Patchwork portrait of the artist

Damien Hirst, Ethidium Bromide Aqueous Solution, 2005


Considerations on the works of Charles Simic and Joseph Cornell

A fragment – ​​a phrase by the poet Gérard de Nerval – draws the horizon from which the work of Joseph Cornell emerges: “little by little man has destroyed and cut eternal beauty into thousands of pieces”. What was one is now shattered.

It was in the city of New York, from which he practically never left, that this American artist, born in 1903, in the city of Nyack, began to collect books, records, engravings, photographs, copies of old films, dolls, maps, and, with that material, making collages and making boxes.

Between 1921 and 1931, as a salesman, he traveled through New York City, going door to door, and, between breaks, he visited second-hand stores and junk shops. On these walks – which were part of his existence until his death in 1972 – it is already possible to identify his artistic posture: on the one hand, he walked without knowing what he was looking for or what he would find (he welcomed chance), but he brought with him the conviction that the city had “an infinity of objects in an infinity of places”, and, on the other hand, he recognized, among the collected objects, a secret and forgotten connection. In some corner of the city, there should be some objects that would complete each other. Once put together, they would form a work of art.

As the poet Charles Simic pointed out, in the wonderful Dime-Store Alchemy. The art of Joseph Cornell – a book whose form emulates Cornell’s mode of composition –, his work was born concurrently with the movements of the early XNUMXth century, in which both poetry and painting sought their material in everyday life and employed the technique of collage in their compositions. A new image was born from the reassembly of fragments of preexisting images.

Despite never having worked with a preconception of beauty, this mode of perception ended up shaping Joseph Cornell's gaze – not by chance, one of the first to recognize his work was Julien Levy, a fan of surrealism and a friend of Marcel Duchamp, whose gallery exhibited the works of the Surrealists. His gesture, however, is not reduced to a mere detachment of the fragment from a whole to which it belonged to be recomposed in another. From discarded things, he seeks to recompose the undone totality. It is “a magical operation, a prayer for a new image”. Joseph Cornell, in the end, with his boxes, ends up restoring a “labyrinth of analogies, the Symbolist forest of correspondences”.

His boxes – also known as shadow boxes – are the meeting point of unlikely things. It is enough for us to observe any one of them and we will be taken by surprise and astonishment. At The Hotel Eden (1945), the inside of the box is divided into compartments: on the right, in a quadrangular compartment, there is a parrot on a branch, under which there is another stump of white wood that penetrates the compartment on the left; behind the parrot a newspaper or book clipping, crossed out with the title The Hotel Eden; still in that compartment, on the right, there is a white cabinet on which we see a transparent glass bottle full of white doves; on the left side of the parrot, in another compartment, there is a list, nailed to the bottom, written in French; above, in a smaller square, there is a spiral, made with steel wires; from it comes a little black string that goes to the parrot's beak; above this is a fence with a ball attached to it. In another, the Untitled (Baby Marie), which dates from the beginning of 1940, we see a doll with a straw hat, a yellowed dress, interposed between a black background and three bushes without any leaves; his black, glittering gaze pierces the branches.

The images are not the result of invention, but of encounter and juxtaposition. The artist remakes the lost connection between the objects that the history of men in its march has discarded, dropped, abandoned, left without a place. They are thus also an archive, a container of memories – each object carries a story with it.

Charles Simic, in the book, distinguishes three types of images: those we see with our eyes open, those we see with our eyes closed and, finally, Cornell's images, which link reality and dreams, harbor what the eye sees and imagination writes. Each box incites the spectator's imagination to write the story of what is seen in them.

Approaching the art of Joseph Cornell, understanding it step by step, Simic indirectly unveiled his own poetics. Wouldn't the starting point of his work also be the fragment, or rather the splinter, the shattered experience? How to shatter an image? How to shape the shattered experience? If before the world was beautiful, but unspeakable, and hence our need for art, now it is shattered and that is why we need the poetic image.

