Harbeer Sandhu
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Voyage of the Sable Venus — Robin Coste Lewis at El Dorado Ballroom

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I am so glad that I went to hear Robin Coste Lewis read from her National Book Award winning poetry collection Voyage of the Sable Venus at the El Dorado Ballroom last night. So glad. (Read her poems here and here, and an interview here.)

Going to art events can be a bit of a crap-shoot, especially if you don’t know the artist’s work going in, but every once in a while you stumble upon a show so great that it more than justifies all the mediocre, uninspiring stuff you had to wade through on your way there. Lewis’s reading was one of those events — the rare hit that makes all the misses worthwhile.

Her former student, Adrienne Perry, opened by reading one of her own poems before welcoming Lewis to the podium with a glowing, heartfelt introduction that had her in tears. Lewis accepted Perry’s praise with humor, grace, and charm (and tears of her own), and this warm exchange between mentor and student set the stage for a night of poetry that left everyone in the audience — not just me — saying how glad they were that they had come.

Lewis started with her poem “Félicité,” which is about her ancestor from Louisiana, a black woman who owned slaves. “How does one name a slave ‘Happiness?'” her narrator asks about the poem’s namesake, a slave given by her black owner as a present to her son.

“Félicité” was followed by excerpts from the collection’s eponymous poem, “Voyage of the Sable Venus,” which is “a narrative poem comprised solely and entirely of the titles, catalog entries, or exhibit descriptions of Western art objects in which a black female figure is present, dating from 38,000 BCE to the present.”

What a wonderful conceit! I have to admit, I wish I had thought to compose poems entirely of text found on title cards from art museums. As a writer (a sometimes art writer) who visits art museums a lot, I am often drawn to those text-bearing cards  like a moth drawn to a lightbulb (to the annoyance of whomever has come to the museum with me). I post photos of them often on my blog — here is one favorite from a show at the Menil a couple years ago:



and here is another from the Getty in Los Angeles and yet another from a UH student show.

But unlike other times when you see someone working in a vein similar to yours (or your interests), I’m not jealous of Lewis and I didn’t sit there in my seat thinking I could do it better. I was awestruck, rather, or deeply appreciative if “awestruck” comes off as an overstatement. I humbly listened and enjoyed her words, though the bluntness of the language could be disturbing at times (all, I remind you, direct quotes describing objects depicting black female bodies).

Lewis closed with a short poem, “Verga,” leaving this audience member wondering how 90 minutes had passed so quickly.

If you missed Robin Coste Lewis at the El Dorado Ballroom last night, fret not, you’ve got one more chance. She’ll be reading tonight, in the Rockwell Pavilion of the M.D. Anderson Library at the University of Houston at 5:30 pm this evening. Go! If you can.