Robin Coste Lewis and A New Kind of New York • Empty Mirror

As a young girl I hated Girl Scouts. It was yet another popularity contest that I was on the losing end of, with little payoff beyond the ability to say I’d “hiked” through another bitter Syracuse winter, or gained another badge I never learned to sew on. However, I kept signing up each year so that I could go to the Sleepover at the Museum. You could pull your sleeping bag up to any of the exhibits and spend the night curled around a caveman or at the foot of a brontosaurus. I never once questioned the history the museum was selling us, never thought it was selling us anything but tickets and trinkets, never once thought I was nestling my head into yet another nook and cranny of the patriarchy. Yet, as Robin Coste Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus has since taught me, I was definitely sidling up to one of the patriarchy’s many teats. The lesson of Voyage of the Sable Venus is not to abandon the museum, but to reclaim it — much like Coste Lewis has done with many of the New York School’s formal inventions in her own work. Through the use of conceptual art, a self-subscribed set of rules, ekphrasis and catalogue, Robin Coste Lewis implemented many of the tools wrought by the first generation of New York School poets in her book Voyage of the Sable Venus and transformed them in order to dismantle the patriarchal and racist themes present in the work of the New York School poets, and the racist and patriarchal realities present in art culture in general.

Voyage of the Sable Venus by Robin Coste LewisIt is important to acknowledge that Robin Coste Lewis’s book Voyage of the Sable Venus is part of a long lineage of ekphrasis that stretches as far back as Homer and Achilles’ Shield to contemporary works about Youtube videos like in How to Be Drawn by Terrence Hayes. However, while it’s important to contextualize her work in this larger tradition so as not to skew the role or relevance of the New York School in the trajectory of ekphrastic history, it is important to denote her specific uses of form and content within ekphrasis as being particularly reminiscent of the first generation of the New York School poets. Sharon Dolin’s description of Robin Coste Lewis’s book Voyage of the Sable Venus in “The Ekphrastic Moment” as gaining its strength through “the sheer act of naming, of recording, rearranging, and lineating the…labels for things in juxtaposition” could be used to describe many of the works of the New York School poets (347).

Voyage of the Sable Venus contains an “80-page conceptual poem” which is “comprised solely of the titles, catalog entries, or exhibit descriptions of Western art objects in which a black female figure is present” (Dolin 346; Coste Lewis 35). The poem is divvied into twelve parts, consisting of a prologue, a ship’s inventory, an invocation, eight catalogs each covering a different era/location, and a Notes section. This practice of creating art in which, according to Terrence Diggory in his essay “Conceptual Art and the New York School Poets,” the concept behind the poem is more important “than its embodiment,” first came to fruition in the work of the New York School poets. Collections such as John Ashbery’s Three Poems and poems such as Kenneth Koch’s “What You Were Wearing” both function on the premise that the idea behind them has more weight than the lines on the page. However, as Diggory points out even when Ashbery dedicated an entire manuscript to conceptual art, he still included the presence of an “I”. Coste Lewis takes the idea of conceptual art one step further by taking the “i” out of “idea”.

“I will do anything to quiet my ego,” Coste Lewis asserted in an interview with Nicole Sealy for The National Book Foundation. While the New York School poets made manifestos dictating that, as David Lehman in The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School Poets puts it, “poetry d(oes) not have to be limited by the life experience of the poet”, Coste Lewis put this theory into praxis (Lehman 34). For example, in Voyage of the Sable Venus, Coste Lewis “does not really attempt a dialogue with…the works”, whereas many of the New York School poets’ ekphrastic poems do (Dolin 347). In Ashbery’s “Self Portrait with a Convex Mirror” there is a direct exchange between the “I” in the poem and the art work. For example, the line “My guide in these matters is yourself,” in which “yourself” is equal to the artwork, leads readers to believe that the I’s struggle in the poem is at least as important as the artwork in question (Ashbery 191). Despite Lehman’s claim that “Ashbery is certainly the least autobiographical of modern poets” and Ashbery’s own claim that “My own biography never interested me very much as material,” there is more self in “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror” than in Coste Lewis’s whole eighty-page sequence (94). Similarly, Frank O’Hara’s “Why I Am Not a Painter” documents the process of painter Michael Goldberg, but only for the purpose of explaining O’Hara’s own desires. Unlike her predecessors, Coste Lewis did everything she could to erase her presence from the work. She set rules for herself such as “No title [can] be broken or changed in any way” and refused to include her impressions or experiences along with the found titles and descriptions (Coste Lewis 35). Instead, she insisted on letting the artists and museums do the talking. Her ability to forego the “I” allowed Coste Lewis to critique patriarchy, white supremacy, and art culture from a far more powerful vantage point than if she had limited the discussion to her own circumference.

