The Art of Joseph Cornell

Responsible viewing: Charles Simic’s Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell

Morris, Daniel

“Every art is about the longing of One for the Other. Orphans that we are, we make our sibling kin out of anything we can find.” -Charles Simic, Dime-Store Alchemy (62)

Since the Eighteenth Century, writers and artists have tried to combine all the senses. In France, for example, Louis-Bertrand Castel, with his “ocular harpsichord,” attempted to make sound visible (Gessinger 50). Simultaneously, the limit to Castel’s experiment at cross-genre fertilization was being articulated by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, who in Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry ( 1766) raised the question of how poetry could combine the features of sculpture and painting on one side, of music on the other. Disputing the absolute boundary between genres established by Lessing and, in the modern period, by Clement Greenberg in “Toward a Newer Laocoon” (1940), the contemporary poet Charles Simic demonstrates in Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell (1992) that visual designs and verbal narrations are related but distinct strategies for personal disclosure and interpersonal communication. Reinscribing Cornell’s shadow boxes as a collage of sixty prose poems, Simic destabilizes the line between generic identifications. In the act of transforming spectatorship into a creative endeavor, Simic explores his own poetics while recuperating the work of an iconoclastic American artist who died in 1972.

Using ideas the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin derived primarily from verbal discourse to analyze the visual arts, I follow an argument he developed in an early, unfinished essay “Toward a Philosophy of the Act” (1919-24) to consider DimeStore Alchemy as an event that Simic, metaphorically, “co-authors” with Cornell.1 Following Bakhtin’s model, I read Dime-Store Alchemy as a “creative understanding,” a hybrid text that Simic calls the “third image” (Dime-Store 60) . In “Toward a Philosophy of the Act,” Bakhtin argues that “creative understanding” differs from a “live entering” of the reader’s viewpoint into the author’s imagination. For Bakhtin, such an empathetic identification between reader and writer, while a necessary step toward “creative understanding,” removes the relational and, therefore, the critical and creative aspects of reading as a form of authorship:

If I actually lost myself in the other (instead of two participants there would be one-an impoverishment of Being), i.e., if I ceased to be unique, then this moment of my not-being could never become a moment of my consciousness. (Bakhtin 16)2

“Creative understanding” through reading involves “liveentering” (identification) and the “moment of separation” (disidentification) that establishes the reader’s imaginative horizon. The interaction between reader and writer produces what Bakhtin calls a “surplus of seeing,” a perspective on the text that posits the reader’s stake in the creation of its meaning, and, by implication, the reader’s responsibility for sharing in the author’s construction of the cultural imaginary. 3 As Deborah J. Haynes writes in Bakhtin and the Visual Arts, “If visual art is ever to have social or political efficacy, the critic or viewer must practice this kind of living-into and separation” (68) .

Lacking formal artistic training, Cornell designed collages in his spare time in the basement of a modest house on Utopia Parkway, Bayside, Queens. His art work primarily consisted of placing in home-made wooden boxes abandoned objects such as dolls, twigs, thimbles, maps, cut-out pictures of birds from cheap paperbacks, photographs of movie stars such as Lauren Bacall, dice, Cordial glasses, rubber balls, and ping pong balls that appear to have fallen off the surface of a slotted game board that functions according to obscure rules. As the poet John Ashbery has written of one of the “hotel” boxes that depicts an out-of-season French resort, Cornell’s art in general does not require empirical verification to testify to its authenticity: “The secret of his eloquence: he does not re-create the country itself but the impression we have of it before going there” (Ashbery 15).

Through his art, Cornell reinvigorated experience and gave new life to the material he discovered in five-and-dime stores, used bookstores, and the Picture Collection housed in the basement of the New York Public Library at Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue. Simic describes Cornell’s creative process as a form of rummage work in “Where Chance Meets Necessity,” a section of Dime-Store Alchemy:

He set out from his home on Utopia Parkway without knowing what he is looking for or what he will find. Today it could be something as ordinary and interesting as an old thimble. Years may pass before it has company. In the meantime, Cornell walks and looks. The city has an infinite number of interesting objects in an infinite number of unlikely places. (14)

By placing “something as ordinary as an old thimble” in the boxes, Cornell rescues it from abandonment. Through taxonomic revision, he reconfigures the object’s status by placing it under the category entitled “interesting.” Simic suggests that Cornell uncovered material in the same used bookstores, libraries, and thrift stores that the author frequented upon arriving in the United States at sixteen, a war refugee who, in 1954, had traveled from Paris, where his mother, Helen, had taken him in 1945 to escape war bombings in Belgrade, Yugoslavia in 1944.

