Wednesday 18 May 2022

Dime-Store Alchemy

A relief to read Dime-Store Alchemy by Charles Simic. Each page a box. Bottomless. Yet you move on. There are other boxes, other pages to be composed. Other objects waiting to come together. Joseph Cornell compiled his boxes over years, the compositions reducing as he reduced, less and less taking on more and more space. A box, a page, a resting place, Hôtel Beau-Séjour, Hôtel des Etrangers, Hotel du Nord. "You have no secrets from your insomnia," says the sign at the entrance to the hotel at the end of the world.

Charles Simic has a feeling for Joseph Cornell's boxes, and writes as a friend would. He was walking the streets of New York, he says, at around the same time Joseph Cornell did. They could have passed each other. Certain artists, certain writers, inspire this kind of affectionate co-identity. If you like what someone makes or writes, you feel you know them intimately, even, for the time of looking, or the time of reading, you have become that person. Each page of this book is either in direct reference to Joseph Cornell or in the spirit of his serendipity, his assemblages.

New Yorkers assemble their own New York. Londoners their own London. All of us assemble, and disassemble, the pages of our past. I have always had a liking for glass jars, the larger ones became repositories for the small treasures of my youth; they are still intact in the attic. The artist Robin Winters had a collection of hatboxes; and a collection of glass jars. Artists and writers feel a need to contain things, and for those things, in many cases, to take a long time to come together. 

The intimacy and charm of a Joseph Cornell box and a Charles Simic page is that you engage with their choices and supplement them with your own. He suggests that perhaps the ideal way to observe the boxes is to place them on the floor and lie down beside them.

It is not surprising that child faces stare out of the boxes and that they have the dreamy look of children at play. Theirs in the happy solitude of a time without clocks when children are masters of their world. Cornell's boxes are reliquaries of days when imagination reigned. They are inviting us, of course, to start our childhood reveries all over again.

His final boxes, Charles Simic remarks, are nearly empty, as final boxes should be. 

Emptiness, this divine condition, this school of metaphysics. 
A small white ball 
In a bare, whitewashed room 
With a QUIET sign.

Did Cornell know what he was doing? Yes, but mostly no.  Says Charles Simic. 

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