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A Journey of Ancestry, Blackness, and Loss in ‘To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness’

A Journey of Ancestry, Blackness, and Loss in ‘To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness’

After her maternal grandmother’s death 25 years ago, Robin Coste Lewis discovered a collection of old photographs in a suitcase under her bed. Lewis’ family had survived one of the largest migrations in the world when six million Black Americans fled the South, seeking freedom from white supremacy. The photographs Lewis found revealed a hidden, interior history. She joins beautiful poetry to these images, framing stories of race and migration and giving them voice.

It’s probably one of my favorite combinations — poetry and photography. In To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness, Lewis reimagines our expectations of both, calling it “a film for the hands” and “an origin myth for the future.” We see nearly 180 photographs: glamorous outings to graduations, birth announcements, and expressions of joy on a back porch. Even more, the cover is a photograph, most likely take by her grandmother, on 8th and Broadway in Downtown LA, where she worked at a sewing factory. Los Angeles was a city to which she fled, as so many did, as part of the Great Migration.

Lewis creates this lyrical documentary about Black life and what it means to be human, with Blackness at the center. “Black pages, black space, black time — the Big Black Bang.” “I am trying / to make the gods / happy,” she writes amongst these portraits of her ancestors. “I am trying to make the dead / clap and shout.”

Perhaps we all have a longing to connect to our ancestors in some way. We seek to know how their journeys, even in places without a sense of home, have helped set the course of our own lives. We’ve all looked at old photographs and felt the weight of eyes looking back at us; smiles, beauty, and strength.

As I read the book, I was overwhelmed by the solid beauty of it. I was surprised by the number of photographs, as well as the words printed in white on perfectly black pages. I instinctively knew this was a special book that was presented with the utmost care.

The title of To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness is taken from a line by the Black Arctic explorer Matthew Henson who spent several decades of his life on multiple expeditions and was the first Black person to reach the North Pole in 1909. Henson is also the subject of a long narrative poem located in the middle of the collection. This poem is not complemented by images and, unlike the rest of the book, is printed on white paper, rather than black. It is to represent Henson’s polar snow sprinkled with his Black life.

The book’s design has significance, as it raises questions about what the eye sees and what the mind remembers. Printing the images, shorter poems, and isolated lines against a black background evokes old-fashioned photo albums and drives home how modern technology has robbed photographs of their relatability. Those black pages also represent Lewis’s interest in blackness — as a color, as a symbol, as a race, and as a defining element of her own heritage.

The poetry presented with the photographs had a visceral impact on me. I was distracted, in the best possible way, by the faces and figures; by the beauty and mystery there. So, on my second reading, I could focus solely on the words.  

There are many lines that stuck in my head: “The way that Time keeps knocking / on my bedroom door, the way / that Death lets her in, / the way that Life pours the tea.” I love how she spoke about Time, Death, and Life as though they were people allowing certain things to take place.

“Which is to say, the moment I decided there was no such place as home, or what was once home no longer existed, that the continent of my family had been flooded, and the ice on which we had lived and thrived for generations had melted, and everyone was gone, which is to say, the moment I admitted I was living on a vast mass of floating ice — alone — the moment I accepted that, I began to feel better. I was dead, it was true, but I was happier. I stood on the new frozen shore watching the light mingle with the ocean. Everyone had become water. Land was a story the old people had told to frighten the little children, to keep us from running off.”

from To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness

Lewis continues to celebrate Blackness throughout these pages. She looks back, considering those who came before, the mystery of the countless, faceless dead, and the reality of erasure, of inevitably joining them. “Our black/deep mystery perfect — you and me — sitting here — one hundred thousand years ago — without any possibility — or need — for documentation.”

“Just be here/with me/on this page,” she writes, calling the reader to be fully present; to be involved.

This book felt like an expansion of Lewis’ debut poetry collection, Voyage of the Sable Venus, except entirely focused on art history via her grandmother’s photographs. All we are given are the pieces of poems she chooses to parallel with certain photographs. So, there is a sense of history that is not entirely lost but is being evoked through metaphor. The history of Black migration from the South to the West is shown through calls to the dead and odes to memory and language. There is also so much love for Black women — so much interest in the physical reality of living, and the ability to describe the way that history can ultimately weigh us down.  

To The Realization of Perfect Helplessness is the kind of book that could only have been created today and by this pioneering poet. Lewis weaves vintage photographs of her family history with her trademark lyricism. The book is more than a photo album. It is a work of poetry art. The photographs are flashes from a past that reflect Lewis’ eloquently powerful poems from the present. 

I highly recommend this book, as it meditates on ancestry, Blackness, and loss. It pushes what we believe about language and images. The impact from that is worth sharing and rereading.

To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold. I’ll encourage you to pick up a copy at your nearest Black-owned bookstore or through on-line communities that curate and amplify the voices of Black authors.

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