Voyage of the Sable Venus: From Art to Identity | A Review by Vanesa Pacheco

The World wants to know
What I am made of. I am trying
To find a way
To answer Her.

-from “On the Road to Sri Bhunvaneshwari,” Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems

To read these poems, you confront realities of past and present. There are no lip trills or fancy six-syllable words to confuse the brain and muddle the imagery. Instead, there is raw and honesty in metaphor with touches of honey to help you swallow. We are trekked back in time to individual moments and left alone to digest on how powerful words are on perception and identity.

Robin Coste Lewis, in The Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems, questions where ideas, stereotypes, and concepts about the black female figure begin. To do so, Lewis creates a narrative poem using only the words titling or describing Western art that feature black women. Additionally, Lewis includes autobiographical poems that both open and end the book as a way of placing her own history and identity-shaping in the midst of the world’s.

Before beginning her main poem “Voyage of the Sable Venus,” Lewis states the rules she set for herself. Although some are as simple as using the titles as published without manipulation to the order of words, others show Lewis’s dedication to using the original wording. For example, her third rule explains the purpose of her changing “corrected” titles, entries, or other descriptions rather than using the term African-American, which was applied to erase the words such as slave or Negro. She opts to “re-correct the corrected horror in order to allow the original horror to stand,”(pg. 35)

We are trekked back in time to individual moments and left alone to digest on how powerful words are on perception and identity.

 

Before beginning her main poem “Voyage of the Sable Venus,” Lewis states the rules she set for herself. Although some are as simple as using the titles as published without manipulation to the order of words, others show Lewis’s dedication to using the original wording. For example, her third rule explains the purpose of her changing “corrected” titles, entries, or other descriptions rather than using the term African-American, which was applied to erase the words such as slave or Negro. She opts to “re-correct the corrected horror in order to allow the original horror to stand,” (35) so that there would be no ignoring of slavery or erasing of terms.

This emphasis results in descriptions that leave us with unedited perceptions.

Lewis doesn’t hide behind décor or takes the easy way out by giving us what we already know—or should know—but lets us stand face-to-face with time’s real identity. We must then grasp what it could mean to be thought of as “Statuette of a Woman Reduced / to the Shape of a Flat Paddle,” (pg. 43) or “Black Girl Seated on Watermelon / And Holding a Bottle of Ginger / And Baby in Watermelon Crib,” (pg 74). We are shown how words have influenced detrimental stereotypes still around today. However, with those same words, Lewis shows us another point of view.

In “verga:”, a poem found in the first half of the book, she takes a quote by Abshiro Aden Mohammed and rearranges it to create new and obscure images. She does this as well in “Voyage of the Sable Venus.” Lewis retains the energy of the words and uses them to show the readers how they contain knowledge, power, and beauty.

She opts to ‘re-correct the corrected horror in order to allow the original horror to stand.’

Within sections of her large narrative poem, we begin with women in powerless positions like slaves at auctions or mere objects to tinker. But as we read on, Lewis shifts from these descriptions and ends with “Negro Woman Holding / A Bow and Arrow and Wearing / A Quiver / Sits on the Movement,” (84) and “Typhoon coming. / On manacled limbs of / Slaves among the Waves,” (73).

There is an amalgamation of general history and true identity. Lewis doesn’t wash away the words, but shows us strength and power that were originally denied or ignored.

She even does this in one of her poems framing “Voyage of the Sable Venus,”“The Wilde Women of Aiken” – a response to J. A. Palmer’s own response to Oscar Wilde’s aesthetic. To contrast with the idea that anything is beautiful, Palmer photographed what he thought were the ugliest objects, which included a black woman (139). Lewis now writes: “My florets stand together / at golden angles… / About my waist, dark / and bright, there is this / satin sash the color of sun,” (18).

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In Lewis’s poems, we read a raw history. The only embellishment is to her voltas that jolt us into remembering that these were real words written about real images based on real humans. As I read her narrative poem using only found titles and descriptions, I saw how she connects art to a voice that now speaks and shakes our comfort. These objects have silently been on display as time capsules for us to admire with the words that now create “Voyage of the Sable Venus.”

We viewed these words attached to art for decades, accepting that they matched perfectly with what we saw in front of us. How many times have I gone to museums and not thought twice about the authenticity of a description? Have I ever really wondered how the image shown changed my perspectives? These are places with auras of knowledge, but is this knowledge the full truth?

To read Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems is to accept that an image created centuries ago can influence us today. And with Lewis’s self-exploring poems bracketing her narrative poem, we are also reminded that our own individual pasts can shape our identities. We are reminded of how we perceive ourselves despite the perceptions of others.

 

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