By interpreting Cornell’s art as “rummage work,” Simic visualizes his own poetics. “For a long time I wanted to approximate his method, make poems from found bits of language,” he writes (xiii). Discussing Simic’s poetry, Bruce Weigl has noted “his habit of setting the spectacular alongside the mundane, the comic in bed with the tragic, and a powerful sense of the brute forces of history and nature intruding on the reality of the poems” (2). In poems such as “My Shoes,” “Fork,” and “Ax” (1971) Simic, like Cornell, grants to objects what Weigl calls a “rich new life” (3). Besides reimagining art criticism in Dime-Store Alchemy as “a series of short texts in the spirit of the poets he loved,” Simic also revises the influence of modern American poetics on his own writing (xiii). Using Cornell’s “rummage work” as his example, Simic argues that contemporary American writers should not rely upon faith in what Harold Bloom calls “the American religion” of artistic originality to compensate for the “pressures of reality,” as Wallace Stevens had sought to do in his poetry. And unlike the project of nativist American modernists such as William Carlos Williams or Charles Sheeler, Simic also suggests that Cornell did not advocate the invention of a new idiom to represent an urban, industrial environment that had not received literary or artistic expression prior to modernism. Instead, Cornell sought to revive the aesthetic potential in the displaced fragments of far-away cultures from the “Old World”:

A pile of Greek 78 records with one Marika Papagika singing; a rubber-doll face of uncertain origin with teeth marks of a child or a small dog; sepia postcards of an unknown city covered with greasy fingerprints; . . . a menu from a hotel in Palermo serving octopus. (17)

Simic writes that “Cornell could not draw, paint, or sculpt, and yet he was a great American artist” (16).

In Three American Painters (1965), the art historian Michael Fried perceived the continuity between Nineteenth Century French painters such as Edouard Manet and the color field artists Kenneth Noland,Jules Olitski, and Frank Stella to consist of their “gradual withdrawal of painting from the task of representing reality. . . in favour of an increasing preoccupation with problems intrinsic to painting itself” (Fried 115). Following Greenberg, Fried argues that by flattening the picture plane, artists from Manet to Stella separated the aesthetic realm from other life worlds. By contrast, Simic connects European and American artists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by situating their work in historical and political contexts external to the narrative of how American art developed toward abstraction after World War Two. In Simic’s view, for example, the history of Eastern European immigrants remains etched in the fragments Cornell uncovered in alleyways and at garage sales:

America is a place where the Old World shipwrecked. Flea markets and garage sales cover the land. Here’s everything the immigrants carried in their suitcases and bundles to these shores and their descendants threw out with the trash. (17)

In Picture Theory, W. J. T. Mitchell argues that “from the semantic point of view . . . there is no essential difference between texts and images and thus no gap between the media to be overcome by any special ekphrastic strategies” (160) . Like a post-modern theorist such as Mitchell, Simic links Cornell to dadaist and surrealist visual artists such as Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp, as well as to poets such as Andre Breton. Simic binds these disparate European modernists together by noticing how their visual and verbal combinations influenced arts and letters in NewYork City, where they had fled to escape fascism in the 1930s:

The history of that idea [that poetry and art are everywhere] is familiar and so are its heroes, Picasso, Arp, Duchamp, Schwitters, Ernst-to name only a few. You don’t make art, you find it. You accept everything as its material. Schwitters collected scraps of conversation, newspaper cuttings for his poems. (Simic 18)

In Dime-Store Alchemy, Simic places Cornell in the context of European modernists who, like Simic, left Europe for the United States to escape the ravages of Hitlerism and World War Two. He links Cornell to writers such as Breton, who “found” material in overlooked places, as well as to the bohemian “walker in the city” figured in the prose poetry of Charles Baudelaire. Simic, however, extends the national boundaries, as well as generic affiliations, of Cornell’s art by placing him in the context of the two major Nineteenth Century American poets, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. Stating that “both in the end are unknowable,” he compares Cornell’s enigmatic but psychologically revealing collages to Dickinson’s use of the riddle form to express the mysteries of life and death in poems such as “It was not Death, for I stood up” (1862), and to Whitman, who celebrated urban dynamism in poems such as “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” [ 1856] “Whitman, too, saw poetry everywhere,” Simic writes (Dime-Store 73, 18).

