"The Third Image": Constellations of Correspondence in
Emily Dickinson, Joseph Cornell, and Charles Simic
Several years back, I was staying at an artists' colony where there was a painter who
encouraged us to visit her studio every afternoon around 5:00. She'd serve us champagne, because some
turning point in her life had led her to the conclusion that champagne should be enjoyed dailyan
idea which impressed me as both wildly extravagant and exceedingly admirable. The painter had been a
protégé of Matta's, but was working then on small abstracted landscapes using a technique
she had developed of layering oil crayons on gessoed masonite, and blending them and layering and blending
again, to produce a remarkable density and depth of colorsomething like what we might sense, on a
much larger scale, in a Rothko. I was repeatedly drawn to one of the worksan abstracted storm-sky
over an ochre field. She'd made several studies of the same scene, but there was one particular version
I gravitated toward in her studio every day. It was like the echo of a dream or distant memory; something
in its combinations of colors and textures felt important and necessary.
And one afternoon she suggested I just take it to my room, borrow it for the rest of my
stay. I remember finding just the right place to prop it on my desk, and how I stared into the center of
its dense blue-black vortex before I wrote, in the midst of writing, or afterwards, waiting for the words
to come. As ifas Rilke once wrote of Cezannethose colors "could heal one of indecision
once and for all."
. . . poems are made the way that paintings are made, involving juxtaposition, balance, a directing of
The notion of painting and poetry as "the sister arts" is as old as any comparison
of these twofrom Homer's long passage describing the shield of Achilles in the
Keats' Grecian urn, Browning's "My Last Duchess," Auden's "Musee des Beaux Arts," John
Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.
The arts were linked in Horace's
which supplied us with the phrase ut pictura poesis"as in poetry, so in painting."
Horace was echoing a phrase of Simonides, as reported by Plutarch: "Painting is mute poetry, poetry a
speaking picture." The phrase generally is interpreted as implying that a poem should be like a
painting, but really it's suggesting simply that poems are made the way that paintings are made,
involving juxtaposition, balance, a directing of the eye. Ekphrasisthe word comes from the Greek
rhetorical figure, ekphrassein, originally meaning "to speak forth" or "to tell in
full"is generally the term given to a verbal representation of a visual representation.
Critical characterization of the nature of the relationship between poetry and the visual
arts tends to lean toward the hierarchical/oppositional or the reciprocal/side-by-sidethat is, some see
sibling rivalry while others see close fraternal twins. The hierarchical view has been around for
centuriesexpressed in Leonardo da Vinci's
for example, which stressed competition between the arts, or in Lessing's
which held the arts as entirely separate spheres. The view is that an ekphrastic poem speaks not only about
works of art but also presumes to speak to and for them, what results is a conflicted struggle for
dominance between image and word (Hollander 5). And while some may view ekphrasis as transgressive, others see
the arts' literal separationthe poet's physical remove from the paintingas illustrative of their
. . . [ekphrasis] accentuates the separation between the writer and the object of art.
The writer not only remains figuratively outside the visual piece, but often physically in opposition to it,
i.e. standing opposite it, in a kind of face-off, in a gallery or museum. And often the physical stance echoes
the mental: despite the apparent homage, there's frequently an element of opposition, a tinge of rivalry and/or
challenge inherent in this mirroringcan the poem match the painting in impact? And/or be a
"faithful" translation of it? And there's a tinge of protectionwriting is used to keep art
at a safe distance, to keep it sealed in its frame, demonstrably the "other" of poetry.
And yet, the separation between the arts is precisely, for some, the attraction. Mark
Rudman has written, "It is less dangerous, less anxious, for a poet to be influenced by a painter than
by another poet. Here we're free to seize an impulse, a center even, without fear of imitation" (74).
If anything, envyover means and materialsseems often more arguable than a power
struggle in this relationship: the poet despairs over language's limits and daily debasements, displacements
and erosionsenvies the idea that the painter may start with the fluid discourse of color and texture,
can make an atemporal creation that speaks without making a statementjust as the painter might desire
the poet's role as an interpreter, articulator, locking vision into language.
