February 26, 2016. Updated and expanded – February 8, 2019
by Nona Blyth Cloud
Call-and-response is one of the most ancient forms of human expression — in music, it is a phrase played by a musician or a group of musicians which is answered by another musician or group of musicians.
It is also part of prayer in many religious traditions, and often used at political rallies, before going into battle, or at sporting events to build the enthusiasm and commitment of the participants or onlookers.
The response can be an echo of the original phrase, a variation on it or a chanted answer.
Call-and-response is a part of many African cultures, and the African variants came to the Americas with the captives brought across the Atlantic and sold into slavery. It is a frequent component of African American music, from spirituals to blues, from jazz through rock-n-roll to hip-hop.
Poetry and music are close kin, and often entwined – lyrics partnered with music. So it is not surprising that poets engage in call-and-response. A painting opens a dialogue in the poet’s imagination, a passage written by one writer becomes the inspiration for the work of another, sometimes spinning in a new direction, sometimes continuing on the same line as the initial work.
In the case of The Mothers by Robin Coste Lewis, it is a “conversation” she is having with Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000), responding to this Brooks poem:
by Gwendolyn Brooks
We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,
Grayed in, and gray. “Dream” makes a giddy sound, not strong
Like “rent,” “feeding a wife,” “satisfying a man.”
But could a dream send up through onion fumes
Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes
And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall,
Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms
Even if we were willing to let it in,
Had time to warm it, keep it very clean,
Anticipate a message, let it begin?
We wonder. But not well! not for a minute!
Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now,
We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it.
by Robin Coste Lewis
for and after Gwendolyn Brooks
for and after the Kitchenette Building
We meet – sometimes – between the dry hours,
Between clefts in the involuntary plan,
Refusing to think of rent or food – how
Civic the slick to satisfied from man.
And democratic. A Lucky Strike each, we
Sponge each other off, while what’s grayed
In and gray slinks ashamed down the drain.
No need to articulate great restraint,
No need to see each other’s mouth lip
The obvious. Giddy. Fingers garnished
With fumes of onions and garlic, I slip
Back into my shift then watch her hands – wordless –
Reattach her stockings to the martyred
Rubber moons wavering at her garter.
In this poem, Coste Lewis is responding to a photograph and its photographer, which was J.A. Palmer’s attempt to refute Oscar Wilde:
The Wilde Woman of Aiken
Albumen photograph on orange mount — J. A. Palmer, 1882
I am not supposed to be
Beautiful. I am not
Supposed to sit
Before the observant eye
Of a sunflower. I am incapable
Of having a voice
Like a robin’s singing
Of springtime’s newborn impatiens,
Its balsams and touch-me-nots
Crouched so low to the ground. Vases and I are not permitted
To dally. If I were a name,
It would be Wall Paper. My hair is made of
A million breathing paisleys.
I have listened to you think aloud
About a five thousand year
That does not exist.
I am sitting here
In the open,
And you are there,
Dripping beneath your dark
Velvet, waiting for the light
To reach you.
I have wondered
Where you really live,
Why you cannot hear
All the glass inside your syllables
Slide off the table
Whenever your mouth
Opens and is then closed.
The story has not even begun.
The only thing left inside
My hand is my own quiet hand.
I am the Fourth Sister.
My florets stand together
At golden angles. My head
Is packed with eager seeds
Crisscrossing in spirals
One hundred garlands long.
It’s over now.
About my waist, dark
And bright: there is a satin sash
The color of sun
On the vine.
In 1882, Oscar Wilde toured the United States. Many American critics chastised him for his theories on beauty, including comic strip artists and photographers. One photographer, J. A. Palmer from Aiken, South Carolina, seeking to disprove Wilde’s aesthetic – that anything could be beautiful – staged what he, Palmer, believed to be a satirical photo shoot, choosing objects which he found to be inherently repugnant: highly patterned fabrics, an ornately upholstered chair, a sunflower, a face jug, and a black woman.
Voyage of the Sable Venus: And Other Poems by Robin Coste Lewis was the 2015 National Book Award Winner for Poetry.
The collection is arranged in three parts: the opening and closing sections are individual poems centering on race, sexual desire or abuse, and the part these elements play in the discovery and shaping of self. Centered at the heart of the book is the lengthy title poem, which uses museum placard names of works of art through the ages that are connected with the black female figure to illuminate the racial and sexual images of black women for the past 40,000 years. A stunningly effective response to the “call” of all Art and Culture, by turns beautiful and horrifying, in the Voyage poems Coste Lewis never flinches, whether the subject is degrading racial stereotypes or her own painful past.
The title and the collection were inspired by an infamous engraving by Thomas Stothard, The Voyage of the Sable Venus from Angola to the West Indies, a parody of The Birth of Venus by Botticelli, which mockingly serves up a black woman on the half shell on her way to slavery, attended by the mythological symbols of white cultural heritage.
The real and ugly details of her voyage into slavery are nowhere to be seen. She is an object to be used. The power of the Coste Lewis version of her endless voyage through art history transforms forever how we see her.
From the central poem of Voyage of the Sable Venus:
Ancient Greece & Ancient Rome
Here is your name
said the woman
and vanished in the corridor
— MAHMOUD DARWISH
Statuette of a Woman Reduced
to the Shape of a Flat Paddle
Statuette of a Black Slave Girl
Right Half of Body and Head Missing
Head of a Young Black Woman Fragment
From a Statuette of a Black Dancing Girl
Reserve Head of an African Princess
Statuette of a Concubine
Full Length Figure of a Standing
Black Woman Wearing Earrings
Statuette Once Supported an Unguent Vase
Vase with Neck in the Form of a Head
of a Black Statuette of a Female
Figure with Negroid Features
Figure’s Left Arm Missing Head
Of a Female Full-Length Figure
Of a Nubian Woman
the Arms Missing
Bust of a Draped Female Facing Forward
One Breast Exposed . . . . Black
Adolescent Female with Long Curls and Bare
Breasts Wearing a Voluminous Crown
Partially Broken Young Black Girl
Presenting a Stemmed Bowl
By a Monkey
This is the first section of “Catalog I: Ancient Greece & Ancient Rome” from Voyage of the Sable Venus and other poems, © 2015 by Robin Coste Lewis – Alfred A. Knopf/Penguin Random House
The 160 pages of Voyage of the Sable Venus, her debut collection, are a remarkable introduction to a potent voice in American letters.
Sources and Further Reading:
- “kitchenette building” from Selected Poems, © 1963 by Gwendolyn Brooks (Harper & Row) http://allpoetry.com/Kitchenette-Building
- “The Mothers” from Voyage of the Sable Venus, © 2015 by Robin Coste Lewis (Alfred A. Knopf)
- “The Wilde Woman of Aiken” from Voyage of the Sable Venus, © 2015 by Robin Coste Lewis (Alfred A. Knopf)
- 2015 National Book Award for Poetry – http://www.nationalbook.org/nba2015_p_lewis.html#.VszXs30rJQI
- Mother and child in kitchenette flat – Russell Lee, Chicago, 1941
- Photograph of Gwendolyn Brooks
- 1882 Photograph by J.A. Palmer
- The Voyage of the Sable Venus from Angola to the West Indies, engraving by Thomas Stothard, circa 1800
- Ancient Greek kantharos (two-handled drinking cup) with an exaggerated face of an African woman
- Detail of a 2015 photograph of Robin Coste Lewis, by Amanda Schwengel
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud