Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems

by Stephen Burt

“The black side of my family owned slaves”: That’s a key line in the first and the last of the poems in Lewis’s varied first collection, whose poems short and long braid her own family history into a wider trajectory from ancient Egypt to present-day Sri Lanka, New York City, and New Orleans. The title poem, which takes up half the volume, consists “solely and entirely” (in Lewis’s words) “of the titles of catalogue descriptions of Western art objects in which a black female figure is present.” The cascades of nouns and noun phrases that follow, whose lineation varies from page to page, do not quite make a “narrative” (though Lewis calls it that) but they do follow the arcs of history: “Black Girl Standing / Behind Her / A Redeemed Slave Child / Slave Pen” evokes one era; “Untitled Female Drinker Figure / (Reclining Silent Protest Parade)” another, and both introduce something slightly more hopeful: “The Waving Girl seen // from anatomies of escape.” That central poem ought to provoke discussion, but it’s the shorter, more clearly personal work on both sides that will spur rereading. One poem remembers child sexual abuse; another pays homage to a kind, brave father. Two sonnets honor Gwendolyn Brooks’s own sonnets about homemakers and soldiers; one short poem embodies “Dog Talk” (“A-banse-se-bers,  que-bues-tio-bens”). Investigating her family tree, Lewis also records her travels in South Asia, where she found (among other discoveries) “the unanticipated calm / of standing within // an enormous herd of sleeping water buffalo, listening.” It’s one more reason to listen to Lewis’s own voice.

This review originally appeared in American Poets, Fall-Winter 2015.