For many poets and artists, however, the relationship of the sister arts has been seen
primarily as one of reciprocity and alliance, the ideas of each feeding and supporting or at least acting
in dialogue with the other, united in setting the arts in new directions. Examples aboundin the
interaction of Modernist poets and painters at the turn of the twentieth century, in the synergy between
painters and poets in surrealism and Dadaism, or in the New York School at mid-centuryPollock and
deKooning, O'Hara and Ashbery, not only united in perspective and theory, but creating (as O'Hara and
Larry Rivers did, for instance) collaborative works. "The arts aspire," as Baudelaire wrote of
Delacroix, "if not to take another's place, at least reciprocally to lend one another new powers."
So poetry and painting can be seen as different results of the same impulse. In "The
Relations Between Poetry and Painting," Wallace Stevens wrote : "It might be better to say that it
is the identity of poetry revealed as between poetry in words and poetry in paint"that
"unascertained and fundamental aesthetic" in Baudelaire's phrase, "of which poetry and
painting are both manifestations" (110111).
"Each work of art," Valery said, "demands its response." For a poet,
that response might follow the various routes prompted by description (which then may take the path of
narration, homage, resistance, refutation, etc.), or he or she may use the painting as a kind of portal
toward revelation, approaching the painting as—in Theodore Weiss's phrase"a springboard for
reverie." Poets look into paintings as a more distilled, more heightened form of experience that
will yield a revelation. The painting serves as a transport, an illumination if not of a solution then
a pathway, a window, a door into the dark. As John Hollander says:
The moment of gazing at, and being somehow gazed at by, a work of art become
an authentic poetic occasion, as enabling for poetry as any epiphanic flash of transcendenceany revelation
of what Gerard Manley Hopkins called 'inscape'....the poem engaged in such an encounter with the presence of
such otherness, such an absence of and from the body of discourse, will often be led to an awareness of the
problematic nature of its own mode of existence, of its own consciousness. (9091)
Which is to say the painting can also serve as a mirror, a kind of objective
correlativeproviding not only a way to see ourselves but a way to talk about the creative
process. Again, Stevens: "The problems of poets are the problems of painters, and poets must often
turn to the literature of painting for a discussion of their own problems." Cezanne, for instance,
has been a painter poets have turned to in this regardStevens and William Carlos Williams did, and
Rilke before them, and Charles Wright after them. "It was the crisis in these paintings that I
recognized," Rilke wrote, "because I had reached it in my own work." Writing poems out of
paintings may, in the very course of crossing this boundary, providein fact, very often does
providea route toward an ars poetica, a way of talking and thinking about making in
general, and writing poetry in particular.
Cezanne had long passages of Baudelaire committed to memory; Matisse read poetry each day before working,
he said, "just as when you leap out of bed, you fill your lungs with fresh air."
I've been interested particularly in this notion suggested by Stevens and Hollanderthat
our problems are the same; that we turn to painting not only for inspiration, but instruction. And what
interests me especially is that, though the subjects and approaches of contemporary ekphrastic poetry are
exceedingly varied, there are certain painters which poets invoke again and again: Brueghel, Vermeer, Goya,
Cezanne, Matisse, Hopper, Cornellto name very few; any of these might occasion a slim poetry anthology.
(Cornell's work, in fact, already has:
A Convergence of Birds,
a 2001 collection of Cornell-inspired poetry and fiction edited by Jonathan Safran Foer, published by D.A.P.).
Their subject matter, their form and structure, their vision all speak to some aspect of that "fundamental
undefined aesthetic." And just as their work speaks to poets, so did poetry speak to these artists:
Cezanne had long passages of Baudelaire committed to memory; Matisse read poetry each day before working,
he said, "just as when you leap out of bed, you fill your lungs with fresh air." I'd like now to
look more closely at this notion of reciprocity between the arts, in both directions: the effect of Emily
Dickinson's work and life on Joseph Cornell's art, and the ekphrastic homage paid to Cornell by Charles Simic.
I first happened upon Joseph Cornell's boxes in the 1970s. I was walking through the
Toledo (Ohio) Museum of Art during the holidays, and I came upon a small Cornell exhibit, unassuming,
unheralded, taking up about half of a small gallery in the back of the building. And I was transfixed,
transported. I stayed for hours. They seemed inexhaustible, these little dovecotes and observatories,
slot machines, sand fountains, aviaries, apothecaries"the object and its nimbus of sensations,"
as James Fenton has described itworking their gravitational pull (214). They felt like objectified
poems to me, their oneiric components combined just so, their wordless, Baudelairean correspondences
engaged. "Let's put these objects together and see what they say to each other" was his
approach (Caws 29).
