Dime-Store Alchemy

Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell The Art of Joseph Cornell
by Charles Simic
ISBN: 9781590174869

In this small, well-formed book Simic shares his Cornell obsession. His prose isn’t just description, a response to the call of Cornell’s boxes, but an attempt to understand through action:

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 I the end. I had hoped to do the same.

The book contains several full color photographs of Cornell’s boxes, snippets from Cornell’s papers, small bits of biography, and many, many invitations to ponder and wonder. And that is the point. As Cornell titles one of his sections, “we comprehend by awe.”

In “The Truth of Poetry” Simic tells us that Cornell is after how “to construct a vehicle of reverie, an object that would enrich the imagination of the viewer and keep him company forever.” Endless invitations to play, to let imagination take over as children do: that is what is in offer in this book.

Simic is a poet, so it is no surprise his lines can sound like the meditation bell. In the span of the half page that is “The Moon is the Sorcerer’s Helper” he gives us:

The forest is a place in which everything your heart desires and fears lives.


Beauty is about the improbable coming true suddenly.

That line about the forest? It’s the opening of a fairy tale. Or the description of a painting. Beauty? Maybe you think you know already know what it is, but here is a different definition, one that makes even more sense the more you think about it.

This book isn’t an examination of Cornell’s art; it’s an exploration of meaning by one artist prompted into fascination by another. Highly recommended.

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