Robin Coste Lewis: From brain injury to poetry

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While Robin Coste Lewis’s new, award-winning book of poetry, “Voyage of the Sable Venus” is not about brain injury, it came about from brain injury. After her own injury, she became a poet. And now we have this outrageously powerful, lyrical début book that we probably wouldn’t have if she’d continued her career as a professor and scholar.

Cover of "Voyage of the Sable Venus and other poems" shows a street scene, early 1900s. A black woman in a hat window shops, and black men in hats socialize.I simply can’t write anything about her that would hold a candle to this article and interview by Matthew Sharpe on BOMB Magazine from a couple weeks ago. I highly recommend people take some time with this interview as Robin and Matthew weave conversation about terror, joy, violence, beauty, God, and how grade school history books rely on images of violence against black bodies, not images of black leaders. Also very nice about it is that there are no questions asking her to perform the story of how she got her brain injury. For me, it’s refreshing to read: an interview with someone who had a brain injury where her history, artwork, thoughts, and intentions around other parts of life are the focus without ignoring the brain injury in the room. There is always a time and a place for the injury story. I only feel it’s important that we allow brain injury survivors the space to talk about other topics when other topics are, well, the topic. Note: the article contains adult language.

While this interview doesn’t delve into the traumatic circumstances of her brain injury (for that, scroll to the bottom of this post), it does still talk about trauma: historical trauma. We white people know some of the details of chattel slavery, of how black and brown bodies literally built the infrastructure of the US and continue to–even as other brown bodies who already had an infrastructure here were decimated and moved to the fringes. The heart of the book is an epic 70-page poem pointing to the fact that historical trauma can also be found in our art. In the prologue, she explains it’s “a narrative poem comprised solely and entirely of the titles, catalogue entries, or exhibit descriptions of Western art objects in which a black female figure is present, dating from 38,000 BCE to the present.” As you might imagine, although often beautiful, a lot of these figures reinforce violence and the status quo. A black woman’s body carved into the handle of a comb, the frame of a painting, the leg of a chair. Subservient. Objectified. But make no mistake. Robin doesn’t describe this poem as a tragic look at the tragic history of black women. She is, however, implicating us white people in our fetishizing of black bodies and asking us to ask ourselves who we are, where we come from, and why this is our legacy. Not that white people are her target audience, to be sure.

To read more about the book and find links to purchase “Voyage of the Sable Venus,” the Facebook page, and Robin’s Twitter, please visit the page on NationalBook.org. That link also sends you to a video of her reading poems and her speech when accepting a National Book Foundation award at the 66th National Book Awards. Sadly, neither of the videos has captions. This evocative article by Dan Chiasson offers some of the lines read in the video from “Plantation” along with historical context around slavery, subjugation, and Robin’s words’ complexity.

Below is an interview Robin did with Hilton Als for The New Yorker Radio Hour in a piece called “Robin Coste Lewis Turns Tragedy Into Triumph“. It’s a trite title, one unceremoniously slapped onto the forehead of just about every brain injury survivor I’ve ever heard about (and most people with any kind of disability, come to think of it). It doesn’t set you up for the depth and nuance she approaches her brain injury story and her life with invisible disabilities.

I highly recommend it if you want to hear her voice or read her talking about the book, how she acquired her TBI, how her injuries shaped her life into creating poetry, and becoming a mother. As is my constant source of woe, I couldn’t find a transcript for this radio clip. And as is my very much constant source of activity, I transcribed it. I’ll admit I cried listening to this. My heart and eyes ached as she talked about both the challenges and joys of raising a child when she has needs around her own disabilities. But my eyes ached as much when she pointed out that she now has a freak brain, a brain she embraces and appreciates, a brain she finds quite sexy. Click here for a transcript of Robin Coste Lewis on The New Yorker Radio Hour–January 2016.