Fragments of Eternity

Joseph Cornell’s Hotel Eden

Joseph Cornell’s Hotel Eden

Sometimes even a fragment can set one’s mind a-roving. Today while eating lunch at the Attari Persian Sandwich Shop in Westwood, I started reading an article about the poetry of Charles Simic in the July 11, 2003 issue of The New York Review of Books. Because I was almost finished with my iced tea, I stopped reading the article and got up to make room for other diners. Before I folded up the issue, I saw an intriguing comparison between the poems of Emily Dickinson and the bricolage art of Joseph Cornell (1903-1972). Now who was this Joseph Cornell? I got back to the office and looked at several samples of his work, two of which I include here. I also read a poem by Emily Dickinson entitled “A Bird Came Down,” which I present below in its entirety:

A bird came down the walk:
He did not know I saw;
He bit an angle-worm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw.

And then he drank a dew
From a convenient grass,
And then hopped sidewise to the wall
To let a beetle pass.

He glanced with rapid eyes
That hurried all abroad,—
They looked like frightened beads, I thought;
He stirred his velvet head

Like one in danger; cautious,
I offered him a crumb,
And he unrolled his feathers
And rowed him softer home

Than oars divide the ocean,
Too silver for a seam,
Or butterflies, off banks of noon,
Leap, splashless, as they swim.

Everything is fairly clear until we come to the last two stanzas. At this point, Dickinson compares the bird’s wings to oars and butterflies, whose movement suggests to her a resemblance to swimming in the air. Now, let me ask you this: Did the bird accept the proffered crumb or not? Did the bird suddenly take to flight and suddenly remind the poet of butterflies diving, as it were, into the air?

You may notice: I do not present answers, merely questions. I am not such a tyrant as to wish to impose my interpretation (which, in any case, I have not yet arrived at and probably never will) on you. To me, poetry that is great suggests a multiplicity of questions, and no dogmatic answers. Poetry leads you to strange places and makes you see strange relationships. But, if it’s great poetry, it leaves the answers up to you. So, too, does the following box by Joseph Cornell:

Joseph Cornell’s Medici Boy

Joseph Cornell’s Medici Boy

What is it with that thing in the lower center that looks like a small fan? And what about those photos and drawings along the sides of the main image and the blocks at the bottom? Then there are those numbers that look like something taken off an oversized railroad schedule.

Eventually I’ll read the article about Charles Simic’s poetry. Perhaps tomorrow. In the meantime, certain fragments have made me see things that set my mind reeling. Even if my conclusions are different from those of the reviewer, I will have taken an interesting little journey.

The Poets and the Horse Collar

A Horse Collar

A Horse Collar

Cottle, in his life of Coleridge, relates the following amusing incident:–’I led my horse to the stable, where a sad perplexity arose. I removed the harness without difficulty; but, after many strenuous attempts, I could not remove the collar. In despair, I called for assistance, when Mr. Wordsworth brought his ingenuity into exercise; but, after several unsuccessful efforts, he relinquished the achievement as a thing altogether impracticable. Mr. Coleridge now tried his hand, but showed no more skill than his predecessor; for, after twisting the poor horse’s neck almost to strangulation, and the great danger of his eyes, he gave up the useless task, pronouncing that the horse’s head must have grown since the collar was put on; for he said,“it was a downright impossibility for such a huge os frontis to pass through so narrow an aperture.” Just at this instant, a servant-girl came near, and understanding the cause of our consternation, “Ha! master,” said she, “you don’t go about the work in the right way: you should do like this,” when, turning the collar upside down, she slipped it off in a moment, to our great humiliation and wonderment, each satisfied afresh that there were heights of knowledge in the world to which we had not yet attained.—William Evans Burton, The Cyclopædia of Wit and Humor, 1898