John Ashbery has written that he first encountered Cornell when he, Ashbery, was about ten
I was . . . at the age when the shock of seeing which we have as
very young children was beginning to go and to be supplemented by adult knowledge which explains further
but shields us from the dazzling, single knowledge we get from the first things we see in life, things we
look at daily and come to know through long, silent experiences. These are, as it happens, toys or bits
of junk, or cloth perhaps, maps, illustrations in encyclopedias that we pore over, realizing that they
are "too old for us," but which nevertheless supply us with vital information of a sort their
makers never had in mind. It was this visual magic that struck me immediately when I first saw Cornell's
work, when I was still close enough to the unbiased seeing of childhood to be momentarily swept back into
it and astonished that an artist somewhere had been able to give it back to me. (Caws 910)
Like Vermeer, whose images Cornell collected (he reproduced "Girl with a Pearl
Earring" in one of his lesser-known boxes), Cornell created works which are both meticulous and mysterious.
Cornell too made use of maps, of writing; he shared Vermeer's abiding attention to meticulous structure and
detail, as well as his interest in perspective, color, light, and scientific invention. His boxes might even
be seen in some cases as an analogue to the window or room in Vermeer. But where Vermeer effaces himself in
his paintings, his presence and sensibility suffused rather in the light and textures and the silences that
emanate from them, we're somehow always aware of Cornell concealing himself in his boxes' individuality and
originality, in their "desperation of trying to give shape to obsessions," as he wrote in a diary
entry (Caws 190). If Vermeer's vision leans toward timelessness, Cornell's eyes were directed toward the
evanescent moment, the glimpse, and the wake of those things, inevitable loss and longing. If we sense in
Vermeer the profound silence of interiority, the private unobserved thought that travels distances, in Cornell
we witness, in Mallarme's phrase, the "theatre mental," or theater of the mind. "The
mind watching itself watching," as one critic says (Blair 37).
Cornell defied classification. Wholly self-taught, he was originally linked to and was first exhibited with the Surrealists, but he felt his agenda and methods as collagist and "American constructivist" (as he wished to be called) were apart from any particular school. Reclusive, eccentric, he lived all of his adult life on Utopia Parkway in Queens with his mother and his invalid brother, Robert, and hundreds upon hundreds of boxes containing engravings, clippings, photographs, stamps, doll parts, marbles, feathers, shells, watch springs, compassesall the objects that struck his fancy. Cornell spent his days roaming used bookstores, libraries, five-and-dimes, junk shops, and garage sales hunting items for his constructions, stopping in the Automat for a sweet roll or piece of pie, riding his bike to gather the grasses and other natural materials he would later pulverize and use to dust his boxes, in the course of their layerings and layerings of paint (he often then baked the boxes to crack the glaze of the paint). He courted the chance encounter. He read the French Symbolists, especially Gerard de Nerval and Mallarme. He developed ardent obsessions with ballerinas, opera singers, film stars. He was an avid collector of classical recordingsDebussy, Mozart, Scarlatti, Satie. He corresponded voluminously. He kept a diary, recording the course and sway of his thoughts and dreams or the day as though they were events, the words like a fragrance trailing after them: descriptions of the clean outlines of city buildings, the tense red umbrellas under the Woolworth canopies, the brilliance of a single cloud, individual faces in the "purgatorio climate of light" in the subway: "The harmony of the minutiae yielding gracefully from frustration and confusion" (Caws 187). Robert Motherwell said that only in Europe had he met anyone as "individual"; like Ionesco or Beckett or Picasso, "Cornell was what he was. There was no interaction to a very marked degree" (Caws 15).
Cornell responded strongly to poetry, as I've already suggested, quoting Mallarme, Baudelaire,
Rimbaud, Nerval and others in his diaries. Whitman made an impact on him, and certainly, in his own time,
Marianne Moore, with whom he maintained an intermittent, pithy, elegantly formal and mutually admiring
correspondence engravings of pangolins, armadillos, jerboas and giraffes glued to his letters' margins.