A hybrid text that questions generic identifications, notions of periodization, and the borders of national arts and letters, Simic divides Dime-Store Alchemy into sixty sections, each with its own title. The poet Edward Hirsch has described these individual entries as “diverse `illuminations,’ notebook entries arranged in associative rather than linear fashion, paragraphs put together in tonal blocks that accrue into an homage and a portrait” (Hirsch 131). Simic’s prismatic assemblage of sixty ways of looking at Cornell is an anti-closural format. It graphically reproduces his multiple interpretations of the “beautiful but unsayable” boxes (54).

The multiple “takes” on Cornell represent a challenge to the modernist impulse to construct metanarratives to explain beguiling texts such as is found, for example, in T. S. Eliot’s description in “Ulysses, Order, and Myth” ( 1923) of Joyce’s novel as following the “mythical method.” Simic, however, does at times resemble modernist practitioners such as Eliot. As in Four Quartets (1943), Simic divides Dime-Store Alchemy into primary areas that suggest his desire for structure, categorization, and coherence: “Medici Slot Machines,” “The Little Box,” and “Imaginary Hotels.” As Irving Malin points out, these units, which are then condensed and subdivided into the sixty “box” sections become a literal “reflection . . . of Cornell’s constructions” (Malin 267). Unlike Eliot’s metanarrative that was designed to contain the play of language in Ulysses, Simic’s critical “boxes” enable Cornell’s art to emerge before the reader in an ambivalent state where language and images are at play, a state between concealment and revelation, seeing and knowing, legibility and the illegible.

Simic addresses Cornell’s art from many social, cultural, and aesthetic perspectives. In addition, meditating on art provides him with stimulating visual metaphors to assess his own poetic process, religious sensibility, and autobiographical impulses. As Helen Vendler has written, “no other book by Simic transmits so strongly as Dime-Store Alchemy what NewYork must have meant to him when he first arrived from Europe” (97). Extending the genre of art criticism to include moments of reverie usually reserved for lyrical poetry or dream diary, Simic establishes the personal valence of his fascination with Cornell.

In the “Preface,” Simic records a dream where he meets Cornell as his Double, a fellow wandering isolate haunting a New York City street:

I have a dream in which Joseph Cornell and I pass each other on the street. This is not beyond the realm of possibility. I walked the same streets he did. In the years 1958-1970, I subsisted by working at various jobs in midManhattan, or I was out of work spending my days in the Public Library on Forty-second Street, which he frequented himself. I don’t remember when it was that I first saw his art, or even where it was. I was interested in surrealism in those days, so it’s likely that I came across his name and the reproduction

of his work that way. He made me think I should be doing something like that myself, but for a long time I wasn’t very clear about what it was Cornell was really doing. (xiii)

Dime-Store Alchemy is the belated setting, the theater of speculation, where the possible but improbable meeting between Simic and Cornell, whose gaze affirms the author’s presence, takes place. Mystified about the artist’s intentions (“I wasn’t very clear about what [he] was really doing”), Cornell’s example inspires Simic to create: “He made me think I should be doing something like that myself” Simic’s vision of Cornell also enables him to imaginatively revisit New York City circa 1960 as he associates the artist’s journeys from Queens to Manhattan with his own strategy of protecting himself from isolation and despair through poetry, film, and art.

