review: THE VOYAGE OF THE SABLE VENUS by robin coste lewis

This review was originally published at on 2.1.16

Awards don’t impress me. This is not to say that if I wrote a book and someone, or a board of someones, decided to give me an award (or some money) that I would reject it. Awards rescue writers from obscurity, they propel people to keep reading, etc etc.

However, they also create this weird dynamic of deserving. Some people see those stickers on book jackets and think, “These are the only books worth reading.” Where I experience this bias, and how it affects me directly, is when someone comes to Brazos Bookstore looking for a gift for, say, their Aunt Peggy, who “only likes books that win awards…”

I am not Aunt Peggy. So, when I open THE VOYAGE OF THE SABLE VENUS by Robin Coste Lewis, debut poetry collection and National Book Award-winner, I dare it to impress me. And for all my anti-hype wariness, it’s immediate. In the first poem “Plantation,” Lewis writes: “Because you had never been hungry, I knew / I could tell you the black side / of my family owned slaves.”

In three simple lines, Lewis calls out slavery apologists and attacks the misconception that we live in a post-racial society by challenging our textbook understanding of race in America. It’s easy for anyone to say that slavery is over and racism is dead. Once upon a time, the whites abused the blacks then the blacks got free and we lived happily-ever-after. This is not that. When the speaker confesses something personal, something awful, it complicates that portrait.

However, the true marvel in this passage is not that Lewis contains so much in so little—she is a poet, after all. It is her decision to approach the reader as a lover. Here, the speaker harbors no outrage, only shame. The speaker says, “I am going to share this with you, this thing I never share with anyone.” It’s irresistible, this intimacy.

By the end of the poem, though, the sweetness (“We laughed when I said plantation, / fell into our chairs when I said cane”) turns sinister. Not because of anything inside the poem—the speaker maintains adoration (“And meanwhile, all I could think about / were the innumerable ways I would’ve loved / to have eaten you”). It’s the indignation the reader feels that the speaker also maintains silence (arguably when there should be screaming):

You pulled
my pubic bone toward you. I didn’t
say, It’s still broken; I didn’t tell

you, There’s still this crack. It was sore,
but I stayed silent because you were smiling.

The lover remains the lover, the halo above the speaker’s head almost a thing one can touch. It is not endearing. Instead, it remembers this famous quote by Zora Neale Hurston: “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”

VOYAGE comes in three parts: two bookends (a brief and debrief, as it were) and the eponymous middle section. Sprawling seventy-two pages, “Voyage of the Sable Venus” is “a narrative poem comprised solely and entirely of the titles, catalogue entries, and exhibit description of Western art objects in which a black female figure is present, dating from 38,000 BCE to the present.” The list of galleries, museums, and historical societies that Lewis visited for research alone spans three and a half pages, with sites from the University of Michigan Museum of Art to the Egyptian Museum of Cairo.

Reading through “Voyage of the Sable Venus,” the effort put into the redux of already curated work is palpable. Like walking through an actual museum, it takes time to explore it all, at least for me. There are certain passages I read multiple times, like “II.” on pages forty eight through fifty. Each page of “II.” has two columns. On the left, objects (water jar, pointment spoon, two nails); on the right, details (“a Bes and an Isia dancing / back to back,” “with two heads / of black women forming”). There is no punctuation. I read all the objects together, all the details together. I read it top to bottom, left to right.

On page eighty-eight, a piece of something I know, when Lewis writes, “Lone Black Girl on School Bus / in Milwaukee, Wisconsin,” followed by something I know nothing about, “Head of a Girl Wearing an Ornate Head // Dress.” Another grounding passage: on page eighty-nine when Lewis repeats “Moorish” over and over, “Moorish” as a word that I tend not to encounter. Lewis, though, probably knows this and so, transforms it into an incantation:

Moorish Women
On their way
To the cemetery

Moorish Women
On their way
To a marabout

Moorish Women Taking
A Walk Moorish
Women in Town

Attire Moorish
Woman in City

Other times, the writing is clear as a brick to the face, as when in “Dick-and-Jane-with-Me Page Spread / The Upper Room II Flipside Shelf” a Black Woman asks, “Mirror, Mirror on the wall, / who’s the finest of them all?” and the Mirror replies, with no preamble, “Snow White / you Black Bitch, / and don’t you forget it.”

In her acknowledgements, Lewis dedicates “Voyage of the Sable Venus” to “the legacy of black librarianship, and black librarians, worldwide.”

The idea of the black slave-owning relatives returns in the last poem of collection “Félicité,” which is dedicated to Lewis’s mother, “and her mother, and hers, ad infinitum.” This time, the speaker is not an “I” addressing an absent “you,” the reader as a stand-in. It is Lewis, or the voice of Lewis. If “Plantation” is the stylized version, the one that is performed, “Félicité” is the one for a diary. Here, the bewilderment, lacking from the first poem, is obvious:

He took great pleasure
in watching black women
hanged inside the Square

to musical accompaniment.
I read this about him once,
then tried to see her,

brown, sleeping
next to him, fucking him
on her plantation, on top of a pineapple

bed, kissing behind his ears
sharing an alligator
pear, strolling

through her cane.

