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Poet Robin Coste Lewis Transforms Tragedy


Coste Lewis won the National Book Award for poetry with her debut anthology, “Voyage of the Sable Venus And Other Poems.”

Coste Lewis won the National Book Award for poetry with her debut anthology, “Voyage of the Sable Venus And Other Poems.”

Kate Flint/Literary Arts

Before a traumatic head injury rendered her motionless, speechless and unable to read or write more than a single sentence per day, Robin Coste Lewis was a Sanskrit scholar and an assistant professor of creative writing at Hampshire College.

After the injury, she became a poet.

And not just any poet. In 2015, Coste Lewis won the National Book Award for poetry with her debut anthology, “Voyage of the Sable Venus And Other Poems.” It’s a collection of biographical poems centered around an epic, 76-page meditation on the objectification of black women’s bodies by 40,000 years of Western Art. And it’s composed exclusively from the titles, catalog entries and exhibit descriptions Coste Lewis found in museums and libraries across the world.

Coste Lewis set a number of rules for herself in writing the 76-page epic work. She expanded her definition of Western Art to include not only the paintings, sculpture and installations typically recognized by art historians, but also furniture and visual objects like buckles, spoons and table legs. She restored titles that had been modified for political correctness to their historically accurate slavecolored and Negro. And she laid out a few other guidelines.

The project was inspired by an 18th-century painting that shares a name with the titular poem, “Voyage of the Sable Venus.” It features a woman on a clamshell being pulled through the water by celestial beings.

"Voyage of the Sable Venus from Angola to the West Indies" (1801)

“Voyage of the Sable Venus from Angola to the West Indies” (1801)

Look familiar? It’s a redux of Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” but with a number of striking differences. First, the Sable Venus is black. Second, she’s attended by a Neptune-like figure carrying the colonizer’s Union Jack in place of his usual Trident.

The painting, explains Coste Lewis, was produced as pro-slavery propaganda. But in spite of the horrible historical weight of such a piece, Coste Lewis said she still finds the painting beautiful.

 Listen to Robin Coste Lewis’ full interview with Think Out Loud’s Dave Miller here

 

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