In “Chessboard of the Soul,” another dream narrative in Dime-Store Alchemy, Simic represents Cornell as a life-long bachelor who sold “woolen samples door to door in the manufacturing district in lower Manhattan” and who lived with his mother Helen, and invalid brother, Robert, as an autodidact (Simic xv) . Isolated from the art scene in Manhattan except for occasional visits to places such as the Julien Levy gallery, which first showcased his art in 1932, Cornell controls and even momentarily transcends his monotonous existence in Queens by juxtaposing miniature objects in his art:

Around the boxes I can still hear Cornell mumble to himself. In the basement of the quiet house on Utopia Parkway he’s passing the hours by changing the positions of a few items, setting them in new positions relative to one another in a box. At times the move is no more than a tenth of an inch. At other times, he picks the object, as one would a chess figure, and remains long motionless, lost in complicated deliberation. (42)

Simic’s account of Cornell’s dependence on art to survive alienation from a community of artists and intellectuals who might have understood him is comparable to how Ashbery imagines Cornell’s life in a 1967 essay: “One imagines that his day-to-day existence in Queens must be as outwardly routine and as inwardly fabulous as Kant’s in Koenigsberg” ( 15) . Like Ashbery, Simic represents Cornell as an artist who, “lost in complicated deliberation,” adjusts minute aspects of a structured environment of internal significance. In “Chessboard of the Soul,” Simic compares Cornell to a chess master during an endgame when few pieces remain on the board, and, therefore, when the value of each movement of each piece accrues. In Simic’s metaphor we might ask who is supposed to face Cornell on the other side of the chessboard? From the Bakhtinian perspective Dime-Store Alchemy illustrates, Cornell projects as opponent a reader such as Simic, whose image of Cornell visualizes his own reflections in poems and memoirs of playing games as a boy to ward off the trauma of World War Two.

Simic begins a poem entitled “Prodigy” ( 1977) by stating: “I grew up bent over / a chessboard. / I loved the word endgame” (Selected Poems 1-3) . In “Prodigy,” Simic reports how in Belgrade in 1944, he learned to play chess from a retired professor of astronomy when “Planes and tanks / shook [the] windowpanes” (7-8). Simic also recalls playing chess with an incomplete set of broken pieces: “the paint had almost chipped off / the black pieces” and “The white King was missing / and had to be substituted for” (13-16). At the end of the poem, Simic extends the memory of playing chess amidst the war bombings into a narrative about traumatic displacement. He combines the image of the blind chess player with a story about his mother shielding his eyes as a man is hanged from a telephone pole:

I remember my mother

blindfolding me a lot.

She had a way of tucking my head

suddenly under her overcoat.

In chess, too, the professor told me,

the masters play blindfolded,

the great ones on several boards

at the same time. (20-27)

Simic represents chess as a metaphor for metaphor, a scene of instruction in how creativity may enable the child to resist trauma through displacement. Describing chess as his initiation into poetic vision, Simic suggests how the writer, by interpreting art as a theater of play, may, indirectly, act out and work through experiences that were beyond his control as a child. By remembering how he learned chess from the blind master, Simic claims that poetic insight is contingent upon experiential deprivation. Shielded by his mother from directly witnessing terrible events such as a hanging, Simic imagines the past in his mind’s eye. In the poet Alan Shapiro’s terms, he “transform [s] into pleasure experiences that otherwise would terrify or repel” ( 184) . Playing chess while blindfolded in “Prodigy” is comparable to the classic image of the blind singer found in Homer, Sophocles, and Milton, as well as in the African-American blues tradition, much admired by Simic, in the figures of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Ray Charles, and Stevie Wonder.

In “O Fading Memory!” from Dime-Store Alchemy, Simic compares his childhood experience of play to protect himself from fear and pain to Cornell’s demonstration of art as play by remembering how he created narratives with broken toy soldiers as props during World War Two:

My own theater did not come from a store. It consisted of a few broken toy soldiers made of clay and an assortment of small wooden blocks, corks, and other unidentifiable objects which, in my imagination, had acquired anthropomorphic properties. My stage was under the table. My figures enacted what could only be described as an endless saga of the Wild West. There was a hero, his best friend, the bad guy, the Indians, but I don’t remember the heroine. I was seven or eight years old. The war was just over. There was little to do but imagine. (49)

Participating in Cornell’s game boards and playhouses as an involved reader, Simic returns to his childhood to recall traumatic experiences that sent him “under the table,” where he spun narratives based on his interaction with fragmented art objects such as the clay soldiers. The war game became for Simic an unsanctioned theater of self-preservation, a space to convert the “little to do” in Belgrade in 1944 into imaginative gain, an “endless saga” where he called the shots. Simic’s narrative suggests that as a boy he began to perceive art as a safe haven, protecting him from loss, fear, and isolation.