There is disgust. There is loyalty. There is this story that is passed through this blood, in these bodies, generating “this sensation [Lewis has] had for years: / that of another body / hovering inside me / waiting for address.” The woman in question, Marie Panis, is there, inside Lewis. Marie Panis: black woman, wife, slave owner, Lewis’s grandmother a handful of “great”s back. “What can History possibly say?” Lewis writes. She continues:

Sometimes I feel a pride I cannot defend
or explain. Sometimes I smile.

Into the barbed nectar
of this story I have stared
my whole life.

She stares, from black woman to black woman, from venus to venus, ad infinitum.

interview w/ wendy s walters

This interview was originally published on in August 2015

“Lonely in America,” the first essay in Wendy S. Walters’ MULTIPLY/DIVIDE, begins like this: “I have never been particularly interested in slavery, perhaps because it is such an obvious fact of my family’s history.” Whatever the reason, the idea of a woman with slavery in her bloodline having little interest in her history intrigues me—especially when compared to someone like my friend Rachel, whose distant relative’s involvement in the Nazi movement caused her to question her own identity. Who chooses what we care about, or how we assess our personal histories against larger world histories? In “Lonely in America,” variations of this question eventually lead Walters to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where “eight coffins and the remains of thirteen people were removed” from beneath the city streets. Walters reports that “at least four of the remains in questions were of African ancestry, most likely slaves buried there in the 1700s.”

“[Portsmouth] is a really lovely town,” Walters tells me over the phone, “but beneath the city streets, there’s this history that’s really not part of the public identity of the city,” meaning that New England’s history with segregation often gets buried—literally, in this case. She was fascinated by the idea of “people [living] their daily lives on top of this cemetery,” not knowing what lay just below the surface. In this essay, and throughout the book, Walters searches for ways to keep herself awake, alert, and present. “There’s…a lot of pain in history and present context of America,” she tells me. “[MULTIPLY/DIVIDE], for me, is an attempt to figure out where the pain is located in these historical moments and historical records that we are familiar with.”

The story you remember from history class is not, should not, cannot, be the only story.

The overarching question Walters spent years contemplating was: “How functional is our democracy?” And beneath that was yet another question: “What makes someone visible or un-visible?” By “un-visible,” Walters doesn’t mean “invisible”; rather, she refers to the people we have the ability to see, but whom we choose not to recognize. All of MULTIPLY/DIVIDE centers around this distinction. “How do I become visible or not visible to people in my day-to-day experience?” Walters asks herself throughout this book. “How [do I make myself] more open to seeing people that I may have dismissed, ignored, or written off as a character of a trope of something I thought I understood? How do I make it so I learn to see better?”

Keeping a sharp eye becomes even more vital when one considers the number of race-motivated murders in America, and the disturbing or absent coverage of the deaths of black men and women in the mainstream media. The onslaught of violence grew all the more visible to Walters when she became a mother while writing MULTIPLY/DIVIDE. “I don’t know if [my newfound motherhood] was any more remarkable than anyone else’s,” Walters says, “but it certainly was one of those moments [when my] thinking was reset.”

In her “attempt to bring to light some of the contradictions about American identities and aspiration,” Walters employs a mix of genres. In fact, the introduction outlines which essays in the collection are fiction, nonfiction, and lyric essays, “a form that blends poetry and prose, memoir and reporting, actual and imagined events.” Why the combination? Why not just all fiction or all nonfiction? Why not poetry, like her previous books TROY, MICHIGAN and LONGER I WAIT, MORE YOU LOVE ME? “I make [these] categorizations because I think they are important,” Walters writes. “But I also make them with a bit of pause, because the border between nonfiction and fiction—while seemingly clear as black and white—is often porous enough to render the distinction as irrelevant.” Since the same could be said about the real and the surreal, as Walters points out, she hopes to address “nuances as they unfold place by place, argument by argument, and story by story,” rather than limit herself or her subject to a single genre. “I’m of the mindset that I just try to write down what I’m obsessed about and worry about how it fits into the larger puzzle later,” Walters tells me.

Sarabande Books, Walters’ publisher, frequently releases works of formal complexity. When I ask Kristen Radtke, Sarabande’s managing editor, about the form of MULTIPLY/DIVIDE—whether people will understand once it’s a thing out in the world—she says, “It’s easier to market things if you can say, ‘This is exactly what this is about,’ [but] what’s interesting about [Walters’] book is that it’s associative in the way our minds are.” It’s not one of those books that’s easy to pitch, but the writing itself will make its difficult subject matter more digestible. “You never really feel like you’re being preached at, but you feel like you’re living her experiences with her,” Radtke says. “She’s really talking about a lot of issues that we’re all thinking about, the way Americans need change.”

Radtke says that giving a bold but largely unknown writer like Wendy S. Walters a home “makes her feel like she’s succeeding.” Plus, “most of our authors that move on to larger houses still remain friends to Sarabande.” It truly seems like a family, especially when Radtke tells me that “we are actually a staff entirely of women,” which is unicorn-rare for the industry. “It’s kind of an amazing gift to be part of a team of forward-thinking, progressive women,” Radtke says. “It’s something that I never thought would be possible.”

What both women—Walters and Radtke—seem to be advocating is that we should not keep our biases about what is or isn’t possible buried, but that we should dig them up and hold them to the light. The hope? That acknowledging and assessing the mistakes in our own thinking can help craft better futures.