Voyage of the Sable Venus: And Other Poems

Poetry is the most intense and concentrated form of writing, using words, metre, rhyme and format to express thoughts, feelings and stories that can be fact or fiction.  Robin Coste Lewis, Los Angeles Poet Laureate, has used all of these characteristics of poetry to examine the artistic representation of black female enslavement through the millenniums. Her poetic technique catalogs art work that often extolled and rhapsodized the sexuality of black females. This is a complex work, which compels and shocks by the very nature of the historical artwork that is referenced. Her poetic storytelling of history and its portrayal in art is reminiscent of the visual works of Kara Elizabeth Walker. The initial impression is beauty and precision, but upon closer examination there is something else in the poetry and the visual work of the two artists. The language used in the cataloging of the art might appear to be random and specious, however it is anything but that.  There is passion, precision and metre--try reading it out loud and you will feel it.

Readers may be curious and enticed by a distinctive poetic representation, which implicitly evokes questions and thoughts about old assumptions. The first section of this narrative is the cataloging of art, which brings notice and life to the works, and what they represented. By way of the second section Robin Coste Lewis presents emotional and intellectual remembrances of her own life, and validates joy and celebration in endurance and fortitude.

To better understand the poetry, there is an illuminating article in The New Yorker, October 12, 2015, by Dan Chiasson. He cites two works:

"Robin Coste Lewis’s début poetry collection ...  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.”"

Robin Coste Lewis will be reading from this work Saturday, May 4, 2019, 2:00 pm at the Memorial Branch, and patrons will have the opportunity to ask her what did inspire the creation of this work.