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Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell


Joseph Cornell is one of my favorite artists and Charles Simic is one of my favorite writers so you can imagine how thrilled I am to present a few excerpts from Simic’s charming—and irresistible—volume, Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell (NY Review of Books). Reprinted with the author’s permission, and illustrated with photographs by fellow Manhattan-wanderer, Bags, along with a few of my own pictures and collages. Enjoy—Alex Belth]

From Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell

By Charles Simic


I have a dream in which Joseph Cornell and I pass each other on the street. This is not beyond the realm of possibility. I walked the same New York neighborhoods that he did between 1958 and 1970. I was either working at lowly office jobs, or I was out of work spending my days in the Public Library on Forty-second Street which Cornell frequented himself. I don’t remember when it was that I first saw his shadow boxes. When I was young, I was interested in surrealism, so it’s likely that I came across his name and the reproduction of his art that way. Cornell made me feel that I should do something like that myself as a poet, but for a long time I continued to admire him without knowing much about him. Only after his death did he become an obsession with me. Of course, much had already been written about him, and most of it was excellent. Cornell’s originality and modesty disarm the critics and make them sympathetic and unusually perceptive. When it comes to his art, our eyes and imagination are the best guides. In writing the pieces for this book, I hoped to emulate his way of working and come to understand him that way. It is worth pointing out that Cornell worked in the absence of any aesthetic theory and previous notion of beauty. He shuffled a few inconsequential found objects inside his boxes until together they composed an image that pleased him with no clue as to what that image will turn out to be in the end. I had hoped to do the same.

Old Man Strut Bags

man in coat bags


He looked the way I imagine Melvilles Bartleby to have looked the day he gave up his work to stare at the blank wall outside the office window.

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. Once they were something else, now they work as office messengers. With a large yellow envelope under one arm, they climb the stairs to the tenth floor when the elevator is out of order. They keep their hands in their pockets even in summertime. Any one of them could be Cornell.

He was a descendant of an old New York Dutch family that had grown impoverished after his father’s early death. He lived with his mother and invalid brother in a small frame house on Utopia Parkway in Queens and roamed the streets of Manhattan in seeming idleness. A devout Christian Scientist, he was a recluse and an eccentric who admired the writings of French Romantic and Symbolist poets. His great hero was Gérard de Nerval, famous for promenading the streets of Paris with a live lobster on a leash.



Poe has a story called “The Man of the Crowdin which a recently discharged hospital patient sits in a coffee shop in London, enjoying his freedom, and watching the evening crowd, when he notices a decrepit old man of unusual appearance and behavior whom he decides to follow. The man at first appears to be hurrying with a purpose. He crosses and recrosses the city until the aimlessness of his walking eventually becomes obvious to his pursuer. He walks all night through the now-deserted streets, and is still walking as the day breaks. His pursuer follows him all of the next day and abandons him only as the shades of the second evening come on. Before he does, he confronts the stranger, looks him steadfastly in the eye, but the stranger does not acknowledge him and resumes his walk.

Poe’s is one of the great odes to the mystery of the city. Who among us was not once that pursuer or that stranger? Cornell followed shop girls, waitresses, young students “who had a look of innocence.” I myself remember a tall man of uncommon handsomeness who walked on Madison Avenue with eyes tightly closed as if he were listening to music. He bumped into people, but since he was well dressed, they didn’t seem to mind.

“How wild a history,” says Poes narrator, is written within that bosom.” On a busy street one quickly becomes a voyeur. An air of danger, eroticism, and crushing solitude play hide-and-seek in the crowd. The indeterminate, the unforeseeable, the ethereal, and the fleeting rule there. The city is the place where the most unlikely opposites come together, the place where our separate intuitions momentarily link up. The myth of Theseus, the Minotaur, Ariadne, and her thread continue here. The city is a labyrinth of analogies, the Symbolist forest of correspondences.

Like a comic-book Spider-Man, the solitary voyeur rides the web of occult forces.

Bags Vinyl


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.

He sets out from his home on Utopia Parkway without knowing what he is looking for or what he will find. Today it could be something as ordinary and interesting as an old thimble. Years may pass before it has company. In the meantime, Cornell walks and looks. The city has an infinite number of interesting objects in an infinite number of unlikely places.