Another aspect of conceptual art that Coste Lewis culled from the New York School poets is the inclusion of self-imposed rules. While the New York School notoriously saw itself as anti-establishment and anti-academia, the poets worked happily within their own self-imposed regulations. For example, John Ashbery’s “Into the Dusk-Charged Air” and Kenneth Koch’s “When the Sun Tries to Go On” are both poems which were generated by following a specific set of (often arbitrary) rules. While the New York School’s rules often remained implicit rather than explicit, Coste Lewis let in the public by publishing her rules as a prologue to her conceptual poem.

Coste Lewis’s willingness to share her rules provides us with another example of her ability to take a New York School root and raise it into a full-blown tree. Not only does this move expand upon the New York School’s ideas about rules, it also expands upon their ideas about process. Coste Lewis doesn’t just record her rules, she records their genesis. When relating to readers rule number two from her prologue, Coste Lewis explains how she had to amend the rule which originally demanded she only include conventional art such as “paintings, sculpture, installations, photography, lithographs, engravings, any work on paper, etc.” to include items such as “combs, spoons, buckles, pans, knives [and] table legs” due to her discovery that “black female figures were…used in ways” she “never could have anticipated” (35). By showing her ability to adapt to the material, instead of making the material adapt to her rules, Coste Lewis furthers her ability to expose the patriarchal and racist tendencies of museum and art culture for what they are, rather than because of any of preconceived notions.

While poems like Frank O’Hara’s ‘The Day Lady Died’ offer “a classic instance of a poem chronicling its own coming into existence,” Coste Lewis chronicles the poem’s conception for reasons that extend beyond the world of the poem (Lehman 200). While O’Hara’s attention to process might push us to rethink a specific art piece or artist, Coste Lewis’s attention to process asks us to question the entire culture in which that art exists. Her choice to shine the spotlight on her rules, giving them their own section of the book, makes it clear to the reader that they are not there to puzzle over the mechanics of her poems, but to puzzle over the horror exposed by them.

Robin Coste Lewis also makes use of another “New York School staple: the list or catalogue poem” (Lehman 225). Poems like Kenneth Koch’s poem “Locks” which consists of several pages listing types of locks, seem to have been the formal inspiration for much of Voyage of the Sable Venus. As Dolin points out, Coste Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus is essentially “a catalogue in verse” (Dolin 347). Coste Lewis even uses the word “catalog” to separate the different epochs and locations of the museum pieces. For example, the first section is labeled “Catalog 1” and is dedicated to pieces from “Ancient Greece and Rome,” whereas the second section is labeled “Catalog II” and is dedicated to pieces from “Ancient Egypt”. The use of the word catalog here is especially prescient because in a museum the objects are most often separated by room, showcase, or window. The objects are often arranged to mimic historical settings or placed into designs for aesthetic appeal. I believe that Coste Lewis purposely avoided this terminology and these museum references, and instead instituted the catalogue form, for the same reasons that Koch, according to Lehman, implemented it, namely its ability to be as “antihierarchical” and as “all-inclusive” as possible (226). By presenting each section as a catalog no art object was given more value than another, outside of the value intonated by the museum’s language. Any pattern that the reader picks out exists purely as a result of the museums’ references, rather than as a result of Coste Lewis’s machinations. Since Coste Lewis set out to record the museum’s version of black women’s history, not her own version of black women’s history, the choice to catalog or list without embellishment works perfectly.

Coste Lewis’s relation to the New York School extends beyond form into content. Although the book Voyage of the Sable Venus is bookended with personal poems (allowing readers to contextualize Coste Lewis’s specific role in the larger, international history presented in between), the 80-page title poem is dedicated completely to the history of black women as conceived of by museums. While none of the New York School poets chose black women as their lens, they did focus fairly often on museums and art. Both O’Hara in poems like “On Seeing Larry Rivers’ Washington Crossing the Delaware at the Museum of Modern Art” and “Digression on Number 1, 1948”, and Ashbery in poems like “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” engage with various works of art and their respective museums. This, however, is the plateau at which the similarities between Coste Lewis and the New York School end.

Coste Lewis took The New York School’s use of museums, art, and formal techniques as fodder for a fire that the New York School could never have imagined. Not only did Coste Lewis resist the dialectic form used by the New York School so that the presence of the “I” never usurps the importance of the issues she is trying to tackle, she also avoided being too large of a link in the capitalist chain. As Lehman points out the New York School poets “pressed their taste in modern poetry, painting, and music” through their poems (30). Take the title “On Seeing Larry Rivers’ Washington Crossing the Delaware at the Museum of Modern Art”– without even reading the poem the reader is asked to invest in a specific artist and a specific museum. Or consider how the romantic zeal of O’Hara’s love poem “Having a Coke with You” couches references to the Frick and Nude Descending a Staircase in a positive, let’s-splurge light. O’Hara knew that “the young painters he wrote about were interesting because he said so” and that his readers would invest in everything from Strega to Shakespeare because it popped into one of his poems (Lehman 174).

