Shadow Boxing Off Utopia Parkway

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In the book Dime-Store Alchemy, poet Charles Simic captures the essence of artist Joseph Cornell in verse like a close encounter of the third kind.

Joseph Cornell

Several weeks ago, I was lucky enough to catch three Eastern European poets duke it out over the merits of Polish writer, translator and poet Czesław Miłosz.

The line up was remarkable for the setting—the basement of the Chopin Theatre in Wicker Park—and included Belgrade-born poet, essayist and critic, Charles Simic; Polish poet, novelist, translator and essayist, Adam Zagajewski and present Poet Laureate of the United States, Detroit-born Philip Levine.

The forum was a literary festival entitled After Miłosz: Polish Poetry in the 20th and 21st Century celebrates the year of Czesław Miłosz, commemorating the centennial birth of the Nobel Prize-winning writer and philosopher. More specifically, the discussion was billed as “After Miłosz: Simic, Levine, and Zagajewski Talk Poetry in Chicago.” Stephen Burt, the poet, translator and critic, judiciously moderated the distinguished panel.

That same week, by sheer circumstance, I received a reissued copy of Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell by Charles Simic in the mail.

I was somewhat familiar with Simic’s work, but only from afar. I’d maybe read a few essays he’d written in the New York Review of Books about authors I admired, but I’d never read any of his poetry up until that night: The way Simic read his own work, and the work of Milosz. I was entranced.

The following week, while reading through Dime-Store Alchemy on the train to and from work, I heard Simic’s speaking voice—this heavy Balkan accent—in my head.

“I HAVE a dream in which Joseph Cornell and I pass each other on the street,” he writes in the book’s Preface. “This is not beyond the realm of possibility. I walked the same New York neighborhoods that he did between 1958 and 1970… [It was] only after his death did he become an obsession with me.”

This miniature portrait of the life of Joseph Cornell told in verse, originally published in 1992, and beautifully reproduced by the New York Review of Books Classics series, also includes a full color signature of some of Cornell’s most cherished works, handmade in his parents house off Utopia Parkway in Queens.

The poem “Cleo De Merode,” begins: “Joseph Cornell could not draw, paint, or sculpt, and yet he was a great American artist.”

The reader is then given a police procedural breakdown of “some of the things [Cornell] found and placed in a box called L Egytpe de Mlle Cleo de Morodecours elementaire d’histoire naturelle which he constructed in 1940:”

Doll’s forearm, loose red sand, wood ball, German coin, several glass and mirror fragments, 12 cork-stopped bottles, cutout sphinx head, yellow filaments, 2 intertwined paper spirals, cut-out of Cleo de Merode’s head, cutout of camels and men, loose yellow sand, 6 pearl beads, glass tube with residue of dried green liquid, crumpled tulle, rhinestones, pearl beads, sequins, metal chain, metal and glass fragments, blue celluloid, clear glass crystals, rock specimen, 7 balls, plastic rose petals, three miniature tin spoons for a doll house.

Before ending with: “Cleo de Merode, by the way, was a famous ballerina and femme fatale of the 1890s.”

This 80-page gem is broken down into three chapters: Medici Slot Machine, The Little Box, and Imaginary Hotels—all of which chart Cornell’s obsessive behavior of collecting and reassembling his shadow-boxes.

“The images Cornell has in his boxes are, however, of a third kind,” Simic writes in the poem “The Gaze We Knew As a Child.” “They partake of both dream and reality, and of something else that doesn’t have a name. They tempt the viewer in two opposite directions. One is to look and admire the elegance and other visual properties of the composition, and the other is to make up stories about what one sees. In Cornell’s art, the eye and the tongue are at cross purposes.”

A long time fan of Cornell’s work, I found myself dumbfounded after finishing Dime-Store Alchemy: Despite the fact that I’ve read several exhaustive books on Cornell, I was able to glean more insight into his life and work reading these short, narrative poems by Simic.

In the poem “Dog Wearing Baby Clothes,” Simic commits the perfect summing up of Cornell:

“Here’s how Cornell described the contents of some 150 files he kept at home:

a diary journal repository laboratory, picture gallery, museum, sanctuary, observatory, key… the core of a labyrinth, a clearinghouse for dreams and visions… childhood regained.

Someone else, not knowing Cornell’s method and purpose, would describe what’s inside the files as the contents of a trash basket, agreeing, perhaps, that, this is the strangest trash imaginable, for there are things in it that could have been discarded by a nineteenth-century Parisian as well as the twentieth-century American.”

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