VOYAGE OF THE SABLE VENUS

FIVE LYRICS FROM A NEW EPIC SEQUENCE

September 30, 2015  By Robin Coste Lewis
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Are you ready to descend, enter, follow and be marked by these lyrics that make up the long-poem sequence of Robin Coste Lewis’ debut poetry collection, just published from Knopf, a sequence which also grants her book its gorgeous (and ghostly) title: Voyage of the Sable Venus. Lewis describes the project in her Prologue below as a “narrative poem” but one could also call it a feminist/queer epic, a conceptual tour de force, a revolutionary re-naming, hallucinated index, resurrected archive. And still, this grand poem is also a reckoning that goes back to what poetry, art and race have in violent commonality: the power of naming. What does it mean in 2015 to scour a seemingly infinite network of references to the black body throughout Western art history and from those searches forge a poem? Lewis is a lyric poet yet how unlike Wallace Stevens’  The Paltry Nude Starts on a Spring Voyage whose “irretrievable way” reads as insular symbol of the imagination. Lewis is a conceptual poet yet how unlike the sensationalized recent white projects that blithely replicate trauma of/against POC bodies.  Here, her work does not subsume nor raze its source material, nor does it sever it from history (which would be twice over as these works first existed within the polite vocabularies of the institutional art complex). Nor does this work pretend it is possible to reattach these titles, these whittled phrases back to some originary, healed or healing, “pure” source. Yes, they are like ruins but how eerie to remember they are far from ancient ones.

Lewis’ words mark all these rococo mental voyages, but the title also invariably harkens to a very literal, historical one: the Middle Passage. That is, the advent of the slave trade and the murderous claiming of African souls as less-than-human, as cargo, as labor. The poet cannot and does not intend to take this Roll Call of Black Objectification backwards. She can’t reassemble these figures to their rightful representations, nor trace what total histories have been lost to us (as is the case with almost every work of art). So where can the poem go? I believe this modern epic posits a radical black future built in the present/presence of Art no longer sealed off from, no longer repressing, no longer separate from History. Rather, these entries and catalogue descriptions of “objects” become (almost) (as if) animate again, at least imaginatively. Now as a chorus of women in tableau. Now as a context where the black figure is central, not adjacent. Now where, sublimely, blackness finds “relief.” What a thing is language. Relief: literally raising materials from their sculptural background to create tapestries of movement and body and dimension. But also relief: a sigh or release of burden from the trapped, forgotten, brutalized world of historical (and art-historical), geo-political objecthood. What she has done is not about burning down the old, nor constructing up a new, museum. These figures’ most miraculous voyage, perhaps, is their exit from capital toward life. Boundless, imaginative life that is the life of poetry. A poetry seared with its—and therefore our—history. 

—Adam Fitzgerald, Poetry Editor


VOYAGE OF THE SABLE VENUS

 

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And never to forget beauty,
however strange or difficult

REGINALD SHEPHERD

 

Prologue:

What follows is a narrative poem comprised solely and entirely of the titles, catalogue entries, or exhibit descriptions of Western art objects in which a black female figure is present, dating from 38,000 BCE to the present.

The formal rules I set for myself were simple:

1) No title could be broken or changed in any way. While the grammar is completely modified–I erased all periods, commas, semi-colons–each title was left as published, and was not syntactically annotated, edited, or fragmented.

2) “Art” included paintings, sculpture, installations, photography, lithographs, engraving, any work on paper, etc–all those traditional mediums now recognized by the Western art-historical project. However, because black female figures were also used in ways I could never have anticipated, I was forced to expand that definition to include other material and visual objects, such as combs, spoons, buckles, pans, knives, table legs.

3) At some point, I realized that museums and libraries (in what I imagine must have been a hard-won gesture of goodwill, or in order not to appear irrelevant) had removed many 19th century historically-specific markers, such as slave, colored, or 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 erasure of slavery (however well-intended), I re-erased the post-modern “African-American” and changed all those titles back. That is, I re-corrected the corrected horror to allow that original horror to stand. My intent was to explore and record not only the history of human thought, but also how normative and complicit artists, art institutions and art historians have all been in participating in–if not creating–this history.

