Robin Coste Lewis’s Family Album


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The poet Robin Coste Lewis’s second collection, the exquisite “To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness” (Knopf), is a book about how the dead do not stay dead. Not only because the author believes, or wants to believe, that she can awaken the deceased with her pen—“I am trying to make the dead clap and shout,” she writes—but because those who are gone are determined not to stay put. Not in the heart, and certainly not in memory.

In a sense, Lewis’s elegiac and haunted volume, filled with both words and photographs, found her long before she conceived it. Twenty-five years ago, Lewis was living in Rhode Island, teaching at Wheaton College and writing fiction. (She had received a B.A. from Hampshire College, where she compared African and South Asian diasporic literature, in 1989, and studied Sanskrit and comparative religious literature at Harvard’s Divinity School, where she earned a master’s degree in 1997.) But she returned home to Los Angeles after the death of her maternal grandmother, Dorothy Mary Coste Thomas Brooks, to empty out her house, which was going to be razed. Under Brooks’s bed, Lewis found a suitcase containing hundreds of photographs—some in black-and-white, some in color, some posed, others candid—that were a record not only of Lewis’s large extended family but of worlds that had vanished, of decisive moments that had come and gone during the Second Great Migration, of which Lewis’s family, which originated in Louisiana, had been a part. It was unclear who had taken the photographs, but, by collecting the images and storing them together in that suitcase, Brooks had created a kind of narrative. It fell to her granddaughter to place it within the larger history of humanity.

Rather like Pilate, in Toni Morrison’s 1977 novel, “Song of Solomon,” who carries around the bones of her father because doing so, she says, “frees up your mind”—which is to say, frees you from the burden of history so that you can think about other things—Lewis has now been carrying her forebears with her for a quarter century. These bones don’t so much free up her mind as feed her imagination—and quarrel with the usual ways in which history gets told. “To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness” assembles a hundred and seventy-nine photographs from Brooks’s collection; interspersed with the images are short poems, sometimes just a line or two, that look like ticker tape from a ghostly world and read like messages in bottles cast out to sea by an emotionally marooned person with a surfeit of longing, hoping for love.

Lewis is no stranger to psychological or physical injury. When I first spoke to her, for a radio interview in 2015, she recounted a terrible accident she’d had in 2001: after dining at a restaurant in San Francisco, she got up to get her coat and fell into a hole in the floor that had not been cordoned off. She suffered brain damage, to the extent that doctors told her she wouldn’t be able to write more than one line a day. So she worked on a line every day in her mind. Other lines followed. This was when she transitioned from writing prose to writing poetry.

The title of “To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness” is taken from a line by the Black Arctic explorer Matthew Henson, who is the subject of a long narrative poem that falls in the middle of the collection: “The effect of such storms of wind and snow, or rain, is abject physical terror, due to the realization of perfect helplessness.” The Henson poem is not accompanied by images and, unlike the rest of the volume, is printed on white paper, rather than black: Henson’s polar snow sprinkled with his Black life in Lewis’s words. The book’s design is important, as it raises questions about what the eye sees and what the mind retains. Printing the images, shorter poems, and isolated lines against a black background evokes old-fashioned photo albums and drives home how modern technology has robbed photographs of their tactility, even as it has saved them from destruction. Those black pages also represent Lewis’s interest in blackness—as a color, as a symbol, as a race, and as a defining element of her own heritage.

Like many readers, I admired Lewis’s first collection, “Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems”—a meditation on, among other things, women’s bodies, family lore, and Black slaveowners in the antebellum South—which was awarded the 2015 National Book Award for poetry. A large part of my approbation had to do with her seriousness about the past, her understanding of how it both weighs us down and lights the way in all the moments we share with the living and the dead.

In a sharp prose prologue, Lewis listed the rules she set for herself when writing the volume’s title poem—a nearly eighty-page work. “Voyage of the Sable Venus,” she explained, is “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.” Then:

 1. No title could be broken or changed in any way. While the grammar is completely modified—I erased all periods, commas, semicolons—each title was left as published, and was not syntactically annotated, edited, or fragmented.

 2. “Art” included paintings, sculpture, installations, photography, lithographs, engravings, any work on paper, et cetera—all those traditional mediums now recognized by the Western art-historical canon.

Lewis also incorporated, as she noted, “titles of art by black women curators and artists, whether the art included a black female figure or not,” and “by black queer artists, regardless of gender, because this body of work has made consistently some of the richest, most elegant, least pretentious contributions to Western art interrogations of gender and race.”

“Voyage of the Sable Venus” is part history and part homage, an epic song built from shards, a reflection of the Black women Lewis saw in art work after art work who had been broken into pieces by Western eyes. From the opening section, titled “The Ship’s Inventory”:

Four-Breasted Vessel, Three Women
in Front of a Steamy Pit, Two-Faced
Head Fish Trying on Earrings, Unidentified.

Young Woman with Shawl
and Painted Backdrop, Pearl
of the Forest, Two Girls

with Braids People
on a Ship with Some Dancing
Girls. Our Lady of Mercy, Blue.

Through these titles, Lewis captured the ways in which Black women had been aestheticized across the millennia, pinned to a history that found them interesting for various reasons—their skin color, their hair, their culture—without ever letting them live their lives. And what were those lives? Burned, choked, fired, glazed on a vase. “Voyage of the Sable Venus” gives those women a new life and the freedom to voyage away from art, even as Lewis creates it.

“To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness” is another voyage. But the view is different, as is the destination: what Lewis is resuscitating here is a community, a family she knew or wishes she’d known—although they might have been suspicious of her. (Artists are often viewed with skepticism by their families, since part of their job is to rip at the fabric of relationships, the better to reveal the truth of being. Lucille Clifton wittily captured that skepticism in her poem “here rests,” in which she recalled her sister saying, “when you poem this / and you will she would say / remember the Book of Job.”)

“Black people are part of everyone and everything,” Lewis, who has Afro-Creole roots, told me in 2016, when her second book hadn’t yet fully taken shape in her mind. I was visiting Los Angeles, and we were sitting near her home in Silver Lake. It was the golden hour, and Lewis’s brown freckles stood out against her toffee-colored skin. Her family had left New Orleans for California in the nineteen-fifties, and she wanted to delve deeper into the history of human migration. Louisiana, she said, had been “a mythical place” for her when she was growing up. “My family’s history, for sure, but the history of that place, the beauty of that place, period, is so intense to me,” she said. “And it’s the lost country. We were raised that way: this place is far, and we’ll never get back. It definitely felt like I was a child of exiles.”

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