“To the Realization of Total Helplessness” by Robin Coste Lewis

DOver the decades, African Americans have invented artistic forms that are revered today—blues, jazz, and turntables, for example—and others that have yet to be named. Within this tradition of innovation there is a form that can best be described as photopoem, the Black Mode of which dates back to the turn of the 20th century when Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poems were combined with images by the Hampton Institute Camera Club. In the 1960s, Amiri Baraka, June Jordan, and others made the photopoem both a celebration of black culture and a reparation for the humiliations to which the image of black people still suffers. The pinnacle of the genre is surely poet Langston Hughes and photographer Roy DeCarava’s transcendent book The Sweet Flypaper of Life (1955), which weaves together life in Harlem with point and counterpoint, shadow and stillness. Unlike the photo essay, such photo poems are less interested in arguments or proof than in riffs, collaboration and revelation.

Any consideration of this rich lyrical line must now include Robin Coste Lewis’ sparkling new collection, To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness. In this sequel to her 2015 National Book Award-winning debut, Voyage of the Sable Venus, Lewis pushes the boundaries of language and image by penning lines alongside a cache of hundreds of photographs found just days before under the bed of her deceased Grandmother were found the house should be demolished.

A sense of loss and near-loss pervades the book. The photo-poem not only preserves – it provokes, mourns, philosophizes, yearns and celebrates, much like the jazz of Lewis’ native Louisiana. As someone whose family also traversed the Great Migration axis from Louisiana to Los Angeles, here I immediately see if not familiar faces then familiar looks: of precision, flair and defiance that resist even the gaze of the camera. These are relatives that the poet knows well, but also keeps as mysteries.

Lewis told me in a recent conversation, “My thoughts are on beauty.” To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness is interested in lineage and other types of relationships, including those between photography and testimony, between work and play, between ancient migrations and the great, between exploration and exploitation. (The middle of the book is a long poem about Black Arctic traveler Matthew Henson, a quote from which the collection is named.) His achievement is cosmic and sonic, realizing on its black pages the nexus of photo album with record album, of reproduction Poems and photos, the fleeting and the immortal, relatives again.

Kevin Young