Cornell was an astute reader of poetry. He no doubt recognized the great originality and vast
daring of [Emily Dickinson's] work, even in the rather bowdlerized form that would have been available
to him at that time, and her economy and compression would have spoken intimately to his aesthetic.
But Dickinson held special sway. Cornell first became aware of Emily Dickinson when he was
in his twenties, and read a 1921 book by Marsden Hartley called
Adventures in the Arts.
Hartley's descriptions of her as "vague and mystical . . . scintillant with stardust . . . a sublime
impertinent playfulness . . . a poetic, sprite woman" were appealing to Cornell. However much of
the myth-of-Amherst colors this portrait, Cornell was an astute reader of poetry. He no doubt recognized the
great originality and vast daring of her work, even in the rather bowdlerized form that would have been
available to him at that time, and her economy and compression would have spoken intimately to his aesthetic.
But it wasn't until the 1950s that Cornell had his "E.D. experience," as he called
it. He had recently read two books on DickinsonGenevieve Taggart's
The Life and Mind of Emily Dickinson
and Rebecca Patterson's
The Riddle of Emily Dickinson.
Not long after, in his bookstall wanderings, he saw a reproduction of her daguerreotype for the first time,
in a copy of Millicent Todd Bingham's
recognizing in it the "wondering mien of a forgotten constellation" (Porter 215). The affinity
began to take hold. Her own reclusive and iconoclastic genius; his sense of the great cosmogony of her
mind secreted away in an upstairs room of her parents' house, as he so often was in his own basement workshop;
as well as her method of assembling her fascicles, which resembled his own self-determined and homemade
aesthetic: all felt kindred. As David Porter has written, "Cornell shared with Dickinson the fundamental
elements that bridge language art and object art. Their poetics exploited riddles and concealment, producing
art notable for its evasion of determinate reference" (219). Their isolation as artists was a principal
shared characteristic; Porter notes that "both inhabited self-made realms in which only the fiercely
independent can flourish: both stood apart from and were unprotected by a prescribed aesthetic" ( 220).
An entry in Cornell's diary from October 1952 muses about some common traits:
Before breakfast by the kitchen stovethinking about Emily Dickinson's 'room' . . . just now the poem
beginning 'Unto my books so good to turn'what they must have meant to her in her tortuous
seclusiona clue in the same kind of escape found in books on sunny mornings on Fourth Avenue . . . E.D.'s
'foreign places,' Italy, etc. Is there a similar clue here in my own feeling for the endless ecstatic 'voyaging'
through endless encounters with old engravings, photographs, books Baedekers, varia, etc?
(qtd. in Porter 200)
Or, as Cornell said later: "The traveler abroad is dependent on outside things;
he whose sight-seeing is inward can in himself find all he needs" (Caws 78). Dickinson, of course,
in one of her letters, had expressed much the same thing: "To shut our eyes is Travel" (II, 482).
Cornell created numerous works inspired or informed by his reading of and about Dickinson.
There was a short film made with Stan Brakhage, called "Centuries of June." There was an early
collage, "Garlands for Queens May Be," which references Dickinson's poem #10 from 1858. Cornell
noted that she was among the inspirations for his dovecote series of the 1950s.
But he also created two constructions which pay direct homage. In An Image for Two Emilies
it seems arguable that Cornell was recognizing and honoring the double life that Dickinson livedthat of the
good daughter/sister/spinster/recluse and that of a volcanic poet whose genius was secretly, steadfastly
altering the course of American literature. In the early 1850s, Dickinson occasionally signed her
letters "Emilie." An affectation, a curtsy, perhaps, or justas she often dida
trying-on of something different, an expansion of identities. (This from a woman who variously signed her
letters as "Uncle Emily," "Brother Emily," "Judah," "Your
scholar," "Barabbas," "Phaeton," "America.") Cornell, of course, would
identify with and understand intimately such a dual existence, dual allegiances. The lamp perhaps signifying
her solitary work at her desk, night after night, the blue marble in each glass chimney like a globe, an
But Toward the Blue Peninsula (for Emily Dickinson), from around 1953, is one of
Cornell's wondrous boxes. The title references poem #535 (all Dickinson poems cited will use the Franklin
It might be lonelier
Without the Loneliness
I'm so accustomed to my Fate
Perhaps the OtherPeace
Would interrupt the Dark
And crowd the little Room
Too scantby Cubitsto contain
The sacramentof Him
I am not used to Hope
It might intrude upon
It's sweet paradeblaspheme the place
Ordained to Suffering
It might be easier
To failwith Land in sight
Than gainmy Blue Peninsula
To perishof Delight
It's simply constructed, painted white, suggesting an empty aviary, with a horizontal dowel
as a perch. An opening is cut into a vertical screen of wire mesh and into the back 'wall,' suggesting a window
open to blue sky. At the bottom of the box are two slender scraps of pages torn from a book.
