Chalice and Thimble
Voyage of the Sable Venus by Robin Coste Lewis. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 2015. Pages x+142, price $26. National Book Award Winner.
Robin Coste Lewis begins her acceptance speech of the National Book Award, 2015, recounting the tale of Ekalavya, and says that like the low born archer of the Mahabharata, she has in her mind fashioned, not one, but ‘countless statues of writers who have honored’ her ‘with their attention and time’ and ‘if there is anything worthy of praise’ in her work, it is because of what she has learned from them. She adds that she has, from these illustrious masters, copied, even stolen, every gorgeous, strong gesture and trick she could mime. Playfully she says so, no doubt, for she advises budding poets ‘not to look up too often at what others are doing. Your work is interesting because it’s yours… Try not to please anyone or any particular audience… Resist the temptation to be clever… a sure sign that your mask has control of you, and not the other way around.’
Lewis began writing poetry because of a traumatic injury. As reading, writing, and speaking made her symptomatic, her doctors told her that she ‘could only read one sentence a day, only write one sentence a day.’ She was depressed: ‘After years of teaching literature and writing, what was a life without books?’ Gradually her despair gave in to ‘a sort of game’ and she succeeded in converting her despondence into self-control: ‘all those skills artists must acquire—stillness, concentration, discipline, compression, wrestling with the ego, all of it—walked in the door, hand in hand, with brain damage… Poetry allowed me to re-enter my work, but from a different door.’ And the result is a first volume of verse, published at the age of fifty-one, winning the National Book Award.
Placed between two sections of lyrical, narrative, philosophical and shocking poesy, is the long title poem, with a Prologue, Inventory and Invocation to eight Catalogs, and Notes – a unique experiment, a cross between versification and poetry, an indictment and a vindication, a festering sore and a healing balm. To fashion a peregrinating poem of seventy-eight pages, ‘comprised solely and entirely of the titles, catalog entries, or exhibit descriptions of Western art objects’ preserved in a hundred and fifteen museums and art galleries, ‘in which a black female figure is present, dating from 38,000 BCE to the present’, is in itself a marvel, conceding the poetic exaggeration of the millennia count. Lewis includes paintings, sculptures, installations, photographs, lithographs, and ‘other material and visual objects, such as combs, spoons, buckles, pans, knives, table legs’ and so on. To these she adds ‘titles of art by black women curators and artists, whether the art included a black female figure or not’ (35). The result indeed is an epic saga of the sable Venus, of her travels over land and sea, across centuries.
Consequently, the imagery charts a wide range, from the hallowed to the horrid, with a good deal in between, giving us a glimpse of the ups and downs of the human race:
There are the Biblical figures in sable: ‘Our Black Virgin / of Recollection’ (68); ‘Black Mary Magdalene of Palestine’ (70); ‘Melancholy Moses / fighting in the Land of the Blacks / where he finds a wife, historiated’ (64)…
Handicrafts with black figures: ‘mirror / with handle / in the form of a carved standing / black girl’ (48); ‘inkwell / in the form of a crouching / Negro’ (50); ‘Ointment Spoon in the Form / of a Swimming Nubian Girl’; ‘Black Serving Girl / Carrying an Ointment / Chest on Her Head’ (51); ‘Female Figure (Pipe)’; ‘Female Rhythm Pounder’ (53) …
More art of ‘Bust of a Draped Female Facing Forward / One Breast Exposed’; ‘Black / Adolescent Female with Long Curls and Bare / Breasts Wearing a Voluminous Crown’; ‘Partially Broken Young Black Girl / Presenting a Stemmed Bowl / Supported by a Monkey’ (44); ‘Black Woman / Standing on Tiptoe / on One End of a Seesaw / While a Caricatured Figure Jumps / on the Other / End (46) …
Artistic representation of horror:
“L’Effroi” (The Terror) Full-Length
Figure of a Negro Woman Holding
Her Child Over Her Head
Out of Reach Of a Serpent
Climbing Up Her Dress (82)
‘Negro / Youth Struggling with a Crocodile’; ‘Heraldic Lion Holding / Between His Paws the Head / of a Kneeling Black Captive’ (51) …
The infamous slavery: ‘In a Grove of Trees Slave Woman wearing a Runaway / Collar with Two Children, emaciated’; ‘Negro Man eating Dead / Horseflesh in the background’ (72); ‘Two Black Overseers / Flogging Two Negro Slaves / One a Nude Man Suspended from a Tree / The Other a Woman / Bared to the Waist and Tied / To a Tree as a White Woman Observes’ (74) …
The other side of the picture: ‘Massacre of Whites by Indians and Blacks in Florida’; ‘The Mourners bench progress of the American Negro… Rise, shine, for thy time has come, Negro Woman’ (93) …
The emancipation: ‘Abraham Lincoln holding / a Kneeling Black Woman / by the wrist / and lifting Her / to Her feet’ (78); ‘Lone Black Girl on School Bus / In Milwaukie, Wisconsin’ (88); ‘Somebody Paid the Price / for Your Right. / Register to Vote!’ (98) …
Look at this artwork of ‘Ancient Egypt’ and make up your mind whether it is of the unfortunate hermaphrodite or someone sacred:
A standing figure of a Laughing Person
wearing a short tunic with large broad nose, thick
lips, and both male and female attributes: his right
arm broken off at the elbow, the left
arm missing completely. (55)
And then the Sable Venus:
Nude Black Woman
in an Oyster Shell
Drawn by Dolphins
through the Water
and accompanied by Cupids,
Neptune, and Others. (73)
There are ‘thirteen ways of looking at a black girl’ (108). One more is the mirror way of looking into the mind:
Looking into the mirror,
the Black Woman asked
‘Mirror, Mirror on the wall,
who’s the finest of them all?’
