Robin Coste Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015) is an extraordinarily accomplished first book of poetry. It won the National Book Award for poetry in 2015 as part of a trifecta of prizes for African-American writers that include Claudia Rankine, who won the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry for Citizen: An American Lyric, and Ta-Nehesi Coates, who received the 2015 National Book Award for non-fiction for Between the World and Me. It is no longer possible for any thinking person to disregard the tension between literary recognition in the U.S. and our contemporary political reality, between the flowering of black literature and the diminishment of black lives. At a moment in American culture when the theater of racial murder repeats as a feed of images on our devices in real time, literature serves to teach us how the dark matter of racial injustice belongs to the history of our planetary ecological crisis.

Coste Lewis’ Voyage of the Sable Venus confronts racism as an environmental, spiritual, and psychic catastrophe for black women and all who are kin to them. The “Venus” of the title poem stands for the representation of the black woman’s body as it is traded, fetishized, described, fragmented, and realized in the catalogs of Western art. The black woman may be a ladle, a pin, the back of a mirror, a spoon—an artifact of thingness and of use dating from 38,000 BCE to the present time. The poet appropriates the exact wording of archival descriptions of objects, strips them of punctuation, and rearranges her findings into collections that speak directly to the history of conquest and its eros of commodification. What is an ebony goddess? Is she a forest that has been felled and converted into art? What does she have to do with the bodies of women that have been bought and sold? Why, to paraphrase Coste Lewis, did an emperor feel the need to have a black woman’s body engraved into his buttons? And who collects those buttons? Coste Lewis’s answer can be found in her list of the hundreds of museums and museum catalogs that comprise the final “poem” in the Venus sequence. Because museums reify what our cultures prize, and because all prizes are part of the traffic of Capital, it appears that the black woman’s body is integral to the movement of both Capital and beauty. This is a hard insight to bear.

Such an insight can be produced only by a writer who has heated her project at a slow burn. Coste Lewis, who is in her early 50’s, completed a graduate degree in Sanskrit at Harvard, where she studied the epic in its most ancient form. She has also studied comparative literature, poetics, and art and is completing her Ph.D. in Poetry and Visual Studies at USC. Remarkably, she continues to suffer the effects of traumatic brain injury. In an interview with Hilton Als, she describes how her brain injury forced her to dramatically slow down her writing, so much so that she spent a year relearning the alphabet: ( When her neurologist told her that she could only write one line a day, Coste Lewis honed those single lines with care. In a sense, the injury made her a poet. Her slow brain allowed her to decipher the representations of black women in art. The wound, in other words, ushered her into an archive that would forever alter her as an artist.

Other poems in the book chronicle voyages as complicated as those of the “Sable Venus”. In “On the Road to Sri Bhuvaneshwari,” Coste Lewis recalls her journey as a tourist in India. She has come to find a temple at the top of a mountain where, according to the myth, the charred body of the goddess Parvati had been dropped by the god Shiva. But the road is blocked by a throng of black water buffalo stalled around a female buffalo who is giving birth to a dead calf. The frantic mother buffalo is held in place with ropes by men. To an outsider, her confinement within the ropes may appear to be an arbitrary act of human domination. It is not. “She must turn around and see/what has happened to her, or she will go mad,” Coste Lewis writes. The poem concludes with lines that are emblematic of the book’s motive:

I have to go back
                     to that wet black thing
                                          dead in the road. I have to turn around.
                                                               I must put my face in it.

For those of us attentive to the relationship between the human and “nature,” the poem reminds us that there is no easy resolution between supposed binaries. There is, in fact, a difficult, painful, affiliation between “the human” and “the natural.” The buffalo, who is an aspect of the Goddess to the men who restrain her, will go crazy if she cannot “see” the dead child. By holding her back, the men ensure that she will remain a healthy animal. The poem comprehends religion’s symbolic structure, and the way the symbolic mediates our human suffering. It does this while identifying with the animal. It also points to the political necessity of seeing what has happened to us in the story of what we must see and why. I notice that in this poem Coste Lewis is the educated and privileged American “scholar” among the Hindu herdsmen. And yet the boundaries between inside and outside, self and other, human and animal blur and dissolve here, as if we were a dream, all of us implicated, taking on the parts.

I began this meditation by thinking about why racism and environmental crisis are part of the same web. The black woman’s body is figured in Capital; Capital is a story of bodies exchanged for gain; gain is the figure beneath the blight in which we live. Back in America, in an outer L.A. wasting into suburban blight, Coste Lewis describes a homeland where “The Farmers were lost/and hating it. We were lost/and couldn’t care less” (“Frame”). This poem in particular brings together the history of racism and the history of environmental depredation. It was not so long ago that it was against the law for African Americans to buy property “except in certain codes: South Central, Compton, Watts,” places of extinction. Here, in the valley, where the poet was young, the land was already cementing into sprawl. “I never knew what, if anything, they grew. Never knew of a harvest./ Never saw a thing begin as seed, or sow its way to plant, flower, fruit.” Coste Lewis reminds us that places of extinction and trauma, like New Orleans, like Flint, Michigan, like South Central L.A. and Stockton, California (where I live), are indeed connected to “the Sable Venus”— to the bodies that were and are the traffic and casualties of Capitalism. These places are trashed. People live in them. And yet, as Coste Lewis observes, they are also gorgeous. That’s another tension that’s hard to bear.

In thinking about The Voyage of the Sable Venus, I have also thought about the tension between environmentalism and racism, between the concerns of the Green movement and Black Lives Matter. In Naomi Klein’s recent essay for The London Review of Books, “Let Them Drown: The Othering of Violence in a Warming World,” she observes: “People do tend to get cynical when their lives are treated as less important than flowers and reptiles.” To borrow from Naomi Klein’s reassessment of Edward Said, perhaps there are “ways we might respond that are far more inclusive than current campaign models: ways that don’t ask suffering people to shelve their concerns about war, poverty, and systemic racism and ‘first save the world’—but instead demonstrate how all these crises are interconnected.” It seems to me that poetry is one of the ways in which we know that our crises our interconnected. I would argue that Robin Coste Lewis’s work teaches us how we must slow down before we can see how beauty and catastrophe are part of the same traffic of the human, a traffic in which we are all implicated.

About the Author

Camille Norton teaches literature at University of the Pacific, in Stockton, California. She is the author of Corruption: Poems,which was a National Poetry Series Winner. Her work has appeared in The Best American Poetry 2010.

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