4) As an homage, I decided to include titles of art by black women artists and curators, whether the art included a black female figure or not. Most of this work was created over the last century, with its deepest saturation occurring since the Cold War. I also included work by black queer artists, regardless of gender, because this body of work has made consistently some of the richest, most elegant, least pretentious contributions to Western art interrogations of gender and race.

5) In a few instances, it was more fruitful to include a museum’s description of the art, rather than the title itself. This was especially true for colonial period.

6) Sometimes I chose to include female figures I believed the Western art world simply had not realized was a black woman passing for white.

7) Finally, no title was repeated.

 


 

“The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Employees’ Association Minstrel Show and Dance
will be held at the American Woman’s Association
361 West 57th Street, Saturday evening,
October 17, 1936” 

“I am anxious to buy a small healthy negro girl–
ten or twelve years old, and would like to know
if you can let me have one…”

 MRS. B. L. BLANKENSHIP

 


 

 

The Ship’s Inventory

 

Four-Breasted Vessel.
Three Women in Front
of a Steamy Pit, Two-Faced
Head Fish Trying on Earrings, Unidentified.

 

Young Woman with Shawl
and Painted Backdrop, Pearl of the Forest.
Two Girls with Braids People on a Ship
with Some Dancing Girls, Our Lady of Mercy, Blue.

 

Nude Iconologia Girl
with Red Flower Sisters
of the Boa Woman
Flying a Butterfly.

 

Kite                Empty
Chair              Pocket
Book               Girl

 

in Red Dress with Cats
and Dogs. Devil House Door
of No Return. Head of a Girl

 

In the Bedroom,
In the Kitchen.
Contemplation Dark
Girl, Girl

 

In the Window Negress
with Flower Sleeping Woman
Negress with Flower Head
of a Woman Nude in a Landscape.

 

Libyan Sybil: Coloured
Nude, High Yellow. Negro
Woman and Two Children,
The Flight of the Octoroon:

 

The Four Quarters
of the World Holding
a Celestial
Sphere

 


 

 

Catalog 1: Ancient Greece & Ancient Rome

 

Here is your name
said the woman
and vanished in the corridor

                              ­MAHMOUD DARWISH

 

I.

 

Statuette of a Woman Reduced
to the Shape of a Flat Paddle

 

Statuette of a Black Slave Girl
Right Half of Body and Head Missing

 

Head of a Young Black Woman Fragment
from a Statuette of a Black Dancing Girl

 

Reserve Head of an African Princess
Statuette of a Concubine

 

Full Length Figure of a Standing
Black Woman Wearing Earrings

 

Statuette Once Supported an Unguent Vase
Vase with Neck in the Form of a Head

 

of a Black Statuette of a Female
Figure With Negroid Features

 

Figure’s Left Arm
Missing Head

 

of a Female Full-length Figure
of a Nubian Woman the Arms Missing

 

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

 

Element of Furniture Decoration
[Two Nubian Prisoners Bound

 

to a Post] Protome [Probably
the Handle of a Whip

 

or Other Implement]
Oil Flask Back

 

View Head of an African Prisoner
Statue of Prisoner Kneeling

 

Arms Bound at the Elbows
Left Arm Missing      Bust

 

of a Nubian Prisoner with Fragmentary Arms
Bound Behind Funerary Mask

 

of a Negro with Inlaid Glass Eyes
and Traces of Incrustations

 

Present in the Mouth
Censer in the Form

 

of a Nude Negro Dwarf
Standing with His Hands

 

at His Sides upon an Ornate Tripod
and Supporting on His Head

 

a Small Cup
in the Shape

 

of a Lotus
Flower

 

Standing Female Reliquary Figure
with Crested Coiffure and Hands

 