What 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.

bags laundry


Around the boxes I can still hear Cornell mumble to himself. In the basement of the quiet house on Utopia Parkway he’s passing the hours by changing the positions of a few items, setting them in new positions relative to one another in a box. At times the move is no more than a tenth of an inch. At other times, he picks the object, as one would a chess figure, and remains long motionless, lost in complicated deliberation.

Many of the boxes make me think of those chess problems in which no more than six to seven figures are left on the board. The caption says: White mates in two moves,” but the solution escapes the closest scrutiny. As anyone who attempts to solve these problems knows, the first move is the key, and it’s bound to be an unlikely appearing move.

I have often cut a chess problem from a newspaper and taped it to the wall by my bed so that I may think about it first thing in the morning and before turning off the lights at night. I have especially been attracted to problems with minimum numbers of figures, the ones that resemble the ending of some long, complicated, and evenly fought game. It’s the subtlety of two minds scheming that one aims to recover.

At times, it may take months to reach the solution, and in a few instances I was never able to solve the problem. The board and its figures remained as mysterious as ever. Unless there was an error in instructions or position, or a misprint, there was no way in hell the white could mate in two moves. And yet…

At some point my need for a solution was replaced by the poetry of my continuous failure. The white queen remained where it was on the black square, and so did the other figures in the original places, eternally, whenever I closed my eyes.



If you love watching movies from the middle on, Cornell is your director. Its those first moments of some already-started, unknown movie with its totally mysterious images and snatches of dialogue before the setting and even the vaguest hint of a plot became apparent that he captures.

Cornell spliced images and sections from preexisting Hollywood films he found in junk stores. He made cinema collages guided only by the poetry of images. Everything in them has to do with ellipses. Actors speak but we don’t know to whom. Scenes are interrupted. What one remembers are images.

He also made a movie from the point of view of a bust of Mozart in a store window. Here, too, chance is employed. People pass on the street and some of them stop to look in the window. Marcel Duchamp and John Cage use chance operation to get rid of the subjectivity of the artist. For Cornell its the opposite. To submit to chance is to reveal the self and its obsessions. In that sense Cornell is not a dadaist or a surrealist. He believes in charms and good luck.



People who look for symbolic meaning fail to grasp the inherent poetry and mystery of the images,” writes René Magritte, and I could not agree more. Nevertheless, this requires some clarification. There are really three kinds of images. First, there are those seen with 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 doesnt 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.



It’s raining on Utopia Parkway. The invalid brother is playing with his toy trains. Cornell is reading the sermons of John Donne, and the box of the Hôtel Beau-Séjour is baking in the oven like one of his mother’s pies.

In order to make them appear aged, Cornell would give his boxes eighteen to twenty coats of paint, varnish them, polish them, and leave them in the sun and rain. He also baked them to make them crack and look old.

Forgers of antiquities, lovers of times past, employ the same method.

Bags Shadow


It ought to be clear that Cornell is a religious artist. Vision is his subject. He makes holy icons. He proves that one needs to believe in angels and demons even in a modern world in order to make sense of it.

The disorder of the city is sacred. All things are interrelated. As above, so below. We are fragments of an unutterable whole. Meaning is always in search of itself. Unsuspected revelations await us around the next corner.

The blind preacher and his old dog are crossing the street against the oncoming traffic of honking cabs and trucks. He carries his guitar in a beat-up case taped with white tape so it looks like it’s bandaged.

Making art in America is about saving one’s soul.



BGS: Buster Keaton


A few days ago I curated the following essay by Charles Simic on Buster Keaton over at the Daily Beast. Check it out, won’t you?

Comedy is about timing, faultless timing. It’s not so much what the story is about, but the way it is told, with its twists and surprises, that makes it humorous. Keaton draws a hook with chalk on the wall and hangs his coat on it. A brat in the theater drops his half-sucked lollipop from the balcony on an elegant lady in a box who picks it up and uses it as a lorgnette. The hangman uses a blindfold intended for the victim to polish the medal on his jacket. The shorts, especially, are full of such wild inventions. No other silent-film comic star was as ingenious.

