‘He looked the way I imagine Melville’s Bartleby to have looked the day he gave up his work to stare at the blank wall outside the office window,’ writes Charles Simic. The poet may be describing Joseph Cornell, or we just have walked into a room in Simic’s mind, just as he was observing a busy New York City street. Simic continues:
There are always such men in cities. Solitary wanderers in long-outmoded overcoats, they sit in modest restaurants and side-street cafeterias eating a soft piece of cake. They are deadly pale, have tired eyes, and their lapels are covered with crumbs. […] They keep their hands in their pockets even in summertime. Any one of them could be Cornell.
Joseph Cornell (b. 1903), unsurprisingly, remains as mysterious as his works of art. As Simic affectionately describes, Cornell ‘could not draw, paint, or sculpt, and yet he was a great American artist.’ Cornell worked almost exclusively in the art of assemblage. He called his works boxes, and they were just that: boxes that contained found objects, which Cornell usually found in used bookstores and junk shops.
The life and works of an artist as unorthodox as Cornell requires an equally unorthodox biography. Even Simic, whose book Dime-Store Alchemy we will get to in just a moment, writes self-reflexively that biographies on Cornell ‘explain nothing.’
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. That’s Cornell’s premise, his metaphysics, and his religion, which I wish to understand.
—Simic, Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell
Charles Simic (b. 1938) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, born in Belgrade but spending a significant portion of his adult life in New York City. Though he and Cornell lived in NYC at around the same time, they had never met. Simic, however, heard Cornell’s name whispered in conversations amongst the art crowd, but ‘as it often happens, only after his death did I begin to think more about his art.’
Thus explains Simic’s book Dime-Store Alchemy, which is part biography, part critical study, part love letter, part diary (both Cornell’s and Simic’s), and part poetry. Not only is it told the best way Simic knows how—through short prose poems—but it is also told the best way Cornell can be understood—by assemblage.
Each page offers something different, whether it be a tidbit about Cornell’s life, or an interesting fact about Cornell’s personality, or a poem inspired by one of Cornell’s boxes. Simic does his best Cornell impression, only with words as opposed to found objects. ‘Inside everyone there are secret rooms,’ writes Simic. ‘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. The labour of art is the slow and painful metamorphosis of the One into the Other.’