A startling shift in perspective occurs as we read—and remains with us after we have read—the title poem in Robin Coste Lewis’s first collection, Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems, which received the 2015 National Book Award in Poetry. The poem is an incantatory compilation of the names of art works, catalog entries, and scholarly texts describing “Western art objects in which a black female figure is present, dating from 38,000 BCE to the present.” Lewis’s ambitious narrative poem is itself a kind of catalog that alters the way we see and think about a wide range of visual art. It affects our view of the historical, political, and cultural climate in which that art was created, collected, exhibited, and preserved.
In a prologue, Lewis explains the guidelines that determined her principles of selection of art objects portraying black women and the process of composition. The titles of the works were to remain intact and unaltered, though the grammar and punctuation of the names and the texts were modified: “I erased all periods, commas, semicolons.” The following passage illustrates how the poem’s idiosyncratic orthography increases its music, wit, and mystery, even as the reader may succumb to the temptation to reassemble, for greater clarity, the fragments of language:
Anyonymous speaking at memorial for Four Negro Girls
killed in church bombing in Birming. Ham.
President Kennedy addressing the crowd: A Red Boo!
A Negro Boo! Young Girls being held
in a prison cell at the Leesburg
Stockade. Wounded, civil.
Rights demonstrators in the hospital
and on the street-burned-out-bus:
Bronzeville Inn Cabins for Coloreds. Here lies
Jim Crow drink Coca-Cola white.
In compiling her list, Lewis tells us, she broadened the definition of art beyond the categories of painting, sculpture, and photography that are customarily employed by art historians. That definition is expanded here to include objects—“combs, spoons, buckles, pans, knives, table legs”—that incorporate the figures of black females as design elements. She has included black women who passed for white, and, in some cases, has chosen to use a museum’s description of a work rather than its title.
Lewis makes a cogent case for her use of black rather than African-American:
At some point, I realized that museums and libraries (in what I imagine must have been either a hard-won gesture of goodwill, or in order not to appear irrelevant) had removed many nineteenth-century historically specific markers—such as slave, colored, and Negro—from their titles or archives, and replaced these words instead with the sanitized, but perhaps equally vapid, African-American. In order to replace this historical…
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