Perhaps the great (however obvious) lesson of the last several years — the waves of police violence against black men, the bitter and hate-fueled rise of Trump and worldwide xenophobia — is that we have not transcended and learned from history nearly as well as we might have thought. Maybe we need reminding. In two recent books, “Map to the Stars” by Adrian Matejka and “Voyage of the Sable Venus,” the 2015 debut by Robin Coste Lewis, black poets jog our collective memories, facing the distant and recent history of black Americans, asking us to try to see ourselves in their mirrors.
Lewis, who won the 2015 National Book Award in poetry for this book, is a challenging poet, both because her poems stare unflinchingly at evidence of some of America’s most shameful sins and because her fierce intelligence casts its gaze in long, sometimes exhausting poems. She is many poets in one: formalist, surrealist, experimentalist, collage artist, confessor. She is a poet and a scholar (her degrees include a master’s in theological studies in Sanskrit and comparative religious literature from Harvard Divinity School), but her poems show she has also deeply studied visual art, cataloging the history of representations of the subjugation of black women’s bodies at the hands of whites. She doesn’t merely cast blame at white Americans, though; this book is also a personal history: “the black side / of my family owned slaves,” she writes on the book’s first page. Lewis’ struggle to discern her own culpability makes this book as mesmerizing as it is disturbing.
What can History possibly say?
Sometimes I feel a pride I cannot defend
or explain. Sometimes I smile.
Into the barbed nectar
of this story I have stared
my whole life.
For Lewis, the past — both near and distant — is a constant presence. Whatever she trains her attention on — from cultural monuments to personal memories — reveals a latticework of proofs that black women simply are not free. The poem “Frame" is a condensed personal history of growing up in the 1970s around L.A., where white farmers’ land borders black neighborhoods and a new library becomes both the hopeful key to escape and a haunting reminder of how reluctant history is to let lives change:
… English was really a type of trick math:
like the naked Emperor, you could be a King
capable of imagining just one single dream;
or there could be a body, bloody
at your feet — then you could point at the sky;
or you could be a hunched-over cotton-picking shame;
or you could swing from a tree by your neck into the frame.
Two groups of lyric poems frame Lewis’ most startling work, a masterful achievement from which the collection takes its title. The book’s 80-page central poem is composed of nothing but juxtaposed language from titles and catalog descriptions of works of art in which black women appear, grouped into sets of roughly chronological stanzas like this:
Bust of a Nubian Prisoner
with Fragmentary Arms
Bound Behind Funerary Mask
of a Negro with Inlaid Glass Eyes
and Traces of Incrustations
Present in the Mouth
It constructs a kind of narrative tour through the shameful history of white depiction of the black female body, difficult to excerpt and an endurance test for the reader. The product of exhaustive research, this poem makes central what has heretofore been marginalized — it collects the language used to describe the least important people in the paintings. Or, when black figures are central subjects, they are often described in words that exoticize, fetishize, generalize, romanticize or in other ways dehumanize them. This poem presents a jaw-dropping lexicon of injustice that has been carried forward in the language for centuries.
In “Lure,” another extended poem, Lewis recounts childhood sexual abuse in excruciating, unprintable detail; it is Lewis’ most poignant statement about memory:
I am not three.
You are not seventy-nine … .
I am not admiring the shine
Of my new white patent leather shoes
Resting at the edge of your knee.
Denying the traumas of the past, negating them, only serves to etch them more deeply into present consciousness. Lewis’ linguistic erasure of personal trauma mirrors the public erasure enacted in the titles and descriptions of works of art, hidden in plain sight.
Matejka was a National Book Award finalist for his third collection, “The Big Smoke,” about the groundbreaking African American boxer Jack Johnson. His fourth book, “Map to the Stars,” is an autobiographical work that, like Lewis’, takes its inspiration from the visual arts — though not just high art. Set in 1980s Indianapolis, these poems tell the story of Matejka’s youth using a budding teen’s obsession with space as an extended metaphor. When Matejka’s speaker looks up, he sees "ancient heroes posturing in the edges of the Earth's/ afro." It's a place where “poor only matters around / people who aren't poor.”
Matejka describes a not-unhappy life of modest means. “We have a brown couch, a dining table with a trick leg & two chairs. A B&W set with its own wheeled stand. A secondhand turntable that works when we can find a good needle.” But this life is also shadowed by “the absentee fatherism of it.” Where have all the fathers gone? Well, this is the world of "Post-Vietnam Blacks” — the title of one poem — in which many of the men, and much of the hope, reside in "The spacious myth of space."
Instead of Lewis' catalogs of art, Matejka offers as a mirror-world the ’80s craze for space exploration. This was the era of the Voyager II space mission and “Star Trek” reruns; the "final frontier" represents all the lies beyond the city’s limits and limitations, including the promise of prosperity in the suburbs.
A series of "Startdate" poems recasts childhood antics and trials in the parlance of “Star Trek”:
I'm a red shirt or the captain.
Either I can hear
my mother call or I saw
a molester peeking from
the drainpipe. Stranger
Matejka reclaims this cultural material, which, in other hands, would be merely kitschy. He walks a narrow line, on one side of which is sentimentality; on the other is the wide-eyed freshness and innocence with which youth views the world, which we are all ever struggling to recall. He makes “Star Trek” feel tragic, irreparably lost and powerfully filled with hope and promise.
In this figurative universe, “Voyager's golden record / [that] spun someplace in the space / between Uranus & Neptune” rather obviously points toward the rise of hip-hop culture and the onset of adolescence for these poems' protagonist. If Lewis seeks to show how high culture has functioned to alienate and subjugate black Americans, Matejka reminds us of the claims black Americans have on popular culture and current events, and offers a fresh set of figures for describing the youth of black Americans now entering middle age.
Like Lewis, Matejka also looks closely at paintings. A series of ekphrastic poems animates the subject matter of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s works. Basquiat was a black artist — along with Max Roach, Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, Sun Ra and Prince, all of whom make appearances — who created an original cultural language to describe an African American experience. Matejka also finds common ground with other poetic close observers and urban chroniclers, including Emily Dickinson, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lynda Hull and Yusef Komunyakaa.
There is truly an astounding wealth of material here, cultural artifacts that add up to an ironclad allegory for the plight of urban African Americans in the ’80s, which serves to point the way to where we are now.
These poets ask how can we escape or overcome the past. By staring at it, they seem to answer, as into a mirror, until we catch up to what made us.
Teicher is the editor of "Once and for All: The Best of Delmore Schwartz." His next book of poetry, "The Trembling Answers," will be published in April.
Penguin: 128 pp., $18 paper
Robin Coste Lewis
Knopf: 160 pp., $19.95 paper