Chalice and Thimble

D.S. Rao

Voyage of the Sable Venus-2


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 a�?countless statues of writers who have honoreda�� her a�?with their attention and timea�� and a�?if there is anything worthy of praisea�� 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 a�?not to look up too often at what others are doing. Your work is interesting because ita��s yoursa�� Try not to please anyone or any particular audiencea�� Resist the temptation to be clevera�� a sure sign that your mask has control of you, and not the other way around.a��

Lewis began writing poetry because of a traumatic injury. As reading, writing, and speaking made her symptomatic, her doctors told her that she a�?could only read one sentence a day, only write one sentence a day.a�� She was depressed: a�?After years of teaching literature and writing, what was a life without books?a��A� Gradually her despair gave in to a�?a sort of gamea�� and she succeeded in converting her despondence into self-control: a�?all those skills artists must acquirea��stillness, concentration, discipline, compression, wrestling with the ego, all of ita��walked in the door, hand in hand, with brain damagea�� Poetry allowed me to re-enter my work, but from a different door.a�� 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�� a unique experiment, a cross between versification and poetry, an indictment and a vindication, a festering sore and a healing balm.A� To fashion a peregrinating poem of seventy-eight pages, a�?comprised solely and entirely of the titles, catalog entries, or exhibit descriptions of Western art objectsa�� preserved in a hundred and fifteen museums and art galleries, a�?in which a black female figure is present, dating from 38,000 BCE to the presenta��, is in itself a marvel, conceding the poetic exaggeration of the millennia count. Lewis includes paintings, sculptures, installations, photographs, lithographs, and a�?other material and visual objects, such as combs, spoons, buckles, pans, knives, table legsa�� and so on.A� To these she adds a�?titles of art by black women curators and artists, whether the art included a black female figure or nota�� (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: a�?Our Black Virgin / of Recollectiona�� (68); a�?Black Mary Magdalene of Palestinea�� (70); a�?Melancholy Moses / fighting in the Land of the Blacks / where he finds a wife, historiateda�� (64)a��

Handicrafts with black figures: a�?mirror / with handle / in the form of a carved standing / black girla�� (48); a�?inkwell / in the form of a crouching / Negroa�� (50); a�?Ointment Spoon in the Form / of a Swimming Nubian Girla��; a�?Black Serving Girl / Carrying an Ointment / Chest on Her Heada�� (51); a�?Female Figure (Pipe)a��; a�?Female Rhythm Poundera�� (53) a��

More art of a�?Bust of a Draped Female Facing Forward / One Breast Exposeda��; a�?Black / Adolescent Female with Long Curls and Bare / Breasts Wearing a Voluminous Crowna��; a�?Partially Broken Young Black Girl / Presenting a Stemmed Bowl / Supported by a Monkeya�� (44); a�?Black Woman / Standing on Tiptoe / on One End of a Seesaw / While a Caricatured Figure Jumps / on the Other / EndA� (46) a��

Artistic representation of horror:

a�?La��Effroia�? (The Terror) Full-Length

A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� Figure of a Negro Woman A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� Holding

A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� Her Child Over A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� Her Head

A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A�Out of Reach A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A�Of a Serpent

A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A�Climbing Up A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A� A�Her DressA� A�A�A�A�A�A�(82)

a�?Negro / Youth Struggling with a Crocodilea��; a�?Heraldic Lion Holding / Between His Paws the Head / of a Kneeling Black Captivea�� (51) a��

The infamous slavery: a�?In a Grove of Trees Slave Woman wearing a Runaway / Collar with Two Children, emaciateda��; a�?Negro Man eating Dead / Horseflesh in the backgrounda�� (72); a�?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 Observesa�� (74) a��

The other side of the picture: a�?Massacre of Whites by Indians and Blacks in Floridaa��; a�?The Mourners bench progress of the American Negroa�� Rise, shine, for thy time has come, Negro Womana�� (93) a��

The emancipation: a�?Abraham Lincoln holding / a Kneeling Black Woman / by the wrist / and lifting Her / to Her feeta�� (78); a�?Lone Black Girl on School Bus / In Milwaukie, Wisconsina�� (88); a�?Somebody Paid the Price / for Your Right. / Register to Vote!a�� (98) a��

Look at this artwork of a�?Ancient Egypta�� 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)

A�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.A� (73)

There are a�?thirteen ways of looking at a black girla�� (108). One more is the mirror way of looking into the mind:

Looking into the mirror,

the Black Woman asked

a�?Mirror, Mirror on the wall,

whoa��s the finest of them all?a��

The Mirror says,

a�?Snow White

you Black Bitch,

and dona��t you forget it,

Sphinx!a��A�A� (102-3)

In the preceding section to the long title poem is a�?On the Road to Sri Bhuvaneshwaria�� (6-14) a�� sixty-four stanzas in five sections a�� 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:

A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A� Monsoon. Uttar Pradesh. Twenty-eight days of rain.

