"I don't accept the idea of my history as tragic."
I met Robin Coste Lewis in the summer of 2002 in the MFA program at Bard College, where she was a student and I was on faculty. She was then working on a nonfiction narrative about the history of her family in Louisiana. She had received a graduate degree in Sanskrit literature from Harvard Divinity School, and had been a professor at Hampshire College. Shortly before I met her, she’d suffered a traumatic brain injury, was no longer able to teach at Hampshire, and was, in a profound sense, starting over. I did not realize at the time the extent to which this was the case, given her lively presence and the speed and agility of her mind both in conversation and on the page. Not long after that summer, she put aside that family history project, at least in the prose form it then occupied, and took up poetry. She reported some years later that she had told a fellow poet that “brain damage has turned me into a poet,” to which the other poet replied, “Oh thanks a lot, Robin.”
Trauma—historical trauma—is central to Voyage of the Sable Venus, Robin’s debut book of poetry, indeed her first book of any kind, which won the National Book Award last year. The title poem, some seventy pages long, is, as Robin writes in her prologue, “a narrative poem comprised solely and entirely of the titles, catalogue entries, or exhibit descriptions of Western art objects in which a black female figure is present, dating from 38,000 BCE to the present.” So “Voyage” depicts 40,000 years of systemic violence, objectification, and distortive caricature residing in what Western civilization has often construed as the domain of the beautiful. The paradox, as Robin told me, is that many of the artworks she invokes are indeed beautiful. So, emphatically, is the poem. We spoke at length about this paradox, and about her feeling both angered and liberated in the process of the writing, feelings that a reader is also likely to experience in a prodigious poem which, to paraphrase Audre Lorde, uses the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.
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