Among hundreds of examples from Keaton’s films, one of my favorites comes from the short Cops. At the annual New York City policemen’s parade, Buster and his horse and wagon find themselves in the midst of the marching cops. Buster wants to light a cigarette, and is searching his pockets for matches, when a bomb thrown by an anarchist from a rooftop lands next to him on the seat with its short fuse already sizzling. There’s a pause, “an inspiring pause,” as Twain says, building itself to a deep hush. When it has reached its proper duration, Buster picks up the bomb absentmindedly, lights his cigarette with it as if this were the most normal thing to do, and throws it back over his head.

The short Cops is paradigmatic Keaton. Again, the plot is simplicity itself. In the opening scene we see Buster behind bars. The bars turn out to belong to the garden gate of the house of a girl he is in love with. “I won’t marry you till you become a businessman,” she tells him. Off he goes, through a series of adventures, first with a fat police detective in a rush to grab a taxi, the contents of whose wallet end up in Buster’s hands. Next, he is conned by a stranger who sells him a load of furniture on the sidewalk, pretending he is a starving man being evicted. The actual owner of the furniture and his family are simply moving to another location. When Buster starts to load the goods into the wagon he has just bought, the owner mistakes him for the moving man they’ve been expecting. His trip across town through the busy traffic culminates when he finds himself at the head of the police parade passing the flag-draped reviewing stand where the chief of police, the mayor, and the young woman he met at the garden gate are watching in astonishment. Still, the crowd is cheering, and he thinks it’s for him. After he tosses the anarchist’s bomb and it explodes, all hell breaks loose. “Get some cops to protect our policemen,” the mayor orders the chief of police. People run for cover, the streets empty, the entire police force takes after the diminutive hero.

What an irony! Starting with love and his desire to better himself and impress the girl he adores, all he gets in return is endless trouble. It’s the comic asymmetry between his extravagant hope and the outcome that makes the plot here. The early part of the movie, with its quick shuffle of gags, gives the misleading impression of a series of small triumphs over unfavorable circumstances. Just when Buster thinks he has his bad luck finally conquered, disaster strikes again. The full force of law and order, as it were, descends on his head. Innocent as he is, he is being pursued by hundreds of policemen. Whatever he attempts to do, all his stunts and clever evasions, come to nothing because he cannot outrun his destiny. After a long chase, he ends up, unwittingly, at the very door of a police precinct. The cops are converging on him from all sides like angry hornets, blurring the entrance in their frenzy to lay their nightsticks on him, but incredibly Buster crawls between the legs of the last cop, he himself now dressed in a policeman’s uniform. Suddenly alone on the street, he pulls a key out of his pocket, locks the precinct’s door from the outside, and throws the key into a nearby trashcan. At that moment, the girl he is smitten with struts by. He looks soulfully at her, but she lifts her nose even higher and walks on. Buster hesitates for a moment, then goes to the trashcan and retrieves the key. “No guise can protect him now that his heart has been trampled on,” Gabriella Oldham says in her magnificent study of Keaton’s shorts. At the end of the film, we see him unlocking the door and being pulled by hundreds of policemen’s hands into the darkness of the building.

What makes Keaton unforgettable is the composure and dignity he maintains in the face of what amounts to a deluge of misfortune in this and his other films. It’s more than anyone can bear, we think. Still, since it’s the American Dream Buster is pursuing, we anticipate a happy ending, or at least the hero having the last laugh. That’s rarely the case. Keaton’s films, despite their laughs, have a melancholy air. When a lone tombstone with Buster’s porkpie hat resting on it accompanies the end in Cops, we are disconcerted. The images of him running down the wide, empty avenue, of his feeble attempt to disguise himself by holding his clip-on tie under his nose to simulate a mustache and goatee, are equally poignant. Let’s see if we can make our fate laugh, is his hope. Comedy at such a high level says more about the predicament of the ordinary individual in the world than tragedy does. If you seek true seriousness and you suspect that it is inseparable from laughter, then Buster Keaton ought to be your favorite philosopher.

New York Minute

vintage nyc

From a 2005 Paris Review Interview with Charles Simic:

INTERVIEWER: You’ve often said New York is your favorite city: Was it love at first sight?

SIMIC: It was. It was an astonishing sight in 1954. Europe was so gray and New York was so bright; there were so many colors, the advertisements, the yellow taxicabs. America was only five days away by ship, but it felt as distant as China does today. European cities are like operatic stage sets. New York looked like painted sets in a sideshow at a carnival where the bearded lady, sword- swallowers, snake charmers, and magicians make their appearances.