The poem conveys a well-established stance of Dickinson's, who chose 'not choosing,' for
whom "no," after all, was one of the wildest words consigned to languagefor whom the impression
of smallness and reclusiveness was in fact a fierce protection of her "little force," her secret
Circumference. Better to remain, physically, socially, within the known, whose parameters had been so carefully
delineated. Better that dream remain imagined but unrealized, she says overtly, lest it overwhelmmeaning
both lest it disappoint, and most importantly, lest it deny or even extinguish the poetry devoted to
imagining itwhich would be a perishing indeed. "You ask the divine Crust and that would
doom the Bread," she wrote Judge Lord (2: 617). The poem speaks quite as pertinently to Cornell, whose
isolationfrom daily life, from artistic movementswas maintained wholly on his own terms. While some critics have seen despair and desolation in the box, the suggestion of transcendence, of freedom, even within its austerity and confined boundaries, seems paramount. Dickinson, who like Cornell, so often included birds in her work, cannot be contained, and here
Cornell sees to it that she's been set free. ("You don't know how terrible it is," Cornell said
once, to be locked up in boxes all your life" [Blair 203].) She's present but as spirit, the mind's
wings her transport, the two printed scraps left behind like dropped feathers.
In "The Flights of A821: Dearchiving the Proceedings of a Birdsong," Marta
Werner presents a fragment manuscript of Dickinson's that she found by accident in 1997 in the Amherst
College Librarysections of envelope held together with a straight pin. The largest section is the
back of the envelope, the address face of the envelope having been cut away; the back is folded vertically,
creating a diptych, like leaves of a book, Werner suggests, or the wings of the bird that the manuscript is
becoming. The other fragment is the triangular corner of the envelope's severed seal. Written on the wings
is a fragment which, read from right to left, says: "Afternoon and / the West and/ the gorgeous/
nothings/ which/ the / sunset/ keep// their high appointment/ clogged only with/ music like/ the wheels
of birds" (Werner 2).
Dickinson's use of the pin is Yankee pragmatism, of course, the "humblest
Patchwork" (#683)a homely means of attaching drafts (we see it with some of the letters from this
same period, as in #938, a variant line for a poem in the letter is written on a strip of paper attached by
straight pin, or in #947). But it's appealing, too, to regard this as a construction of the mind's flights:
David Porter has coined a phrase for how he sees Dickinson's and Cornell's creationstheir poems and boxes
are "small rickety infinitudes" (199). The envelope which conceals and contains (think how she
enclosed her signature in a separate envelope, in her first letter to Higginson) is cut open; a window is cut
into the box. "It is delicate," Dickinson wrote in a letter, "that each Mind is itself, like
a distinct Bird" (2: 551). Or, in a late poem:
With Pinions of Disdain
The soul can farther fly
Than any feather specified
It wafts this sordid Flesh
Beyond it's dullcontrol
And during it's electric gale
The Body isa soul
Instructing by the same
How little work it be
To put off filaments like this
On the manuscript page for this poem, the word "immortality" is written vertically
along the right margin of the text: "a winged thought pinioned to the page," says Susan
Howe (Gardner 159). The pin as pinion, then(the two words could be found on the same page of
her Webster)both a binding of wings, and a wing; both a confining and a flight; the quill as pinion
Peninsula is a fitting emblem for them both, as wellan "almost
island." Dickinson uses the word in no fewer than eight poems, the meaning always cast positivelyas
safe haven, as firm ground and sure footing, as reward. And "blue Peninsula" itself is a reference to
not just to Barrett Browning's Italy, we understand, but her choices. One of Ashbery's observations about
Cornell applies to both here: "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). Toward the Blue Peninsula acknowledges
their affinity as well as Dickinson's elusive nature, what in her could not be captured. In 1953, Cornell
recorded a dream about Dickinson:
"dream of looking at reprod. of phot. of Emily Dickinson in bookdress as tho white blouse
ca.1914 . . . (sharply detailed) large close-up of head-shouldersthe picture seemed to come to life
(or be alive/real life) & eyes look toward spectator slightly but go back to position ¾ turned
away." (qtd. in Tashjian 81)
If Cornell might have seen the subjects of his boxes in Dickinson's poetry, so Charles Simic recognized his own
poems, his own aesthetic in Cornell's boxes. His 1992 book
Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell
. . . is an investigation of the relatedness in and of their artistic enterprises, its book length offering a wide
range of ekphrastic approaches, Description, digression, appropriation of form and structure, a meditation on the
act of makingall come into play.
