To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness

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On sale Dec 10, 2024 | 3 Hours and 0 Minutes | 978-0-593-50166-5
A genre-bending exploration of poetry and human migration—another revelatory expedition from the National Book Award–winning poet who changed the way we see art, the museum, and the Black female figure. • Winner of the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry

Twenty-five years ago, after her maternal grandmother’s death, Robin Coste Lewis discovered a stunning collection of photographs in an old suitcase under her bed, filled with everything from sepia tintypes to Technicolor Polaroids. Lewis’s family had survived one of the largest migrations in human history, when six million Americans fled the South, attempting to escape from white supremacy and white terrorism. But these photographs of daily twentieth-century Black life revealed a concealed, interior history. The poetry Lewis was inspired to create stands forth as an inspiring alternative to the usual ways we frame the old stories of “race” and “migration,” placing them within a much vaster span of time and history.

In what she calls “an origin myth for the future,” Lewis reverses our expectations of poetry: “Black pages, black space, black time––the Big Black Bang.” From glamorous outings to graduations, birth announcements, baseball leagues, and back-porch delight, Lewis creates a lyrical documentary about Black intimacy. Instead of colonial nostalgia, she offers us “an exalted Black privacy.” What emerges is a dynamic reframing of what it means to be human and alive, with Blackness at its center. “I am trying / to make the gods / happy,” she writes. “I am trying to make the dead / clap and shout.”
  • WINNER | 2023
    NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work
  • WINNER | 2023
    PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry
Winner of the PEN/Voelcker Award for PoetryNAACP Image Awards Winner • Best Book of 2022: CNN Style

"Robin Coste Lewis has created a photographic and linguistic archive that draws from the pre-diasporic truth of family — family before Blackness and before the permutations of misunderstandings by others about 'us.' Her poems never stop offering me ways to more deeply understand the complex ways of being migratory, beautiful and optimistic in times of gross inequity. Lewis creates light and portals that reveal our truth through words and the images underneath our grandmother's bed." —Theaster Gates, CNN

"The exquisite To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness, is a book about how the dead do not stay dead. Lewis’s elegiac and haunted volume . . . is another voyage. But the view is different, as is the destination: what Lewis is resuscitating here is a community, a family she knew or wishes she’d known." —Hilton Als, The New Yorker
 
“Lewis pushes the limits of language and image, composing lines alongside a cache of hundreds of photographs found under her late grandmother’s bed only days before the house was slated to be razed. A sense of loss and near-loss pervades the book. The photopoem does more than preserve—it provokes, mourns, philosophizes, yearns, and celebrates, much like the jazz of Lewis’s ancestral Louisiana . . . Its achievement is cosmic and sonic.” —Kevin Young, The New Yorker
 
To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness is a hybrid text concerned with the recent past and excavating what Lewis calls deep time—millennia of Black art-making, community-building and innovation. To accomplish this excavation, Lewis arranges photos she discovered 25 years ago in a suitcase at her grandmother’s home so that they are in conversation with her own layered, lush poetry. The result is a book steeped in a particular history—Black migrants from Louisiana living in Los Angeles in the 20th century—yet buoyed by a feeling of boundlessness.” —Angela Flournoy, The Los Angeles Times
  
“Juxtapositions of text and photograph spark unexpected electric arcs, illuminating the photographic subjects’ inner lives . . . Lewis's language has a washed clarity . . . At once authoritative and piercingly human, To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness is an extraordinary atlas for an unmapped world.” —Sylee Gore, The Poetry Foundation

“Lewis weaves a documentary poetic work. Evident from the opening pages, one of the central interests of this exceptional collection is migration: “Signs and marks/ and nothing/ with which to apprentice them.// Evolution—/ the migration/ of imagination—// the image just/ illusion: a profound, prehistoric/ technology of leaving.” The pairing of photographs and text expand existing notions of how any single artistic medium or form can capture the nuances of race, family, and history. Shining with Lewis’s trademark lyricism and fueled by resonant and inspired juxtapositions, this exquisite book makes an impact worth sharing widely and rereading.”Publishers Weekly (starred review)
© Abigail Rudner
ROBIN COSTE LEWIS won the National Book Award for Voyage of the Sable Venus, her first collection of poetry. The book was also a finalist for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and it was named one of the best books of the year by The New Yorker and The New York Times. Literary Hub named it one of the best books of the last twenty years. She is also the coauthor, with Kevin Young, of Robert Rauschenberg: Thirty-Four Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno. The former poet laureate of Los Angeles, Lewis holds a PhD in Poetry and Visual Studies from the University of Southern California, an MFA in poetry from New York University, an MTS in Sanskrit and comparative religious literature from the Divinity School at Harvard University, and a BA from Hampshire College in post-colonial literature and creative writing. Her work has appeared in various journals and anthologies, including The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Paris Review, Transition, and The Massachusetts Review. Lewis has taught at Hampshire College, Hunter College, Wheaton College, and the NYU Low-Residency MFA in Paris. She is currently writer in residence at the University of Southern California.


