I recently finished reading Robin Coste Lewis’ Voyage of the Sable Venus: and other poems. I had originally added it to my reading list because of my interest in the central cycle of poems, which build a narrative entirely out of titles of artworks that in some way comment on the black female figure in Western art. While the well-crafted splicing of lyrical poetry and art criticism did not disappoint, but I was even more struck by the “other poems.” Lewis unflinchingly and masterfully tells difficult stories of blackness in America, complicity, loneliness, and incest.
When it came time for me to sit down and write something about the craft in her work, it was that last poem, “Lure,” that wouldn’t let me go. I wrote about the power of negation in the refusal throughout the poem (which is bookended by the simple but compelling statement “I am not there…any longer.”). A power capable of opening imaginative possibility, while still grounding the reader in the reality of what occurred. A power capable of bringing us intimately into the experience of self-doubt and denial that often come with trauma from the people we love. A power capable of anchoring us in the sense that this should not have happened, without taking on a lecturing, pleading or preaching tone. (You can read an excerpt of the poem and my short paper about it, here.)
But there was another powerful part of the magic of negation that I didn’t put in that paper. One that seemed more personal than craft based—one that resonated with me from a very different place. Through the poetic recreation of trauma using the lens of negation, there is an empowering reclamation of the survivor’s No. For many years, as a gay woman trying to do what I thought I was supposed to do (namely: be straight and stay married), I overrode my inner No for more than a decade. It was never verbalized—my now ex-husband would never have continued to have sex with a woman who said No aloud—but it screamed loudly in my own head, a voice that I gagged “for our own good.” When I finally did come out to myself and others, there were some who questioned why I hadn’t done so sooner, people who would point to the damage I had done to him and the trust of those around me. The most honest answer I have is: I was afraid of the repercussions of saying that No. The damage it could do in my other relationships. The unknowns that lay on the other side of it.
How much more true in Lewis’ case of a three year old trying to find her No with her own grandfather? But in recreating the experience in the negative, the language flexes all of the hard-won muscles of the adult’s No. Voicing the incest serves, in the words of Judith Harris, as “an antidote to harm caused by civilized silence,” but voicing it in the negative is a very specific antidote. The antidote of saying and hearing one’s self say No, for those who need the balm that the language of refusal offers.