Welty’s “Window Shopping” Used as Cover Art for Coste Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems
By Mostafa Jalal, Georgia State University
Eudora Welty’s photograph “Window Shopping,” which depicts a young black woman looking into a store’s window in Granada, Mississippi, adorns the cover of a recent book of poems by Robin Coste Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems (2015). In the photograph, the woman is clothed in a print dress and is wearing a fitted straw hat with its brim pulled over her face. She has her hand on her chin and appears to be inquisitive of what she sees—this is also what makes the image provocative: the audience is not shown the contents of her view. This picture urges readers to consider such questions as What is so intriguing that it makes her pause and hold a gaze? What has so intently captured her attention? and Is she looking inside the store, or perhaps, at her own reflection? The historical context of this picture being taken in the 1930s near the height of racial segregation in America’s deep south further enhances the aura surrounding the image.
Welty’s provocative photograph is fitting for Lewis’s book, which is an adventure of the black female figure. The image foreshadows a theme for the poems. It encourages readers to consider if the woman in the photograph is a historic representation of the black Venus. This leads to larger questions surrounding the black Venus altogether: How does the black Venus ultimately look? and furthermore, What does this appearance signify or symbolize? These questions immediately formulate when approaching Voyage. The marriage of photography and poetry is another unique quality of this book. Different modes of art can often complement one another; this aforementioned combination is an example of how visual and written elements can come together to enhance each other. An image from the 1930s can emphasize the prowess of a poetic endeavor in 2015, which furthers the timelessness of art. There is a connection of historic experience and contemporary empathy, and these factors combine to provide commentary on both artistic and political levels. We can wonder what this is saying about past and present events: Have we crossed the threshold of racial strife or is this an ongoing voyage?
The strength, originality and quality of the collection has earned Voyage the National Book Award. Of the book, Claudia Rankine writes, “Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems reframes the black figure, most specifically the black female, by pointing out the borders of black beauty, black happiness, and black resilience in … canonical visual culture” (Voyage, dustjacket). She goes onto mention, “This … upends the language of representation, collected from the cataloging of the black body in Western art.” This notion is vividly represented in Welty’s artwork. How does Western art capture the black figure—more specifically, the black female figure? Lewis attempts to explore that question in the poems contained in her collection.
Voyage is a study of the black female body through art. Yusef Komunyakaa asserts, “These poignant poems, through a poetic excavation, unearth figures that make us question racial constructs. The body is at the center of this imagistic inquiry, and each line is a blind stitch in the psychological metrics of the whole” (Voyage, dustjacket). An example of this can be found in section “IV. Glinda the Good” of the poem “Let Me Live in a House by the Side of the Road and Be a Friend to Man,” where Lewis writes:
there is something
like Her, something
hovering above us,
in whose palm
everything spins (30)
As viewers of Welty’s photography and readers of Lewis’s poetry, we admire the transcendent quality of art and how different media can come together to complement one another. Moving beyond the book jacket of Voyage of the Sable Venus into the history of Welty’s photograph and into the evocative Lewis’s texts can provide an enriched experience with genuine undertones of identity, sympathy, motivation, inquiry, and discovery. In the 1930s, Welty variously titled her photograph “Payday” and “Teachers Don’t Get Paid,” perhaps for use in her application to be a photographer for the Works Progress Administration. In her 1936 photography exhibit in New York City, the image was captioned “Underwear” by someone other than Welty. Not until Welty collected one hundred of her 1930s photographs in One Time, One Place: Mississippi in the Depression, A Snap-shot Album in 1971, did the photograph carry the current caption “Window Shopping” (54).
As for Lewis’s collection, evocations of the woman on the cover can be found both allusively and specifically. The long title poem comprises the second section of a dozen poems, eight of which are “Catalog [s]” consisting of multiple poems, a veritable taxonomy of black female figures, many of which could easily be “seen” in Welty’s oeuvre of photographs. Lewis seems aware of the history of “Window Shopping” when, in “Catalog 7: Modern Post xxii. A Refusal of Time/Her Absence Filled the World,” she writes, “The Aftermath: underwear/ window-shopping” (107). Welty is no longer with us to comment on the use of her photograph as the cover of Lewis’s book; however, we recognize that her work continues to inspire others and to encourage artistic voyages.
Coste Lewis, Robin. Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015. Print.
Welty, Eudora. One Time, One Place: Mississippi in the Depression: A Snap-shot Album. New York: Random House, 1971.