Saturday, August 18, 2007

Toward The Blue Peninsula

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This is a piece by Joseph Cornell, an artist whose exhibit we went to see in Salem, Massachusetts (a five hour drive from NYC.) C has always liked Cornell’s art which takes place in a world inside boxes, and it was nice to watch him acting jumpy and excited to be there as he glided from room to room with a smile on his face. Rather than giving myself license to talk about Cornell’s work, I wanted to write about one box I enjoyed in particular; the one he dedicates to Emily Dickinson called “Toward the Blue Peninsula.” Cornell was as much of a loner as Dickinson was: one lived in Utopia Parkway, in Queens (a few blocks from where my parents live) and the other lived in Amherst, Massachusetts, both spent almost all their life reclused in rooms and inside the confinements of their imagination. Cornell, who liked to admire people from afar, ran into Dickinson’s picture one summer in a used bookstore he frequented daily.

Although they never met, I think what made Cornell obsess about her was the thought of Dickinson being alone in her room writing poems, because he could ultimately relate to that. Dickinson was always, always alone, to the point where she perceived herself as fluid and transitory, as unnoticed as the body of a bird (“I am nobody, who are you? Are you nobody too?”) So Cornell made her a box, and when one stares at it for too long one runs the risk of understanding its source, which is solitude, and of becoming Emily Dickinson for a few minutes or Joseph Cornell.

Some critics say that this box is like Dickinson’s room but if one looks closely it is also like a bird cage, except that the perch is empty. The bird is Emily Dickinson who has flown away in her imagination. And even though this opinion is valid, I might be able to understand it better through a dualist perspective: the soul flies like a bird with the wings of childhood plays, yes, but the loner Emily Dickinson is bound to remain in her cage for life. But even worse, if the body would ever find a way out of the cage and out of the room where it lies trapped, then the poor bird that is her imagination would disappear immediately, which is what happens when life and art fight against each other, and compromise daily.

I’ll just end this with something C told me about Cornell, on the drive back: “ On the day he died, he confessed to his sister that his only regret was that he had been so reserved all his life.” And who knows, maybe if Dickinson and Cornell would have met, if an extraordinary circumstance would have brought them together somehow, their lives would have been happier maybe. Then again, their art would have, probably, been very different from what it is.

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