Clasped in Front of Torso, Holding
a Staff Surmounted by a Human Head

 

Figure Has Prominent
Vagina Bended

 

Knees and Oversized Head
with Half-Open Eyes

 

and Semicircle Mouth
that Juts Out

 

from the Face Some
Fine Scarification

 

on Chest and Belly
Dark Brown Almost Black

 

Patina with Oil Oozing
in Several Places

 

Numerous Cracks
on Back of Head and Hole

 

on the Coiffure
One Nipple Appears

 

to Be Shaved Off
or Damaged Black Woman

 

Standing on Tiptoe
on One End of a Seesaw

 

while a Caricatured Figure    Jumps
on the Other

 

End

 


 

 

III. The Great Hunt: Torment of the Damned

 

Heraldic Lion Holding
Between His Paws the Head

 

of a Kneeling Black Captive
Statuette of a Negro Captive Kneeling

 

Hands Bound Behind Back
Negro Youth Struggling

 

with a Crocodile
Negro Youth Struggling

 

with a Crocodile Negro Youth
Struggling with A Crocodile

 

Pygmy Armed With a Stick Statuette
of a Black Girl with Her Head

 

Inclined Toward the Left
Shoulder Dagger with Decoration

 

In Relief Lion Devouring a Black Head
of a Black Nude Black Serving Girl

 

Carrying an Ointment
Chest on Her Head

 

Ointment Spoon in the Form
of a Swimming Nubian Girl

 

Swimmer Holds Before Her
A Duck Fragment

 

that Once Formed the Spoon
[Black Swimmers Symbolizing the Dawn]

 

Young Black Female Carrying
a Perfume Vase with a Necklace

 

with Pendant Figure of the God Bes
Drawn in Black Ink Around Her

 

Neck   Plaited   Lock
of Hair on Left Side of Her Head Relief

 

[The Queen of Meroe Spearing
Captives] Handle or Pommel

 

in the Form of Three Conjoined Heads
Including a Black Woman Perhaps

 

Black in the Clutches of a Lion
Black Prisoners Followed

 

by Women and Children Statuette
Figure of a Young Black Girl Holding

 

a Perfume Vase in Front of Her Statuette
of Young Nubian Girl Carrying an Ointment Vase

 

Wearing a Necklace
of the God Bes

 

God of Joy
and of the Dance

 


 

 

IV.

 

Standing

 

Female Figure
With Child Kneeling
Female Figure
With Child Standing
Female Figure
Head Rest Supported
By Seated Female Figure Kneeling
Female Figure with Bowl Standing
Female Figure Kneeling
Female Figure with Bowl
And Child Standing
Female Figure Seated
Female Figure (Pipe)
Female Figure Standing
Female Figure Undated
Female Figure Mask Female Mask
Female Rhythm Pounder

 

Standing

 


 

 

V.

 

Attendants bringing
offerings to the burial

 

Funerary relief
Detail of relief
Grave relief
Site relief

 

Relief fragment
from the tomb

 

Vase with painted
decoration relief
Carved relief
Phiale Decorated [in relief]

 

with three rows of Negro heads
and a row of acorns
Isis Receiving
the Sacrifice

 

Relief
Relief

 

Relief
Relief




Robin Coste Lewis
Robin Coste Lewis
Robin Coste Lewis is a Provost’s Fellow in Poetry and Visual Studies at the University of Southern California. She is also a Cave Canem fellow and a fellow of the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities. She received her MFA in poetry from NYU, and an MTS in Sanskrit and comparative religious literature from the Divinity School at Harvard University. A finalist for the Rita Dove Poetry Award, she has published her work in various journals and anthologies, including The Massachusetts Review, Callaloo, The Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review, Transition: Women in Literary Arts, VIDA, Phantom Limb, and Lambda Literary Review, among others. She has taught at Wheaton College, Hunter College, Hampshire College, and the NYU Low-Residency MFA in Paris. Lewis was born in Compton, California; her family is from New Orleans.









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