Remembering childhood is remembering bombings, Charles Simic once told the Spanish newspaper The country. His hometown, Belgrade, capital of the former Yugoslavia, a country that has since disappeared from the map, was bombed for the first time in 1941, when Charles, born in 1938, was just three years old. (“The building across the street was hit and destroyed. I don’t remember anything about that bomb, although I was told later that I was thrown across the room when it hit.”)

In his memories of that event, the world appeared gray to him: “soldiers are gray and so are people”:

on a gray night
From a gray century
I ate an apple
while no one was looking

In 1944, now it was no longer the Germans who bombed Belgrade, but the Allies (British and American). In addition to the world war, there was also a civil war within the country. Because it was amid bombings, wreckage, people hanging from poles, corpses, ruins, rationing, civil war, that the Serbian boy Charles grew up and played. In the midst of the horror (“there is no horror that surpasses that of war”), the children, taking advantage of the fact that their parents were involved with other things, played soldiers and skipped classes.

This contradiction between horror and play is very similar to that found in Simic's poems. In them, according to another poet, Seamus Heaney, we see the meeting of two acts: an act of attention, typical of the imagist, and an act of figuration, typical of the surrealist:

My mother was a black smoke braid.
She carried me in swaddling clothes over burning cities.
Heaven was a vast and windy place for a child
We found many others who were just like us. tried to
put on their coats with arms made of smoke.
The top of the skies was full of shrunken little ears, deaf
instead of stars.[ii]

In December 1933, eight years before the bombing of Belgrade, Walter Benjamin published the essay “Experience and Poverty”, in which he locates the causes of the devaluation of experience, both from a philosophical point of view in Descartes, and from a historical point of view. in the First World War (1914-1918) – one of the experiences, according to him, most monstrous of the universal history. In it there is an image that defines this monstrosity: “A generation that still went to school in horse-drawn carts, suddenly found itself in an open field, in a landscape where nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and in the middle of it, in a force field of destructive currents and explosions, the human body, tiny and fragile”.

To this landscape, the Second World War (1939-1945) added, in addition to the concentration camp, the aerial war, resulting in a complete adulteration of such a landscape: now, with the bombings, night had become day and day, night.

This inversion provoked by the gigantic development of technology, as Benjamin had already observed about the First War, allowed a new form of poverty to fall on people, the experience was no longer devalued, but shattered, upset. Even our guardian angel began to be afraid of the dark. ("My guardian angel is afraid of the dark. He pretends not to be, tells me to go ahead, says he'll catch up with me in no time".).[iii]

Not only did the shattered and inverted landscape impregnate the boy's soul, but it also threw the poet into an extreme experience:

I'm charles
swinging handcuffed
On an invisible scaffold,
Hanging by the unspeakable
Little thing
Night and day take turns
Making it even shorter.
My mind is a ghost house
Open to starlight.
My back is covered in graffiti
Like an elevated train.
A swarm of snowflakes
Around my bare head
die of laughter
Of my final contortions
To write something on my chest
With my tongue already bitten
Already bleeding.[iv]

It is in the poem “Prodígio” (Prodigy), however, that we will find one of the best examples of how the poem works as an allocation box for the fragments of experience. A boy plays chess and in the game sees the end of the general game of war: game; war; concerned family members; planes and tanks; hanged men. Fragments that in the poem's sounding board give us an image of the experience of the end of the war:

I grew up curved
on a chessboard.
loved the term End of the game.
All my cousins ​​looked worried.
It was a small house
near a Roman cemetery.
planes and tanks
the windows rattled.
A retired astronomy professor
taught me how to play.
That must have been 1944.
In the game we used,
the paint had almost peeled off
of the black pieces.
The White King was missing
and had to be replaced.
They say but I don't believe
that that summer I witnessed
men hanged from telephone poles.

I remember my mother
blindfolding my eyes many times.
She had a way of sticking my head
suddenly under your coat.

