From My Cornell Notebooks

Charles Simic

Joseph Cornell, Penny Arcade (1962) Creative Commons

I went to the Gypsy
What Joseph Cornell sought in his walks in the city, the fortune tellers already practiced in their parlors. Faces bent over cards, coffee dregs, crystals; divination by contemplation of surfaces which stimulate inner visions and poetic faculties.

De Chirico says: “One can deduce and conclude that every object has two aspects: one current one, which we see nearly always and which is seen by men in general, and the other which is spectral and metaphysical and seen only by rare individuals in moments of clairvoyance….”

He's right. Here comes the bruja, dressed in black, her lips and fingernails painted blood red. She saw into the murderer's lovesick heart, and now it's your turn, mister.

Naked in Arcadia
The New World was already old for Poe. The lost paradise lost again. On a street of faded store signs, Berenice, where was she?

The Church of Divine Metaphysics, with its headquarters in a Bowery storefront, advertises funerals and marriages in a handwritten sign. Around the corner, Salvation Army Store and a junk shop.

America is a place where the Old World shipwrecked. Flea markets and garage sales cover the land. Here's everything the immigrants carried in their suitcases and bundles to these shores and their descendants threw out with the trash:

A pile of Greek 78 records with one Marika Papagika singing; a rubber doll face of uncertain origin with teeth marks of a child or a small dog; sepia postcards of an unknown city covered with greasy fingerprints; a large empty jewelry case lined with black velvet; menu from a hotel in Palermo serving octopus; old French book on astronomy with covers and title page missing; a yellowed photograph of a dead Chinese baby.

They should have made them undress and throw their possessions into the sea for the sake of an America where everybody goes naked, it occurs to me. My parents would be naked, too, posing for that picture in Yellowstone Park with my father’s much-prized Moroccan red fez.

Inside everyone there are secret rooms. They’re cluttered and the lights are out. There's a bed in which someone is lying down with his face to the wall. In his head there are more rooms. In one, the venetian blinds shake in the approaching summer storm. Every once in a while an object on the table becomes visible: A broken compass, pebble the color of midnight, an enlargement of a school photograph with a face in the back circled, a watch spring, each one of these items is a totem of the self.

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 labor of art is the slow and painful metamorphosis of the One into the Other.

Exotic pets and divas
They talked of “Beauty” and “Truth” in those far off days. No one sneezed in the music room. Loving couples were made of Italian marble. Our “goddess” had huge white wings made of lightest gauze. She played the piano favoring the black keys. Her lover's hands fluttered; his sighs flew heavenward. Everywhere one met with upraised eyes. The old women hid behind their fans where they turned into tall vases.

O sunsets and golden domes! The liveried servants tiptoed in and out, their mouths sewn shut with red thread. In their hands they carried death masks of famous poets. There was one for everyone to wear while the tea was being poured.

All of a sudden they all vanished. The clock in which Time sits like a prisoner shifted its chains. There was only a loveseat left with its paws of a wild animal and a smell of smoke at twilight. Old chimney fires put out by long autumn rains.

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 watch them in turn. 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.

Imaginary hotels
There is the Hôtel Beau Séjour, Hôtel des Etrangers, Grand Hôtel de la Pomme d’or, Hôtel du Nord, and many more. The man who never traveled made up his own Baedecker.

Cornell's hotels are somewhere in southern France or the French colonies in North Africa. They've all seen better days. Once they had white columns, motionless servants, marble statues from which now only pedestals remain.

You’re invited to imagine your own: An old hotel in New Orleans with paint peeling and laundry hanging on its white porches, or a pink motel in the Nevada desert with a single pick-up truck parked outside one of its rooms, and no one in sight for miles around.

Sleepwalker’s travel guide
The Grand Hotel of The Universe with its tower clock stopped.

The shrouded chairs and sofas in the Hotel of Bad Dreams.

The cry of love in the Hotel of the Eternal Moment.

Hotel of the Bloody Revolution on the Avenue of Fates and Furies. Two black shoes with worn heels left under its entrance awning.

Our dead grandmother staring at an empty plate in the Hotel of the Great Secret.

On the same street, Hotel of the Erased Name. Saint Sebastian pierced by arrows at the open door, Saint Lucie holding her eyes on a plate in one of the high, sun-bloodied windows.

And on the corner, the angel of death in a yellow taxi rounding up guests for the Hotel Night Sky.

Hotel at the end of the world
“You have no secrets from your insomnia,” says the sign at the entrance. The wall in your room is white and so are the sheets and pillows. There’s a casement, a grating high up on the ceiling as if once the hotel was a prison.

White truth, “immensity cloistered,” as Donne said.

Infinity: Time that has no story to tell.

You have the feeling that you are measuring the All with your own small piece of string. Perhaps the torn end of a shoelace?

That is why Cornell’s final boxes are nearly empty.

Postage stamp with a pyramid
The lonely boy must play quietly because his parents are sleeping after lunch. He kneels on the floor between their beds pushing a match box inside which he imagines himself sitting. The day is hot. In her sleep his mother has uncovered her breasts like the sphinx. The car, for that's what it is, is moving very slowly because its wheels are sinking in the deep sand. Ahead, nothing but wind, sky, and more sand.

“Shush,” says the father sternly to the desert wind.

Charles Simic was a Serbian-American poet and essayist. Born in Belgrade, he and his family immigrated to America when he was in high school. He won numerous prizes for his poetry, including the 1990 Pulitzer Prize, and served as the United States Poet Laureate.
Originally published:
April 1, 1992


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