ROBIN COSTE LEWIS is available for select speaking engagements. To inquire about a possible appearance, please contact Penguin Random House Speakers Bureau at speakers@penguinrandomhouse.com or visit prhspeakers.com. View titles by Robin Coste Lewis

About

A genre-bending exploration of poetry and human migration—another revelatory expedition from the National Book Award–winning poet who changed the way we see art, the museum, and the Black female figure. • Winner of the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry

Twenty-five years ago, after her maternal grandmother’s death, Robin Coste Lewis discovered a stunning collection of photographs in an old suitcase under her bed, filled with everything from sepia tintypes to Technicolor Polaroids. Lewis’s family had survived one of the largest migrations in human history, when six million Americans fled the South, attempting to escape from white supremacy and white terrorism. But these photographs of daily twentieth-century Black life revealed a concealed, interior history. The poetry Lewis was inspired to create stands forth as an inspiring alternative to the usual ways we frame the old stories of “race” and “migration,” placing them within a much vaster span of time and history.

In what she calls “an origin myth for the future,” Lewis reverses our expectations of poetry: “Black pages, black space, black time––the Big Black Bang.” From glamorous outings to graduations, birth announcements, baseball leagues, and back-porch delight, Lewis creates a lyrical documentary about Black intimacy. Instead of colonial nostalgia, she offers us “an exalted Black privacy.” What emerges is a dynamic reframing of what it means to be human and alive, with Blackness at its center. “I am trying / to make the gods / happy,” she writes. “I am trying to make the dead / clap and shout.”

Awards

  • WINNER | 2023
    NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work
  • WINNER | 2023
    PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry

Reviews

Winner of the PEN/Voelcker Award for PoetryNAACP Image Awards Winner • Best Book of 2022: CNN Style

"Robin Coste Lewis has created a photographic and linguistic archive that draws from the pre-diasporic truth of family — family before Blackness and before the permutations of misunderstandings by others about 'us.' Her poems never stop offering me ways to more deeply understand the complex ways of being migratory, beautiful and optimistic in times of gross inequity. Lewis creates light and portals that reveal our truth through words and the images underneath our grandmother's bed." —Theaster Gates, CNN

"The exquisite To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness, is a book about how the dead do not stay dead. Lewis’s elegiac and haunted volume . . . is another voyage. But the view is different, as is the destination: what Lewis is resuscitating here is a community, a family she knew or wishes she’d known." —Hilton Als, The New Yorker
 
“Lewis pushes the limits of language and image, composing lines alongside a cache of hundreds of photographs found under her late grandmother’s bed only days before the house was slated to be razed. A sense of loss and near-loss pervades the book. The photopoem does more than preserve—it provokes, mourns, philosophizes, yearns, and celebrates, much like the jazz of Lewis’s ancestral Louisiana . . . Its achievement is cosmic and sonic.” —Kevin Young, The New Yorker
 
To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness is a hybrid text concerned with the recent past and excavating what Lewis calls deep time—millennia of Black art-making, community-building and innovation. To accomplish this excavation, Lewis arranges photos she discovered 25 years ago in a suitcase at her grandmother’s home so that they are in conversation with her own layered, lush poetry. The result is a book steeped in a particular history—Black migrants from Louisiana living in Los Angeles in the 20th century—yet buoyed by a feeling of boundlessness.” —Angela Flournoy, The Los Angeles Times
  
“Juxtapositions of text and photograph spark unexpected electric arcs, illuminating the photographic subjects’ inner lives . . . Lewis's language has a washed clarity . . . At once authoritative and piercingly human, To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness is an extraordinary atlas for an unmapped world.” —Sylee Gore, The Poetry Foundation

“Lewis weaves a documentary poetic work. Evident from the opening pages, one of the central interests of this exceptional collection is migration: “Signs and marks/ and nothing/ with which to apprentice them.// Evolution—/ the migration/ of imagination—// the image just/ illusion: a profound, prehistoric/ technology of leaving.” The pairing of photographs and text expand existing notions of how any single artistic medium or form can capture the nuances of race, family, and history. Shining with Lewis’s trademark lyricism and fueled by resonant and inspired juxtapositions, this exquisite book makes an impact worth sharing widely and rereading.”Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Author

© Abigail Rudner
ROBIN COSTE LEWIS won the National Book Award for Voyage of the Sable Venus, her first collection of poetry. The book was also a finalist for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and it was named one of the best books of the year by The New Yorker and The New York Times. Literary Hub named it one of the best books of the last twenty years. She is also the coauthor, with Kevin Young, of Robert Rauschenberg: Thirty-Four Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno. The former poet laureate of Los Angeles, Lewis holds a PhD in Poetry and Visual Studies from the University of Southern California, an MFA in poetry from New York University, an MTS in Sanskrit and comparative religious literature from the Divinity School at Harvard University, and a BA from Hampshire College in post-colonial literature and creative writing. Her work has appeared in various journals and anthologies, including The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Paris Review, Transition, and The Massachusetts Review. Lewis has taught at Hampshire College, Hunter College, Wheaton College, and the NYU Low-Residency MFA in Paris. She is currently writer in residence at the University of Southern California.


ROBIN COSTE LEWIS is available for select speaking engagements. To inquire about a possible appearance, please contact Penguin Random House Speakers Bureau at speakers@penguinrandomhouse.com or visit prhspeakers.com. View titles by Robin Coste Lewis