Also in chess, the teacher told me,
masters play blindfolded,
the big ones on several trays
at the same time.[v]

One of the many post-war memories, noted by Simic, is a hunchbacked old woman pushing a pram with her son whose legs were amputated.

The shards are collected first in little pieces of language (I grew up bent over…/I loved the term…/My cousins…) – which, gathered in the poem, form an image. The form, says Simic, “is not an 'outline' but an 'image', the way in which my interiority seeks to make itself visible”.

The experience of the shattering is not just a ghost that haunts us, but our contemporary experience takes place in a shattered way – and here a single example could be extracted from the bits of information that swarm our existence. The experience of war, however, did not end in 1945, it spread across the entire globe, during and after the Cold War, to the point where Simic went so far as to state that, in modern warfare, “it has become much safer being in the military than being a non-combatant”.

For a poet who has not turned his back on history or on the evils and injustices that are part of his own time (those who do so live in a fool's paradise), the splinters characterize our contemporary experience, whose space in which it is gives is almost always in “penal architectures”: school, prison, public orphanage, stores.

Penitentiaries guarded at night,
Within them thousands sleepless,
Awake like the two of us, love,
Trying to hear beyond the stillness.
The blurred whiteness of the ceiling
From our dark room it's like a sheet
Thrown over a body in the freezing morgue.
(to what dig)[vi]

Even a small paradise only appears through cracks: on a path lined with trees, which is fenced and whose entrance is padlocked, a little bird is jumping happily and contently over the bands of sun that illuminate the small lane.

For a shattered subjectivity – which practically crawls in search of upliftment – ​​being addicted to something becomes a salvation. Enveloped by solitude, we are a sect of the anonymous – addicted to appearance, to small vices, to objects, spaces, feelings.

Inmates of prisons, hospitals and insane asylums.
The season of vague premonitions has arrived,
Stormy thoughts, spirals of panic.
Yesterday someone lucky won the lottery
A lady died hit by a brick.
(Anonymous Worried)[vii]

But we are boxes. Our interiority has the shape of a box, and, as we go through life, we incorporate an infinity of things, objects, shards, scraps of experiences – always waiting for an event to bring them together.

In Joseph Cornell's works, chance was not a way to get rid of subjectivity, but, on the contrary, it was to achieve an image of the “I”; in the same way, Simic's poems are a way of vertebrating subjectivity – without which it could remain completely disintegrated.

Em The monster loves his labyrinth, Simic noted that subjectivity transcends itself through the practice of seeing identity in distant things. In a good poem, the poet who wrote it disappears so that the reader-poet can come into being. The “I” of a total stranger, an ancient Chinese, for example, speaks to us from the most secret place of ourselves.

*José Feres Sabino is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Philosophy at the University of São Paulo (USP).


Charles Simic. Dime-Store Alchemy. The art of Joseph Cornell. New York: NYRB, 1992.

Charles Simic. The Life of Images. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2015. (eBook (only in Dutch at the moment)).

Charles Simic. Arcecate and listen. Translation by Nieves García Prados. Madrid: Vaso Roto Ediciones, 2020. (eBook (only in Dutch at the moment)).

Charles Simic. My guardian angel is afraid of the dark. Selection, translation and afterword by Ricardo Rizzo. São Paulo: However, 2021.

Charles Simic. Master of Disguises. Translation and organization by Maria Lúcia Milléo Martins and Maysa Cristina da Silva Dourado. Rio de Janeiro: Editora 7 Letras, 2021.

Walter Benjamin. “Experience and Poverty”. In: The angel of history. 2a edition. Organization and translation by João Barrento. Belo Horizonte: Autêntica, 2013, p. 83-90.


[I] Translation by Maria Lúcia Milléo Martins.

[ii] Translation by Maria Lúcia Milléo Martins.

[iii] Translation by Ricardo Rizzo.

[iv] Translation by Maria Lúcia Milléo Martins.

[v] Translation by Maria Lúcia Milléo Martins.

[vi] Translation by Ricardo Rizzo.

[vii] Translation by Ricardo Rizzo.

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