[Photo Credit: Andre Robe]


New York Minute


Over at the New York Review of Books, Charles Simic gives us Spaghetti Lessons:

Italian restaurants produce not only epicures but also aspiring cooks. I bought cold cuts, cheeses, and olives for years in Italian groceries on Bleecker Street until one day I started cooking pasta, grilling sausages, and inviting friends over to my place on East 13th Street. In the 1950s and 1960s almost no one in literary circles knew how to cook, so these modest efforts of mine received extravagant praise. From then on, each time I tasted something in a restaurant, I’d wonder how it was made, what spices were used, and recollected other occasions when the same dish had come out differently. Now that I live in a village in New Hampshire, cooking Italian is a way of carrying on that comparative study. This may be a tautology, but a meal that does not cause an outpouring of memories is not a memorable meal. I don’t know how other poets imagine their muses, but mine is an Italian cookbook.

It is their unhurried air that makes most Italian restaurants congenial to everything from flirting to a rambling philosophical discussion. You linger over a glass of red wine and a plate of cheese at the meal’s end, alone or in the company of friends, while the place empties. Outside, there may be the lights of Manhattan or the tugboats in Portsmouth harbor. The waiter or the owner may bring a grappa eventually to remind you of the lateness of the hour, but he does not rush you. When you finally get up and leave, it’s out of consideration for him, but also out of genuine panic that you might be crazy enough to ask for another bowl of pasta or some of that grilled squid on a bed of white beans you enjoyed so much.

New York Minute

From Charles Simic:

No city displays its mixture of beauty and ugliness as brazenly as New York does. It’s one thing to see a city with cathedrals and other church towers from an approaching train as one does in Europe and another to see Manhattan with buildings of every size thrown together more or less haphazardly and its streets packed with humanity all coming into view simultaneously. I still can’t believe my eyes every time I see it.

[Photo Credit: A crowd watching the news line on the Times building at Times Square, NYC, on D-day, June 6, 1944. Large-format nitrate negative by Howard Hollem or Edward Meyer, Office of War Information…via New York History]

Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop

Here’s Charles Simic in the New York Review of Books on “Why I Still Write Poetry”:

When my mother was very old and in a nursing home, she surprised me one day toward the end of her life by asking me if I still wrote poetry. When I blurted out that I still do, she stared at me with incomprehension. I had to repeat what I said, till she sighed and shook her head, probably thinking to herself this son of mine has always been a little nuts. Now that I’m in my seventies, I’m asked that question now and then by people who don’t know me well. Many of them, I suspect, hope to hear me say that I’ve come my senses and given up that foolish passion of my youth and are visibly surprised to hear me confess that I haven’t yet. They seem to think there is something downright unwholesome and even shocking about it, as if I were dating a high school girl, at my age, and going with her roller-skating that night.

…The mystery to me is that I continued writing poetry long after there was any need for that. My early poems were embarrassingly bad, and the ones that came right after, not much better. I have known in my life a number of young poets with immense talent who gave up poetry even after being told they were geniuses. No one ever made that mistake with me, and yet I kept going. I now regret destroying my early poems, because I no longer remember whom they were modeled after. At the time I wrote them, I was reading mostly fiction and had little knowledge of contemporary poetry and modernist poets. The only extensive exposure I had to poetry was in the year I attended school in Paris before coming to the United States. They not only had us read Lamartine, Hugo, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Verlaine, but they made us memorize certain poems of theirs and recite them in front of the class. This was such a nightmare for me as a rudimentary speaker of French—and guaranteed fun for my classmates, who cracked up at the way I mispronounced some of the most beautiful and justly famous lines of poetry in French literature—that for years afterwards I couldn’t bring myself to take stock of what I learned in that class. Today, it’s clear to me that my love of poetry comes from those readings and those recitations, which left a deeper impact on me than I realized when I was young.