The Mirror says,
you Black Bitch,
and don’t you forget it,
In the preceding section to the long title poem is ‘On the Road to Sri Bhuvaneshwari’ (6-14) – sixty-four stanzas in five sections – remarkable for lyric philosophy, poignant, profound, punctuated with genuine humor. The poet-persona of America is on a tour to India with fellow students, and visits the hill temple of Sri Bhuvaneswari:
Monsoon. Uttar Pradesh. Twenty-eight days of rain.
At dinner, someone says, During
the nineteenth century, all this water
caused the British to go
mad. They constantly committed suicide.
Later, someone else
points out their Victorian cemetery.
I smile – a little…
The legend goes that Parvati jumped into celestial fire to prove her purity and parts of her charred body fell over the mountains. The American girl wonders, ‘Why couldn’t He just believe her?’ She jokes with the driver, ‘even God grows wracked with doubt.’ The guide says, ‘During the medieval period, virgins were sacrificed here.’ ‘You’re lying, I say. Save it / for somebody pale. He smiles, passes / me a bidi.’
On their way back at night, the cars stop, the road is blocked with men, women and children: a buffalo is giving birth:
Out of habit, the students pull out their American sympathy,
but then the driver says all the women sitting there
on the ground, dusty, with children in their laps, dangling
their ankles over the mountain, adorned – all –
wear enough gold, own enough
buffalo to buy your whole house – cash …
solid gold bangles, thick as bagels;
diamonds so large and rough they look
like large cubes of clear glass.
The calf is born dead, ‘empty fur sack… a broken umbrella made of blood and bone.’ The cars cannot move until the mother-buffalo is calmed.
Ten years later, the poet-persona remembers all this and wonders:
To spend your entire life – out of doors – walking the world
with your whole family and neighborhood. To stay
together, to leave together. What a blessing. I think,
and then, What a curse!
The World wants to know what she is made of: she walks towards the stairwell, her hands on the mahogany rail, and gives the World her answer: ‘Once / this beam of wood stood high / inside a great dark forest… I am a valley of repeating / verdant balconies.’ The linear and cyclical views of life merge into a unified vision.
The poet-persona could be ponderous, frustrated and angry. She thinks, ‘We are alluvial, obsidian. / Sometimes the ground swells.’ She despairs: ‘We sing nine-hundred-year-old hymns / That instruct us in how to sit still / For forty-nine years / Through a fifty-year drought’ (15). The senseless slaughter, then and now, is put into three quatrains and a couplet in ‘From: To:’ (20). In ‘Let Me Live in a House by the Side of the Road and Be a Friend to Man’ (24-26), the racial divide is captured in heretical imagery: ‘In their Heaven, God is a politician / who can’t get enough votes / to be the Dog-Catcher … But in my Heaven … God is a melodramatic comedian who curses / Just as elegantly as Richard Pyor … The angels wear discarded clothes / Made from painted and quilted dungarees.’ In ‘Red All Over’ (22), sheer imagery startles: ‘The politics of frogs … Cackling from the Bible … Girl asleep in the avocado … Bickering Birds-of-Paradise / Picketing the fickle front door.’ In ‘Summer’ (31), juxtaposing banana peeling and snake sloughing, the poet curses ‘God – His arrogance, / His gall – to still expect our devotion / After creating love. And mosquitoes.’
Section Three has seven poems of varying length, some sounding autobiographical. The black kids have to be careful not to outshine the white: ‘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’ (121). ‘Frame’ (117-20), records the haunting black experience: ‘we could not own property / except in certain codes … where the construction companies were under contract / with the LAPD to tile or tar our addresses onto our roofs, / so when their helicopters needed to shoot, / they’d know – and we’d know too – / who was what and what was who.’
God is Woman in ‘The Body in August’ (125), and the imagery moves from the child and Mother, to the mother and Child.
The poet’s academic pursuits get her to blend the Occident and the Orient in ‘Pleasure and Understanding’ (129-31):
I exist! I exist! I exist! grunts the ego, while the Self reclines …
slides him a tray, and says: Choose!
A chalice of pleasure, or a thimble of understanding? (129)
Rarely do blurb and book match: ‘a stunning poetry debut’ indeed is Robin Coste Lewis’ Voyage of the Sable Venus, both for the chalice and the thimble.