In “In the Beginning. . ,” a memoir that appears in Wonderful Words, Silent Truth (1990), Simic recalls his life in Paris as a war refugee after World War Two. He remembers playing hooky from school in Paris and gazing inside the shoemaker’s window:

I knew every corner [in Paris], every store window in that city. I can still see clearly each dusty item in a poor shoe-repairer’s window on a street in a quiet residential neighborhood. I would stop by every time I was in the area and examine that window with the leisure of someone who has nothing else to do. (Wonderful Words 28)

Peaking through the glass window in Paris as a way to kill time, Simic observes the cobbler reconditioning damaged objects through his craftsmanship. Similarly, in Dime-Store Alchemy, Simic perceives Cornell’s miniature, glass-enclosed collages as sites where broken objects are revived as meaningful artifacts. The “art of reassembling fragments of preexisting images in such a way as to form a new image, is the most important innovation in the art of this century,” Simic writes in the section entitled “We Comprehend by Awe” (18)

In the memoir, Simic describes how in the “primitive” barter economy of war-torn Belgrade, man-made items such as shoes and clocks were traded for live stock:

Since we didn’t have any money, we’d barter. A pair of my father’s black patent leather dancing shoes went for a chicken . . . Carpets, clocks, armchairs, fancy vases were exchanged for various yard animals over the years. ( Wonderful Words 22)

As a boy, Simic asserted a degree of freedom and control over his existence by deciding how to employ the limited range of objects available in a shattered economy. His childhood practice of exchanging shoes or clocks for a chicken to eat informs my understanding of why the poet who transformed the fork, the ax, and the old shoe into imagery that revives the story of the self in Dismantling the Silence was attracted to Cornell’s art. In Cornell, abjected and apparently dead things seem, uncannily, to return to life, but in a context in which prior meanings are, if not erased, then not entirely available to public disclosure. Both men perceive the aesthetic medium as a cube in which to transfer an object’s value into a new system of evaluation through metaphor, an imaginative medium of exchange. The revision of the utensil (“Fork”) or garment (“My Shoes”) to poem about the object revises its meaning and, therefore, its symbolic value. In the act of creative transformation, the poet bestows a semiotic existence upon the object even as the act displaces the object’s worth from the real to the symbolic.

Dime-Store Alchemy is an event of identification with Cornell, a “live-entering” into the artist’s creative process. Simic, however, also distinguishes himself from Cornell by focusing on his own life story in the course of his visual analysis. For example, describing Cornell’s “Medici Slot Machine” (1942), which contains a reproduction of a renaissance portrait of a Medici princeling set in the “magic” districts of vice in Times Square in Manhattan, Simic locates a visual equivalent to his own sensual experience of New York circa 1960:

The boy has the face of one lost in reverie who is about to press his forehead against a windowpane. He has no friends. In the subway there are panhandlers, small-time hustlers, drunks, sailors on leave, teen-aged whores loitering about. The air smells of frying oil, popcorn, and urine. The boy-prince studies the Latin classics and prepares himself for the affairs of the state. He is stubborn and cruel. He already has secret vices. At night he cries himself to sleep. Outside the street is lined with movie palaces showing films noir. One is called Dark Mirror, another Asphalt Jungle. In them, too, the faces are often in shadow. (Simic 26)

Like all grotesque art, as defined by Geoffrey Harpham, Cornell’s boxes and Simic’s lyrics are complex fusions of the perishable realm of the body and the imperishable realm of the spirit.4 For Simic, the collage registers temporality and decay, but it also is a still life that suggests the permanence of art. A three-dimensional artifact, it recuperates disappearing pieces of actuality by placing them inside an enclosed realm that is designed to attract the attention of spectators. Simic’s reading of “Medici Slot Machine” suggests that even if he detects mystery in streets strewn with garbage, Cornell does not erase the profane aspects of city life and of popular culture (“movie palaces showing films noir”), sites which for him are the residences of sublimity. As Cornell’s biographer, Deborah Solomon, has written, “in the luminous flicker of moving pictures, he found the promise of eternal life” (Solomon 77).

The primary identification between Simic and Cornell in “Medici Slot Machine” concerns how the storyteller interprets childhood grief and a contemporary environment of poverty, isolation, and marginalization. Cornell accepts the limited material resources available to him as a lower-middle class garment worker who lived with his mother and disabled brother. In spite of his limited social and economic status, Cornell invigorated experience by assembling inexpensive materials in his basement workshop, establishing the mature artist’s craft and the repressed lover’s erotic vision.