[Photo Credit: Fernanda Chemale]

Speak, Memory

Here’s more movie memories from the great Charles Simic:

Back in the 1990s, I got an interesting call from a newspaper editor in Europe. He asked me if I could remember the first movie I saw as child that I liked, not because of the plot, but because of something else in it, something I had no words for at the time. Without ever thinking about it before, I knew what he had in mind. I recalled instantly trying to convey to a couple of my pals back in Belgrade what I liked about Victorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, and becoming incoherent, as far as they were concerned. Like me, they were strictly fans of Westerns and gangster movies, but these were in short supply in the postwar Communist years, when we had a choice between upbeat Soviet films about fighting the Nazis and building socialism, or bleak Italian and French neo-realist films that were supposed to teach us a lesson by showing us the miserable lives of the working classes in the capitalist world.

The day I saw Bicycle Thieves I had become an aesthete without realizing it, more concerned with how a particular film was made, than with whatever twists its plot had. All of a sudden, the way the camera moved, a scene was cut and a certain image was framed, were all-important to me. I’d lie in bed at night replaying some scene from a movie again and again, making it more suspenseful, erotic and, of course poetic, and taking immense pleasure in that activity. No wonder my friends began to think of me as being a little weird when it comes to movies. I was twelve years old, clueless about most things in life, but already carrying in my head my very own exclusive and constantly expanding film library, not yet a match for Halliwell’s, but large enough to occupy me and enrich my inner life when I lay awake at night.

Star Wars is the first movie I remember seeing in the theater other than Lassie and my Dad took my brother and me to see Superman, as well. But The Empire Strikes Back was the first movie that I was obsessed with. It came out six months before my parents’ marriage ended and I got Darth Vadar and my father and the frozen Han Solo all wrapped up in my mind and it wouldn’t let go. It was thrilling–a true escape–but gave me no relief.

Good For What Ails Ya

Feeling blue?

Need a pick-me-up?

Try Charles Simic’s Buster Keaton Cure:

Charlie Chaplin’s bum is at the mercy of a cruel world. Keaton, with his impassive face and a hat flat as a pancake, is a stoic. He confronts one setback after another with serenity worthy of a Buddhist monk. In one short film, “The Goat” (1921) he’s standing on the sidewalk behind two tailor’s dummies, under the impression that they are at the end of a bread line. When he discovers his mistake, he moves on quietly.

Keaton’s movies were a big success in Europe since his type of comedy doesn’t need a translation. I first saw one of his shorts in occupied Belgrade during the Second World War. I liked him instantly. His films are full of remarkable acrobatic stunts. Keaton started out in vaudeville when he was four years old working with his parents, whose comedy act included a lot of roughhousing; he was thrown by his father across the stage and sometimes even at the hecklers in the audience.

Ah, Buster. My hero.

Duly Noted


Wish You Were Here

Here’s Charles Simic on the lost art of postcard writing:

Until a few years ago, hardly a day would go by in the summer without the mailman bringing a postcard from a vacationing friend or acquaintance. Nowadays, you’re bound to get an email enclosing a photograph, or, if your grandchildren are the ones doing the traveling, a brief message telling you that their flight has been delayed or that they have arrived. The terrific thing about postcards was their immense variety. It wasn’t just the Eiffel Tower or the Taj Mahal, or some other famous tourist attraction you were likely to receive in the mail, but also a card with a picture of a roadside diner in Iowa, the biggest hog at some state fair in the South, and even a funeral parlor touting the professional excellence that their customers have come to expect over a hundred years. Almost every business in this country, from a dog photographer to a fancy resort and spa, had a card. In my experience, people in the habit of sending cards could be divided into those who go for the conventional images of famous places and those who delight in sending images whose bad taste guarantees a shock or a laugh.

I understand that impulse. When you’re in Rome, everyone back home expects a postcard of the Coliseum or the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel: send them instead one of a neighborhood pizzeria with five small tables, three potted plants and the elderly owner and his wife wiping their hands on their aprons and smiling broadly. Fans of quaint and kitschy postcards spend their entire vacations on the lookout for some especially outrageous example to amuse their friends back home, while their spouses consult serious guide books and stroll for hours with moist eyes past great paintings and sculptures in some museum.

Once they find the right card, they are faced with the problem of what to write on the other side. A conventional greeting won’t do. A few details about the trip and an opinion or two about the country they are visiting are okay, but even better is to come up with something clever, since every postcard is written with a particular person in mind.

Sweet essay.

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