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.
In her tenth collection of poems, Joy Harjo, the indefatigable activist, musician, playwright, and first Native American to win the Academy of American Poets Wallace Stevens Award for “outstanding mastery in the art of poetry,” tells stories, chants legends, calls history to account, and guides the spirit back to its origins. Most of all, she sings. Harjo’s way, truth, and light, song animates and heals the world; “If you sing it will give your spirit lift to fly,” she reminds us. Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings (W.W. Norton, $26.95) is addressed to everyone. A book of profound spirituality that honors life in every form, it reminds us that “a spark of kindness made a light. / The light made an opening in the darkness,” and that we all partake of both. Grounded primarily in her ancestral Mvskoke heritage, Harjo also draws strength and inspiration from the iconic American musical traditions, jazz and the blues; between tales of trickster gods, Harjo checks in with “the lone horn player blowing ballads at the corners of our lives.” An accomplished saxophonist herself (with five albums of original music) Harjo joins him, and her “breath attempted to make the horn into a living being.” Ultimately, the lessons of Conflict Resolution are simple: love and respect the world. Understand that you have “helpers in seen and unseen realms./ Give them something to do.”