Simic does not describe Cornell’s shadow boxes as a visual equivalent to William Carlos Williams’s industrial image of poems as Ford-era machines made out of words. Instead, the boxes are sites for magic operations. They are alchemical “slot machines.” As in his view of Cornell’s art as an iconic selfportrait, “a totem of the self’ (62), Simic, in the poem “My Shoes” (1971), positions himself in the cosmos by gazing on junk, a pair of old and beaten shoes that “smell . . . of mice nests”

My Shoes

Shoes, secret face of my inner life:

Two gaping toothless mouths,

Two partly decomposed animal skins

Smelling of mice nests.

My brother and sister who died at birth

Continuing their existence in you,

Guiding my life

Toward their incomprehensible innocence.

What use are books to me

When in you it is possible to read

The Gospel of my life on earth

And still beyond, of things to come?

I want to proclaim the religion

I have designed for your perfect humility

And the strange church I am building

With you as the altar.

Ascetic and maternal, you endure:

Kin to oxen, to Saints, to condemned men,

With your mute patience, forming

The only true likeness of myself. (Selected Poems 38)

Perceiving the shoes with an unusual degree of attention and empathetic identification, the speaker represents them as “the only true likeness of myself.” In the poem, the shoes embody a personal spirit and a sense of religious mystery. In fact, the speaker claims that from his apostrophe to an abjected part of his everyday surroundings he can build a cosmic structure, divined in the “strange church” of the poem with the image of old shoes as the “altar.”5 As in Cornell, who combined the renaissance portrait of a Medici princeling with images that appear to belong to a pinball machine, Simic juxtaposes sacred and profane objects, the world of spirit and of body, of libido and of a transcendence of ego, of what Simic refers to as a “good-tasting homemade stew of angel and beast” ( Unemployed Fortune-Teller 103) .6

In “Street-Corner Theology,” Simic describes Cornell as “a religious artist” (70). “He makes only icons. He proves that one needs to believe in angels and demons even in a modern world in order to make sense of it” (70). Even if Simic and Cornell express religious impulses in their art, both ground their figures of transcendence in the impurity of the body and the risk of urban life. In “Vaudeville de Luxe,” from Dime-Store Alchemy, Simic describes Cornell’s art as a space where conversionary experiences occur. The boxes are “like witch doctors’ concoctions” that contain objects possessing magical properties (40). They are “a little voodoo temple with an altar” (40) . In Christian churches the altar is the table, or, in Latin, the “high place.” Traditionally, the altar is used for sacred acts such as the Eucharistic performance. In “My Shoes” and in Simic’s reading of Cornell, however, the altar is not a high place in a church, but a discarded or broken object with which the poet or artist performs an act of visual transformation. Each man revises the significance of objects in an unorthodox structure such as the short lyric poem or the sixteen-inch wooden box filled with debris. In “My Shoes,” Simic repairs aspects of his personal, cultural, and familial past. In Cornell’s case, art enhances the sensation of New York City as a humane environment where private associations and meanings, once hidden from view, become available to others for speculation and enjoyment. As in his reading of Cornell, Simic in “My Shoes” employs cultural leftovers to produce unauthorized (“strange”) versions of a ceremony figured as “magic” or “witchcraft.” By reading Cornell’s boxes as profane vehicles that enable him to access a sacred environment associated with metamorphosis, Simic visualizes his own poetics and suggests an unorthodox religious sensibility.

Simic claims that Cornell believed in a hidden unity among discarded objects. In his compositions, Cornell strove to recuperate a sense of belonging among leftover items that did not exist together prior to his imaginative engagement with them:

Somewhere in the city of NewYork 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)

In describing his own creative process in an essay titled “Notes on Poetry and Philosophy” (1989), Simic relates his poems to the assemblage of unlike things into coherent patterns in Cornell:

My poems (in the beginning) are like a table on which one places interesting things one has found on one’s walks: a pebble, a rusty nail, a strangely shaped root, the corner of a torn photograph, etc…. where after months of looking at them and thinking about them daily, certain surprising relationships, which hint at meanings, begin to appear. ( Wonderful Words 64)

Like “My Shoes,” where “meanings begin to appear” as the poet gazes into the life of objects, Cornell revises the meaning of things without facilitating a nostalgic return to an unmediated sensation of full presence. Neither man suggests that he can return to an original “groundedness in being” in an Old World community of agrarian workers, as is the case in Martin Heidegger’s description in “The Origin of the Work of Art” (1935-36) of Vincent Van Gogh’s painting Old Boots with Laces (1886-87) .