Additionally, the New York School’s penchant for namedropping did more than stoke the capitalist art engine, it lined their own pockets. As Lehman points out “Three of the four poets of the New York School were professional art critics” (46). Frank O’Hara worked at the Museum of Modern Art, as did James Schuyler, and John Ashbery worked as a renowned art critic for almost “twenty-five years” (Lehman 46). Therefore, the poets’ references to Pollock and Parmigianino were as much product placement as they were literary reference. By presenting this deluge of references to art in their work, the New York School poets helped cement their careers, as well as the theory that art is less personal expression, more capitalist extension. Lehman at one point attempted to defend the New York School’s insertion of their “taste” in their poetry by equating their taste with “freedom from the dogmas of the day” (31). While many of the artists that the New York School poets wrote about were free from said dogmas, one could argue that by consistently pointing towards the work of Jackson Pollock, Joe Brainard, Willem de Kooning, etc. that the “freedom” the reader was experiencing was secondhand at best.

On the contrary, Coste Lewis completely sublimates any personal “taste.” By refusing to tamper with the titles or descriptions, Coste Lewis cultivates a space where readers can witness the base nature of the nomenclature used to describe the black population in museums, such as “Collar with Two Children, emaciated” and “Lashed Slave Woman seen /from the back” (71-2); an experience which may actually reduce a reader’s likelihood to invest in art, rather than compel it. Additionally, the dehumanizing force of these absurdly objective descriptions would have been undercut if Coste Lewis had allowed her voice or personal preferences to enter in. Coste Lewis is also able to eradicate personal taste by rarely, if ever, pairing art work with artist. This reduces any possibility of confusing her attempt to raise consciousness with an attempt to raise profits. She isn’t just asking readers, like the New York School did, to “consider…pretty art,” but to move beyond that and “consider just how long we have made pretty art about hate” (Sealey). Coste Lewis is not here to leave the reader with the same warm, jazzy feeling that O’Hara’s nods to the MOMA and the Frick do, but to provoke the discomfort that comes from witnessing the relentless stacking of emotionally empty descriptions such as “Bust of a Nubian prisoner” and “Female Atrocity Victim”. After walking away from Coste Lewis’s poem it is fair to say the reader will want to investigate, rather than invest in, the culture of museums. This is not to say that the only purpose of the New York School’s ekphrastic work was to hock art, but to acknowledge that there is a deep chasm between Coste Lewis’s use of the inherited ekphrastic form to critique art culture and the New York School’s ultimate goal of perpetuating it.

Unfortunately, the transgressions of the New York School poets extend beyond the realm of capitalism, and into the realms of sexism and racism. While the New York School poets did attempt to dismantle some of the toxic hierarchies prevalent in their day – think Kenneth Koch’s “Fresh Air,” which eviscerated intellectualism and academia, as well as John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” which made mincemeat of the concept of self in lines like “this / “Not-being-us”/ is all there is to look at / In the mirror” (Ashbery 202;196) – these cleaves to the public conscience paled in comparison to their plugs for the patriarchy. Take for example, Kenneth Koch’s sexist disaster “The Art of Love.” Despite claims that this poem is a “manual of love” a quick readthrough reveals that this is a manual of misogyny, and little else (276). The very first line tells readers they must “win the love of women” which immediately situates women in the passive realm of prizes to be won, rather than the active realm where subjective humans get to hang out (Koch 276). For twenty-two pages Koch refuses to let the women in his poem be anything but body parts and receptacles of male pleasure. And while John Ashbery doesn’t demean women quite so graphically, a close look at his poetry also sometimes reveals a sexist slant. His poem “A Last Word” seems to nod to rape in lines like “the power he forces down on her like a storm” which, while certainly up for interpretation, undeniably evokes male dominance (Ashbery 43). These descriptions of women took the verse form and made it aid, rather than, degrade the patriarchy.

Unlike her male predecessors, Coste Lewis does not let the patriarchy sneak by unnoticed. She purposely cataloged only art pieces where a “black female is present” and included work by “black women curators and artists” but never by black men (Coste Lewis 35). Without having to write one word of her own, Coste Lewis was able to combat the patriarchy by focusing on and highlighting women. Additionally, by refusing to pad or censor the museum’s language, the horrific nonchalance with which black women were/are treated is repeatedly exposed in lines like “Negro Girl Pelted by Crowd” and “Figure has Prominent / Vagina Bended,” which show black women as either recipients of punishment or the sum of their body parts (87;45). Coste Lewis’s catalogues also show us that black women are obsessively depicted as nude, robbing them of any right to expression or dignity. Another way in which Coste Lewis exposed the patriarchy was by including atypical art objects such as “combs, spoons, buckles, pans, knives” and “table legs,” which were shaped like black women amongst the paintings and sculptures in the poem (35). By including these objects in the catalog, Coste Lewis makes us see that the boundaries of black women’s bodies have been blurred throughout history.

