Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Take care of the little box - Charles Simic's prose poems and knickknacks and whatnots on Joseph Cornell

I have at hand Charles Simic’s little books about Joseph Cornell, Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell (1992).  Cornell is one of classic American eccentrics like Captain Craig.  I think of them as wanderers, although Cornell barely left New York City.

America still waits to be discovered.  Its tramps and poets resemble early navigators setting out on journeys of exploration.  Even in is cities there are still places left blank by the map makers.  (p. 15)

The people who romanticize them, like E. A. Robinson, think of them as geniuses, if only conditions had been right, while Cornell was a genius of a unique sort, and conditions were somehow right.

Somewhere in the city of New York there are four or five still-unknown objects that belong together.  Once together they’ll make a work of art.  That’s Cornell’s premise, his metaphysics, and his religion, which I wish to understand.  ( 14)

Simic’s book is a collection of prose poems about Cornell and his work.  Some are more prose, some more poems.  Some are about Cornell, some from his point of view, some positioned, I don’t know, somewhere else.  If the book were art history, not so many poets – Poe, Nerval, Baudelaire, Dickinson – would show up.

I’ve read that Goethe, Hans Christian Andersen, and Lewis Carroll were managers of their own miniature theaters.  There must have been many other such playhouses in the world.  We study the history and literature of the period, but we know nothing about these plays that were being performed for an audience of one.  (50)

Simic compares Cornell’s boxes to chess problems, fetish objects, “some abacuslike calculating machine” (43).  What is it, what is it?  I know that was my first question when I encountered a Cornell.  Now I know what they are.  They are Cornells.  “Look, they have a Cornell.”  That’s all I say now when I find a new one.

Now in the little box
You have the whole world in miniature
You can easily put it in a pocket
Easily steal it easily lose it

Take care of the little box.  (40)

Part of a poetic poem, that one, Simic’s translation of a Vasko Popa poem.

Sometimes Simic is merely a critic:

Marcel Duchamp and John Cage use chance operation to get rid of the subjectivity of the artist.  For Cornell it’s the opposite.  In that sense Cornell is not a dadaist or a surrealist.  He believes in charms and good luck.  (61)

In Dime-Store Alchemy, Simic attempts to write about Cornell in the spirit of the artist.  Sometimes maybe he succeeds.  Pretty good.

I got to know Cornell’s work at the Art Institute of Chicago, so I have included some of my favorites from their collection, pieces I have studied from every angle allowed by the display.  From top to bottom, "Untitled (Soap Bubble Set)" (ca. 1957), "Dovecote" (1950), and "Soap Bubble Set" (1940/1953). Simic’s book has good photos of nine more Cornells, but from one side only.


  1. A lovely book about a tremendously engaging and curious artist. I wish more poets would write books about art. Do you know Frank O'Hara's poem "Joseph Cornell"? It's short enough that I'll stick it into this comment:

    Into a sweeping meticulously-
    detailed disaster the violet light
    pours. It's not a sky,
    it's a room, and in the open
    field a glass of absinthe is
    fluttering its song of India.
    Prairie Winds circle mosques.

    You are always a little too
    young to understand. He is
    bored with his sense of the
    past, the artist. Out of the
    prescient rock in his heart
    he has spread a land without
    flowers of near distances.

  2. I didn't know the poem well enough to remember it existed. Thanks.

  3. Let me ask you different kinds of questions (because I am most impressed by your reading range): How do you manage to read so much? How do you make your reading choices? I sort of imagine you prowling the library and pulling down books somewhat at random. The reason for my questions is, I guess, something like envy. I wish I could be so expansive and exhaustive in my reading. But, alas, my reading speed has slowed to a snail's pace, and I have trouble concentrating on anything long enough to sustain my interest, focus, and thinking. Old age sucks!

  4. I have the concentration to read something like 100 pages a day. 700 pages in a week, so an average of two books a week. That sounds about right. This Charles Simic book is 76 pages with a lot of blank space.

    As for how I choose, I don't know. I just read what I want to read. My focus can be a problem, and I will not comment on my thinking, but interest, I have no lack of interest.