Describing Van Gogh’s painting, Heidegger emphasizes the artist’s sentimental identification with the peasant woman who, through the shoes, is linked to the primordial experience of field work disclosed in art:

When she takes off her shoes late in the evening, in deep but healthy fatigue, and reaches out for them again in the still dim dawn, or passes them by on the day of rest, she knows all this without noticing or reflecting…. By virtue of [the shoes’] reliability the peasant woman is made privy to the silent call of the earth; by virtue of this reliability of the equipment she is sure of her world. (Heidegger 262)

Through “reliable equipment” that mediates nature and culture, Heidegger establishes the peasant’s connection to the earth, to community, and to the seasons of an agrarian economy. For Heidegger, it is through Van Gogh’s painting that “the revelation of the equipmental being of the shoes, that which is as a whole-world and earth in their counterplay-attains to unconcealedness” (277).

Whereas Van Gogh’s painting reflects the experience of an active culture, Simic and Cornell reimagine on formal (aesthetic, associative) terms the value and meaning of fragments of disbanded life worlds. The shoes and other objects found in Simic’s poems and Cornell’s shadow boxes are irrelevant without the aesthetic performance of their significance. By revisiting lifeless objects and sharing with spectators the intensity of their perceptions, Simic and Cornell affirm their unique vision while establishing a community of interpretation. Each man affirms his individuality as well as his connection to other human beings through the recreation of dead things as meaningful artifacts.

In Dime-Store Alchemy, Simic defines poetry as “three mismatched shoes at the entrance of a dark alley” (21). In his iconoclastic definition, the shoes mark the threshold between familiar and strange places. Like Cornell’s art, the shoes mediate between the waking world-the city street when perceived in the daytime-and a dreamscape-the labyrinthine city within the city that might resemble urban imagery as depicted by Balthus and De Chirico. Simic’s metaphor for poetry implies the image of the poet as a voyager who explores a dangerous environment, risks bodily deformation, and, like the owners of the “three mismatched shoes,” courts disappearance. Reading Simic’s metaphor for poetry, I pause to wonder: Who has discarded the three shoes near an alley? Is one person walking around the city with only one shoe? Is another person bare-footed altogether? Or did three people deposit the shoes? Is each of them hobbling around the city, one shoe on, one shoe off, in search of their lost shoes? Why three shoes and not four? Or, if there were three pairs of shoes, as the statement that they were “mismatched” implies, where are the other three shoes?

As with Simic’s search in “Preface” for Cornell as his Double, and as with his description of Cornell’s art as the detection of how “still-unknown objects that belong together” may form a company, the “mismatched” shoes in the metaphor for poetry await their companion, their pairing, their lost twin. And yet Simic states that the “mismatched” shoes are the poetic object, not a part of a poetic artifact that remains to be completed once the other shoe is located. The shoes in Simic’s metaphor for poetry call to mind narrative reflections such as my own, but my projection of a story about missing persons has trespassed upon their beguiling quality. Defying narrative speculations, the companionship the “mismatched shoes” require is from the reader who resists interpreting the “mismatched” pair as possessing a narrative dimension.

The image of three mismatched shoes simultaneously suggests presence and absence, traces of human meaning and randomness. The image is the “thing itself” and a mysterious symbol at the gateway to a realm inhabited by dreams and darkness, order and disorder, symmetry and asymmetry. The image is like the Cornellian assemblages that Simic describes as “beautiful but not sayable” (54). As I have illustrated through my own narrative projection, and as we have seen throughout Dime-Store Alchemy, it is difficult for spectators to resist a verbal translation of the images. In “The Gaze We Knew as a Child,” Simic addresses the paradoxical aspects of his verbal response to Cornell’s “not sayable” art:

One [way of seeing] is to look and admire the elegance and other visual properties of the composition as a craft, and the other is to make up stories about what one sees. Neither one by itself is sufficient. It’s that mingling of the two that makes up the third image. (60)

