can only be assumed are personal revelations. This is the poetry of high stakes. Lewis’ skill and inventiveness are what separate this book from so many others.
If you like this book, you could try Collected Poems by James Wright, another poet who split the difference between playing with form and telling a story.