If Cornell might have seen the subjects of his boxes in Dickinson's poetry, so Charles
Simic recognized his own poems, his own aesthetic in Cornell's boxes. His 1992 book,
Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell,
(originally published by Ecco; it was reissued by New York Review Books in 2006) is an investigation of the
relatedness in and of their artistic enterprises, its book length offering a wide range of ekphrastic approaches.
Description, digression, appropriation of form and structure, a meditation on the act of makingall come
into play; Cornell's work is internalized and refracted through Simic in this astute, unguarded, revelatory
appreciation. With regard to James Fenton's characterization of Cornell's work as "the object and its
nimbus of associations"Simic operates largely in the nimbus but makes full use of the objects as
well, interpolating adumbrations from his own memories and dreams, merging the metaphoric realms of his poetry
and Cornell's objects, and incorporating passages from Cornell's diaries and letters. Through the prisms of
his illuminating attention, we see from all angles how one person's art can be a vital force in another's.
"For a long time I wanted to approximate his method," wrote Simic, "to make poems from found
bits of language . . . All I could finally do is compose a homage, a series of short texts in the spirit of the
poets he loved" (Simic xiii).
There are sixty of these short texts or 'dream narratives' (most of them affect us as prose
poems, operating similarly to the prose poems of
The World Doesn't End,
Simic's Pulitzer-winning collection from just three years prior)clearly meant to echo Cornell's assemblages.
They want to work, too, as objects speaking to each other, Simic's images juxtaposed with Cornell's, as within a
single box, generating their correspondences; they want to be a hybrid text that creates what Simic calls the
"third image," in a piece whose title echoes the earlier Ashbery quote, "The Gaze We Knew as a
. . . There are really three kinds of images. First, there are those seen with
the eyes open in the manner of realists in both art and literature. Then there are images we see with eyes
closed. Romantic poets, surrealists, expressionists, and everyday dreamers know them. The images Cornell has
in his boxes are, however, of the third kind. 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. Neither one by itself is sufficient. It's that
mingling of the two that makes up the third image. (60)
Simic's understanding of Cornell's affinities with Dickinson come together in the penultimate
"Emily Dickinson," which begins:
Cornell and Dickinson are both in the end unknowable. They live within the
riddle, as Dickinson would say. Their biographies explain nothing. They are without precedent,
eccentric, original, and thoroughly American. If her poems are like his boxes, a place where secrets are kept,
his boxes are like her poems, the place of unlikely things coming together. (73)
The book concludes with a brief piece called "Deserted Perch, 1949." Simic
offers a resonant reversal here: the corresponding box predates Blue Peninsula by four years, but reading
these two pages in succession we can't help but superimpose that austere study in white, seeing self-portrait and
portrait together, and sensing the alternate states of depression and elation that Cornell's diary entries so
poignantly convey. If Blue Peninsula conveys a metaphoric sense of Dickinson's Amherst bedroom, we might
sense here Cornell's "habitat," as he sometimes called his cellar workshop. Newsprint shows faintly
through the yellowed whitewash of the back wall; instead of a window cut out, a wooden cube is affixed, and
a watch spring coils in the upper right corner. Time's loose spiral: "[E]terniday," Simic
quotes Cornell's coinage for the conflation of the timeless and the daily, like a dark palimpsest for
Dickinson's Immortality. One shows what encases us, the other is a radiant emblem of flight, the "electric
gale." Pin and pinion: "The Body isa soul"
"For a long time I wanted to approximate his method," wrote Simic, "to make poems from
found bits of language. . . . All I could finally do is compose a homage, a series of short texts in
the spirit of the poets he loved."