Working in the dialogic form of cross-genre fertilization known as ekphrasis, in which an iconic poem is written with a visual representation in mind as subject matter, Simic projects language onto what he sees in the boxes. He creates a “third image,” a verbal and visual construct that illustrates Bakhtin’s theory of reading as an act of “creative understanding” or “coauthoring” texts, an act that involves “live-entering” (identification) and the “moment of separation” (differentiation) . Simic admits his narratives are based as much on his inner visions-his desires, memories, and projections-as on his view of the material reality of Cornell’s boxes. In Bakhtin’s terms, Simic’s admission about the sources of his narrative speculations affirm his identity in a “moment of separation” from Cornell.

By reclassifying “junk” as personally significant aspects of a home-made art, Cornell establishes his relationship to his childhood and to other people whom he loved, admired, and wished to please with his art. As Dickran Tashjian in Joseph Cornell: Gifts of Desire (1992) and Deborah Solomon in Utopia Parkway (1997) have shown, he often designed boxes as gifts for specific audiences, such as the poet Marianne Moore, the screen actress Lauren Bacall, the painter Robert Motherwell, and the critic Susan Sontag. Arthur C. Danto has described the gift box to Motherwell as a portrait of the recipient:

Cornell once gave to Robert Motherwell. . . a box in which poster paint was spattered onto newspaper and cardboard. And in this case, as in the other giftworks, it is a kind of portrait of the recipient. Perhaps all true gifts embody the essence of those who are to receive them. (Danto 62)

However obscure the boxes may have seemed to their primary audience, Cornell intended his art as gifts. They were designed to attract the attention of persons he admired, most often from afar. The boxes are veiled autobiographies because they define Cornell’s identity as an infatuated and repressed lover who lived in isolation from other artists, but who craved their attention and companionship. The personality of his intended audience (Bacall, Moore, Motherwell) is also construed through Cornell’s awareness of their sensibility. His desire for their presence is apparent in his iconoclastic image of them. Because Cornell understood his boxes as directed toward someone else whom he loved, it is reasonable to claim that the identity of the receiver influenced the design of the boxes. In that sense, the intended audience was in part responsible for constructing the box. In this essay, I have tried to demonstrate that Simic responds to Cornell in Dime-Store Alchemy as if he were giving voice to one receiver of the visual gift. Simic imagines the persona of the receiver whose interests were made visible in the boxes.

1For Cornell’s influence on poets besides Simic see Trudy Gunee, Dream Palaces and Crystal Cages: Dialogue Between the Work of Herbert Morris and Joseph Cornell,” Denver Quarterly, 30.3 (1996): 105-19; and John Ashbery, Reported Sightings. Art Chronicles: 1957-1987.

2Bakhtin continues: “[N]on-being cannot become a moment in the being of consciousness-it would simply not exist for me, i.e., being would not be accomplished through me at that moment. Passive empathizing, being-possessed, losing oneselfthese have nothing in common with the answerable act/deed of self-abstracting or self-renunciation” (16).

3Dime-Store Alchemy displays the qualities of improvisation and surprise that critics such as Gary Saul Morson and Car,vl Emerson have identified as signs of a “genuine

dialogue” between authors and readers: “[S] omething unforeseen results, something that would not otherwise have appeared. The text allows for and invites this sort of interaction, but does not contain its result” (Emerson 4).

4In On the Grotesque, Harpham writes: UI argue that the grotesque appears to us to occupy a margin between ‘art’ and something `outside of or ‘beyond’ art. In other words, it serves as a limit to the field of art and can be seen as a figure for a total art that recognizes its own incongruities and paradoxes” (xxii).

5For a further discussion of “My Shoes” in the context of his autobiographical prose writings, see my essay “My Shoes”: Charles Simic’s Self-Portraits,” a/b: Auto/Biography Studies 11.1 (1996): 109-27.

6In a notebook entry, Simic suggests his interest in juxtaposing sacred and profane materials: “If I make everything at the same time a joke and a serious matter, it’s because I honor the eternal conflict between life and art, the absolute and the relative, the brain and the belly, etc. . . No philosophy is good enough to overcome a toothache. . . that sort of thing” (Wonderful Words 87) .


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