A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A� A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A� At dinner, someone says, During

A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A� A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A� the nineteenth century, all this water

A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A� A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A� caused the British to go

A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A� mad. They constantly committed suicide.

A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A� A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A� Later, someone else

A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A� A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A� points out their Victorian cemetery.

A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A� A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A� I smile a�� a littlea��

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, a�?Why couldna��t He just believe her?a�� She jokes with the driver, a�?even God grows wracked with doubt.a�� The guide says, a�?During the medieval period, virgins were sacrificed here.a�� a�?Youa��re lying, I say. Save it / for somebody pale. He smiles, passes / me a bidi.a��

On their way back at night, the cars stop, the road is blocked with men, women and children: a buffalo is giving birth:

A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A� Out of habit, the students pull out their American sympathy,

A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A� A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A� but then the driver says all the women sitting there

A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A� A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A� on the ground, dusty, with children in their laps, dangling

A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A� A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A� their ankles over the mountain, adorned a�� all a��

A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A� wear enough gold, own enough

A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A� A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A� buffalo to buy your whole house a�� cash a��

A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A� A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A� solid gold bangles, thick as bagels;

A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A� diamonds so large and rough they look

A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A� A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A� like large cubes of clear glass.

The calf is born dead, a�?empty fur sacka�� a broken umbrella made of blood and bone.a�� The cars cannot move until the mother-buffalo is calmed.

Ten years later, the poet-persona remembers all this and wonders:

A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A� To spend your entire life a�� out of doors a�� walking the world

A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A� A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A� with your whole family and neighborhood. To stay

A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A� A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A� together, to leave together. What a blessing. I think,

A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A� 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: a�?Once / this beam of wood stood high / inside a great dark foresta�� I am a valley of repeating / verdant balconies.a�� The linear and cyclical views of life merge into a unified vision.

The poet-persona could be ponderous, frustrated and angry. She thinks, a�?We are alluvial, obsidian. / Sometimes the ground swells.a�� A�She despairs: a�?We sing nine-hundred-year-old hymns / That instruct us in how to sit still / For forty-nine years / Through a fifty-year droughta��A� (15). The senseless slaughter, then and now, is put into three quatrains and a couplet in a�?From: To:a�� (20). In a�?Let Me Live in a House by the Side of the Road and Be a Friend to Mana�� (24-26), the racial divide is captured in heretical imagery: a�?In their Heaven, God is a politician / who cana��t get enough votes / to be the Dog-Catcher a�� A�But in my Heaven a�� God is a melodramatic comedian who curses / Just as elegantly as Richard Pyor a�� The angels wear discarded clothes / Made from painted and quilted dungarees.a�� In a�?Red All Overa�� (22), sheer imagery startles: a�?The politics of frogs a�� Cackling from the Bible a�� Girl asleep in the avocado a�� Bickering Birds-of-Paradise / Picketing the fickle front door.a�� In a�?Summera�� (31), juxtaposing banana peeling and snake sloughing, the poet curses a�?God a�� His arrogance, / His gall a�� to still expect our devotion / After creating love. And mosquitoes.a��

Section Three has seven poems of varying length, some sounding autobiographical. The black kids have to be careful not to outshine the white: a�?During Arts and Crafts, when Miss Larson allowed / the scissors out, Ia��d sneak a pair, then cut / my hair to stop me from growing too longa�� (121). a�?Framea�� (117-20), records the haunting black experience: a�?we could not own property / except in certain codes a�� 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, / theya��d know a�� and wea��d know too a�� / who was what and what was who.a��

God is Woman in a�?The Body in Augusta�� (125), and the imagery moves from the child and Mother, to the mother and Child.

The poeta��s academic pursuits get her to blend the Occident and the Orient in a�?Pleasure and Understandinga�� (129-31):

A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A� I exist! I exist! I exist! grunts the ego, while the Self reclines a��

A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A� A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A� slides him a tray, and says: Choose!

A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A�A� A chalice of pleasure, or a thimble of understanding? (129)

Rarely do blurb and book match: a�?a stunning poetry debuta�� indeed is Robin Coste Lewisa�� Voyage of the Sable Venus, both for the chalice and the thimble.

Dr DS RaoD.S. Rao, Ph.D., is an author, literary critic, retired professor, and former Editor of Indian Literature, the academic and literary bimonthly of Sahitya Akademi, the National Academy of Letters, India. Presently, he is based in Minneapolis, but divides his time between USA and India.

2 Responses

  1. Mukunda Ramarao says:

    A very interesting narration. It is a wonder as to how she could come out with such a great work. Surprised to know about her thinking of Ekalavya too. That shows how much she reads and imbibes .. Congratulations to her and thanks to Sri DSRao garu for making us to know about her wonderful journey ..

    Mukundaramarao

  2. J.L..Reddy says:

    Triumph of the human spirit.
    Thanks for introducing a poet with such grit and talent.
    You say now you will stop writing these reviews and turn your attention to some thing else. I hope you will make us partners in your quest of of that ‘some thing else’. also.

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