I am thinking a lot about Robin Coste Lewis this week. I initially made my way slowly, un-sequentially, through different sections of her Voyage of the Sable Venus, compelled less by its accolades and more by the image on the cover: Eudora Welty’s photograph “Window Shopping,” which shows a young Black woman during the 1930’s looking calmly and inquisitively at something out of (our) view, is perfect for a text that traces the Black female figure through art and history. A fitting photograph, taken by Eudora Welty, a white Southern woman writer, during the hell (not height) of the Jim Crow era, for a text that locates horror and beauty, often in the same places.
But the title, as Dan Chiasson explains in a review of Lewis’ book — the first debut collection to win a National Book Award since 1974 — in the New Yorker, comes from a different image:
“Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems” (Knopf), derives its title from a notorious eighteenth-century engraving by Thomas Stothard, “The Voyage of the Sable Venus from Angola to the West Indies.” The image was slave-trade propaganda: it shows an African woman posed like Botticelli’s Venus on a weirdly upholstered half shell. She glides serenely across the Middle Passage, attended by an entourage of cherubs and dolphins and escorted by a predatory Triton, who looks as though he’d read the poem on which the engraving is based: Isaac Teale’s “The Sable Venus, An Ode,” which celebrates the pleasures of raping slave women, since black and white—Sable Venus and Botticelli’s Venus—are, after all, the same “at night.”
I’d downloaded that image initially, but Chiasson’s description is enough (too much), and it is better to spend time with the figure Lewis chose, the figure’s private gaze, desire and pleasure entirely her own, one hand to her chin, a gesture of interiority and pause, even sovereignty, another arm akimbo, mirrored by the arm positions of the men, and their reflections in the window. I remember seeing Welty’s photographs for the first time, initially being rather critical of them, formally and technically (my aesthetics were rigid, masculinist, Walker Evans-obsessed), but over time understanding the significance of how profoundly and beautifully comfortable people seem in her frame, neither posed nor spied upon.
I hope so much for the people in this blessed space to have — or make or take — time this week to read “Black Joy is My Primary Aesthetic,” Claire Schwartz’ interview with Lewis from 2016, the year after the book won. Lewis — at least what I glean from friends who know her and from following her on social media @robincostelewis — moves at a pace that is both human and galactic. I love the ways she thinks about writing and publishing, Beauty, queerness, narrative, grief, Black rejoicing, neurodivergence (though she doesn’t use this term) — I read elsewhere that after her traumatic brain injury, her doctors advised her to write no more than one sentence per day — since she was already a writer, how could she not become a poet? I think I am overwhelmed by content (there is so much!), even without a brain injury. Or — and without diminishing the seriousness of an acute brain injury as the one RCL suffered — this modernity might be to a brain what a stress fracture is to a bone, a slow, wearing, serious injury.
I hope you have time for the interview, but if you don’t, then here is a poem:
Last summer, two discrete young snakes left their skin
on my small porch, two mornings in a row. Being
postmodern now, I pretended as if I did not see
them, nor understand what I knew to be circling
inside me. Instead, every hour I told my son
to stop with his incessant back-chat. I peeled
a banana. And cursed God—His arrogance,
His gall—to still expect our devotion
after creating love. And mosquitoes. I showed
my son the papery dead skins so he could
know, too, what it feels like when something shows up
at your door—twice—telling you what you already know.
I am thinking about the text from Mark for this week, about prophets who are dismissed or despised in their hometowns. Los Angeles claimed Lewis, at least, though, I don’t know how many people are aware of how deeply prophetic and expansive her vision is. And she went to divinity school — oof the fascinating things she has to say about Sanskrit!
Here are some excerpts from the interview, which you might have seen me share on Instagram. On Beauty:
Coffee Hour is a lightly facilitated, gently theological online space where you are welcome, no religious commitment assumed or expected. It happens every week at 1-2pm Irish time. The password changes (for this week it is: RobinCosteLewis); the video conference link is: https://meet.jit.si/CoffeeHourWithFriends2021