“An experiment in archive”: Robin Coste Lewis’s “Voyage of the Sable Venus” and Contemporary Black Female Poets’ Conceptual Epistemologies

Laura VranaUniversity of South Alabama
Vol. 40, No. 1 (Spring 2021), 69-94

This article intervenes in debates about experimental poets’ ethical obliga- tions by examining Robin Coste Lewis’s “Voyage of the Sable Venus” (2015), a long poem for which she drew all the text from written descriptions of millennia of visual art depicting Black female figures. It elucidates Lewis’s engagement with these archives as a key contribution both to revisionist archival scholarship and to conceptual aesthetics. Focusing equally on Lewis’s research and writing process and on the resulting poem, this paper demonstrates that “Voyage of the Sable Venus” refutes the widespread claim that conceptual aesthetics produce “unreadable” texts. Instead, Lewis insists that close reading both visual art and her poetry—rather than succumbing to distant reading or data-driven approaches—constitutes an ethical act that is necessary to correct misrepresentations of Black women in Western art and life, historically and today.

Mary Wollstonecraft Sojourner Truth Margaret Atwood Abigail Adams Amy Tan H.D. Simone de Beauvoir Zora Neale Hurston Frances Burney Virginia Woolf

"The white saxifrage with the indented leafe is moste commended for the breakinge of the Stone."

— Turner, Herbal, III, 68 [1568]