Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell

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Friday, August 31, 2007
by Charles Simic

When I first read this book I didn't know what to expect -- was it just a title, or was it possible that one of my favorite poets was going to take on the subject of one of my favorite artists? Was it poetry based on the work of Cornell? Was it criticism? I didn't really care because I like both artists so much I didn't see a downside. My instincts were correct! This is a delightful but slender volume if you are a fan of Cornell, Simic or both. There are poems and prose poems, sometimes just fragments of thought -- but it all adds up to a sympathetic reading of some of Cornell's most famous work.

When I think about it, Simic and Cornell slot very near one another in the filing cabinet in my brain. I don't know that I would have made the match myself out of thin air, but the connections between them are there and they're strong. (Not least of which is that they both are fluent in the language of insomnia, which I have always thought is not unlike dream-language. When you're tired enough, things get really weird and words fall away until you're left with not the thing itself (whatever that may be) but a symbol for the thing -- who better to express or explore it than a poet or an artist?)

Before I had the book in my hands and realized that there were photos included (there are!), I checked a couple of other books on Cornell out of the library so I could have some on-paper photo examples. As you might imagine, many have similar titles and I got ahold of one that was so terrible it almost made me cry. It was essentially a book on how to be a ten-minute expert on Cornell and by extension the surrealists. (tragic! and the pictures weren't even that good.) I have a lengthy tirade on this subject from which I will spare the internet, except to say that one of the problems with our current society is too many people are content with being ten-minute experts, or worse yet are content with leaving even ten-minute expertise in the hands of someone else. (See: current administration for an egregious example.) But if I'm honest I must admit that I don't mind being a ten-minute expert on things I don't really care about. For example, I would be content being a one-minute expert on the alleged art of Thomas Kinkade, whom I would be happy to know nothing about at all, except my grandmother loves him so for her sake I have gleaned some trivia. Cornell deserves much more thought and attention, and this book provides it in just the right and perfect beautiful words.

It is difficult to choose something to quote because they are all SO GOOD for so many different reasons, but right now I am being drawn to the title The Magic Study of Happiness, so that's what it will be.

The Magic Study of Happiness

In the smallest theater in the world the bread crumbs speak. It's a mystery play on the subject of a lost paradise. Once there was a kitchen with a table on which a few crumbs were left. Through the window you could see your young mother by the fence talking to a neighbor. She was cold and kept hugging her thin dress tighter and tighter. The clouds in the sky sailed on as she threw her head back to laugh.

Where the words can't go any further--there's the hard table. The crumbs are watching you as you in turn watch them. The unknown in you and the unknown in them attract each other. The two unknowns are like illicit lovers when they're exceedingly and unaccountably happy.
4 comments on "Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell"
  1. Thomas Kinkade...I just saw him mentioned somewhere else, much in the same manner as mentioned here. I beleive that the writers name is Bill Geist? He wrote this, kind of, travel book about small town america and, well, it was amusing.

  2. or...I might even believe... I do not enjoy spelling errors.

  3. hee hee. Yeah, I have yet to meet someone who is neutral on the subject of Kinkade's commercial output. He is a love him or loathe him kind of guy.


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