The 2015 National Book Award winner for poetry, Robin Coste Lewis’s stunning debut collection uses conventional forms, ingenious experimental structures (including a reinvention of English in the brilliant “Dog Talk”), history, and passion to explore the fraught image of the black woman in Western culture. Hold on tight for the Voyage of the Sable Venus (Knopf, $26). The vertiginous, capacious, and uncompromising title poem is a catalog of the descriptive names of artifacts representing black women. Starting at the dawn of time, the seventy-page sequence is as shape-shifting as the myriad pictures, textiles, tools, dolls, and musical instruments it presents. Variously distorting, romanticizing, and celebrating black women, these representations run from the simple “anonymous relic” to the startling “statuette of a woman reduced / to the shape of a Flat Paddle.” The work’s chronological progress tells an overlooked world history while the seemingly straightforward itemization belies Lewis’s artful selection and arrangement, even as the repetitions of our lady or female figure or girl build rhythms with the incantatory power of a chant. They haunt. And almost overwhelm the powerful personal poems that follow, and which remind us that family history can be the hardest kind of all.
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