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.