It will come as no surprise that one of our premier 'poets of the eye,' Elizabeth Bishop,
was quite drawn to Cornell's work, as well. She created two Cornell boxes of her own, "Anhinjos,"
and "Feather Box," both included in
a 1996 book which collects Bishop's paintings and other artworks. She spoke about the artist in a 1981
interview with Elizabeth Spires:
Cornell is superb. I first saw the Medici Slot Machine when I was in college.
Oh, I loved it. To think one could have bought some of those things then. . . . When I looked at his show in New
York two years ago I nearly fainted, because one of my favorite books is a book he liked and used. It's a little
book by an English scientist who wrote for children about soap bubbles. His sister began writing me after
she read Octavio Paz's poem for Cornell which I translated . . . She sent me a German-French grammar that
apparently he meant to do something with and never did. A lot of the pages were folded over and they're
all made into star patterns with red ink around them . . . (373)
(One thinks again of Dickinson's pinned constructionif an envelope becomes a bird,
why can't a book become a constellation...small rickety infinitudes.) The Octavio Paz poem she refers
to, "Objects and Apparitions," feels a spare, fitting antiphon to or abstract for Simic's book:
"monuments to every moment," "cages for infinity," "boxes where things hurry away from
their names," "theatre of the spirits," "the apparitions are manifest," and the closing
lines: "Joseph Cornell: inside your boxes/ My words become visible for a moment." Graspings that try
to work by accretion, illustrating the truth of the conclusion of Simic's piece on Cornell's Soap Bubble
Set, 1936: The world is beautiful but not sayable. That's why we need art (54). Or as Howard
Nemerov states in his poem, "The Painter Dreaming in the Scholar's House" (the painter being referred
to here is Paul Klee): The painter's eye follows relation out./ His work is not to paint the visible, / He
says, it is to render visible." A slow metamorphosisnot translation, but, as Simic's title
suggests, a kind of alchemy. Interestingly, one of Cornell's young artist friends described Cornell himself as
an "alchemist": "Everything he touched, his nature, his relationship to reality as we know it,
the material world, was that of an alchemistto change in degrees, to change of a kind" (Blair 75).
This essay started to take shape last summer when I was reading James Elkins' book,
What Painting Is.
The book explores the process of oil paintingthe physical act of 'pushing paint,' and the ineffable
complexities of its transmutation of viscous material into imagein terms of alchemy. Both painting and
alchemical science work as "negotiations between water and stone"medium and pigment; "the
means are liquid and the ends are solid" (12). The ingredients are similarlinseed oil, spirits,
various minerals. Elkins takes his argument far afield, but like the poets who work the transmutation of a
painting into their poetry, I found myself lingering on those passages which spoke to my own endeavors,
whose metaphors were relevant to the poet's striving:
What counts, and what every artist knows, is how the different substances
behave . . . what it looks like, what it feels like, what it does when mixed with something else. . . . alchemy is
the record of serious, sustained attempts to understand what substances are and how they carry meaning . . . Alchemy
and painting are two of the last remaining paths into the deliciously beautiful world of unnamed substances.
(22, 34, 199)
Simic's "third image," the hybrid generated by what is seen with eyes open and
eyes closed, is the product of the alchemy at work in both poetry and painting, and in the effort toward the
ekphrasis that combines them.
When it was time for me to leave the artist's colony I mentioned at the outset, the painter
I so admired gave me a gift, one which has hung above my desk ever sincea work on paper, a summer landscape
with a clear green-blue sky and Constable clouds, the land itself seeming serene but with a kind of textured
turbulence of ochres and brown-greens under its stillness, and at the center a silent, rather dream-state pond,
poised tree beside it casting its reflection; our viewpoint is quite high above. And at the top of the sky,
in the white space before the painting begins, she copied, in pencil, a quote from Rilke: "I must wait
in the stillness for the sounding. I know that if I force it, it will not come at all." Those words
have resonated just as her dense, humming storm once did: the soundingtaking measure with a
weighted line, to speak in full.
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