When the topic shifts from sexism to racism, Coste Lewis once again maintains the New York School style, without having to conform to the New York School mentality. Coste Lewis allows readers to view the black population as they are represented in almost every era and area of the world. This is a far cry from O’Hara’s work which has often been charged with fetishizing the black population. According to poet Yusef Komunyakaa poems like “The Day Lady Died” are guilty of “conspicuous exoticism” (qtd. in Lehman 196). In this poem, O’Hara stumbles upon a copy of New World Writing and wonders “what the poets in Ghana are doing” (qtd. in Lehman 196). By inviting readers to take a quick glimpse at another foreign civilization, rather than asking them to truly understand and embrace them, suggests the same attitude towards the black population that Coste Lewis ends up fighting against. Additionally, one can look to the lines “Miles Davis was clubbed 12 / times last night outside BIRDLAND by a cop / a lady asks us for a nickel” from O’Hara’s “Personal Poem” for further evidence of his racially insensitive tendencies (335). In this passage not only does O’Hara’s flat tone replicate the objective tone of the museum descriptions recorded by Coste Lewis, but the way he sandwiches the news of the racially inspired hate crime in between a woman asking for change and his batting average, diminishes the importance of the situation, in the same way that keeping black women’s bodies between the pots and pans diminishes their importance.

Throughout Voyage of the Sable Venus Coste Lewis actively combats O’Hara’s attempt to include African Americans “matter-of-factly in his vision of America” (Lehman 196). Rather than throwing them a token of attention, she makes the black population the whole show, cropping out white people completely. Additionally, Coste Lewis also helps hone the accuracy of her readers’ perception of black history, by refusing to use the “postmodern” term “African American” which many “museums and libraries” have substituted in, in an effort to cover up previous slurs such as “slave, colored, and Negro” (35). Coste Lewis refuses this whitewashing of black history, and instead returns to the original phrasing in order to allow readers to access the “original horror” that these names indicate (35). Rather than brushing through the horror a la O’Hara, Coste Lewis pulls an amplifier up to it and lets loose the volume.

At every turn in Voyage, Robin Coste Lewis made the most out of the New York School’s tradition. She took O’Hara’s “portal” to macho museums like the MOMA and the Frick and turned it on its secretly ugly head in her Notes section (335). This portion of the poem, usually reserved for filling in the gaps in the research and giving credit to those who contributed, lists all the museums that Coste Lewis pulled her “titles, catalog entries, and exhibit descriptions” from (35). While the list does fulfill the intended purpose typical of notes to a poem, by the end of the poem the list reads like a Most Wanted Section of racists and chauvinists. This is a far cry from the upbeat “I love the paintings, that’s for sure” from Schuyler’s “Back” in his Collected Poems (Schuyler 255). In the end, Coste Lewis’s use of the New York School tools should be regarded as elevating and adding to, rather than denigrating, the New York School tradition. After all, Robin Coste Lewis took the love child of four white male poets and gave it a voice, a feat that should not go unrecognized in the legacy of the New York School.

Works Cited

Ashbery, John. John Ashbery: Selected Poems. Penguin Business Relationships, 1986.

Coste Lewis, Robin. Voyage of the Sable Venus. Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.

Diggory, Terrence. “Conceptual Art and the New York School Poets.” Encyclopedia of the New York School Poets, Facts on File Inc., 2011.

Dolin, Sharon. “The Ekphrastic Moment.” The Hopkins Review, vol. 10, no. 3, 2017, pp. 337-54.

Koch, Kenneth. “Fresh Air.” The Collected Poems of Kenneth Koch. Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.

Lehman, David. The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School Poets. First Anchor Books, 1999.

O’Hara, Frank. The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara. University of California Press, 1995.

Sealey, Nicole. “Interview with Robin Coste Lewis, 2015 National Book Award Winner, Poetry.” National Book Foundation, 2015.

Schuyler, James. James Schuyler: Collected Poems. Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1993.

About Alexa Doran

Alexa Doran is the author of the chapbook Nightsink, Faucet Me a Lullaby (Bottlecap Press 2019), and is currently a PhD candidate at Florida State University. Her series of poems about the women of Dada, “The Octopus Breath on Her Neck,” was recently released as part of Oxidant/Engine’s BoxSet Series Vol 2. You can also look for work from Doran in recent or upcoming issues of Glass, Mud Season Review, Conduit, and Permafrost, among others. For a full list of her publications, awards, and interviews please visit her website at aed16e.wixsite.com/alexadoranpoet.

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