“Vaguest recall of an elegant cockatoo at dusk 14th St.”
-Joseph Cornell quoted in Dime-Store Alchemy (13), Charles Simic
I think it’s the fact that vague recall of elegant cockatoos is a common enough experience that I couldn’t help immediately connecting with this lovely book. Perhaps it’s not elegant cockatoos for everyone, but that swarming cloud of images and words that materialize or vaporize in the mind is a shared universe of the observant. Charles Simic, who is more than just my favorite poet on ants, is the author of Dime-Store Alchemy, The Art of Joseph Cornell. Cornell was a New York artist born in 1903. In the vignette Where Chance Meets Necessity Simic describes Cornell’s philosophy of art thusly:
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. (14)
I love that idea, and sense, of belonging. Finding the perfect mate, the perfect spot to place something, the perfect book at the right point of your life, the perfect person: it’s a lovely thought and dream that we extend, (some sadly only conferring) to all our objects- If this belongs here, then I belong somewhere too.
Beauty is about the improbable coming true suddenly. (53)
Simic’s use of the word “suddenly” is what rings that sentence with truth. Whenever one first views a piece of art there is a suddenness, the feeling of yes or no that follows is not the same for everyone, but the suddenness is there- it’s the magic of an infinity in an instant. What the artist, and art, gives is that moment of connection. When Simic says, “The clarity of one’s vision is a work of art,” (20) I think he means the clarity of vision of the artist, but I would apply that succinct thought to both artist and viewer. The click of clarity- Cornell knew what sound to listen for as he let his eye roam the city.
I picked this book up because I enjoy Simic’s work, I confess I knew nothing of Cornell. But, I didn’t have to get very far into it to know that the book belonged in my hand. In the very last sentence of the introduction, Simic touched me with devastating simplicity. Relating the last day of Cornell’s life in which he died of heart failure, Simic writes, “Earlier that day he told his sister on the phone, ‘I wish I had not been so reserved.’”
I suppose we all end up with our own mountains of regret, but my heart moved a few inches reading that one. It hurts to be your own worst enemy.
*Photographed Box: “Untitled (Soap Bubble Set),” 1936 by Joseph Cornell
“A soap bubble went to meet infinity. “ (54)