Constructing Secret Rooms: Assemblages, Creative Writing, Self-Discovery, and the Art of Joseph Cornell

Article excerpt

Charles Simic (1992), commenting on the work of Joseph Cornell, has stated: Inside everyone there are secret rooms. They're cluttered and the lights are out. There's a bed in which someone is lying with his face to the wall. In his head are more rooms. In one, the venetian blinds shake in the approaching summer storm. Every once in a while an object becomes visible: a broken compass, a pebble the color of midnight, an enlargement of a school photograph with a face in the back circled, a watch spring-each one of these is a totem of the self. (p. 62)

In 1972, I moved west to enter Grinnell College. The rite of passage that began with discoveries of the deep resonances of poetic illumination and liberal education continues to influence my quest for knowledge and spiritual fulfillment today. During these years, I heard of a young man also studying at Grinnell. He was already considered a great writing talent and had won numerous awards. It wasn't until 20 years later that he would affect the path my life's passion, my imagination, was to take.

My father has given me a subscription to The New Yorker magazine since I was 21. One day, during a casual reading of the book reviews, I came across a piece by Edward Hirsch (1992), the young man I still recall with great admiration. He had reviewed a new book by the Pulitzer-Prize-winning contemporary American poet, Charles Simic, titled Dime Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell (1992). His impressions of the text were so strikingly glowing that I knew immediately I must purchase the book. My mind was filled with questions, tremendous curiosity, and wonderment that has not yet abated: Who was Joseph Cornell? Why dimestore alchemy? What unusual images had yet to be excavated? These mysteries were about to transform my consciousness in unforeseen ways forever.

Simic's book is itself a surreal interpretation of Cornell's imagery and ideas pushed up against one another in small, concretely worded scenarios. Chapters are generally a paragraph or two of carefully selected words that coincidentally tell a story of Cornell, Simic, the streets of New York City during Cornell's life, and the path of everyman. It is a book that begs to be read slowly, to be examined with great care and thoughtfulness, to be permitted to come alive and evolve in the reader's mind as a new kind of alchemy: a surrealist poetical manifesto in the tradition of Andre Breton (Balakian & Kuenzli, 1989; Carouges, 1974).


Surrealism was a movement in art and writing that flourished in Europe between the two world wars. It was a reaction against the rationalism its proponents saw culminating in the terrors of World War I. In 1924, Andre Breton characterized surrealism as a means of reuniting conscious and unconscious realms of experience so completely that the world of dream and fantasy would be joined to the everyday rational world in "an absolute reality, a surreality." (Breton, 1924, p. 1)

Breton was inspired by the work of Sigmund Freud and, like Freud, saw the unconscious as the wellspring of the imagination. The challenge for the artist was to enter this normally inaccessible realm. Painters like Jean Arp, Max Ernst, Andre Masson, Rene Magritte, Yves Tanguy, Salvador Dali, and Joan Miro were among surrealism's masters. Within their works, one can readily see the bizarre juxtapositions of subject matter that attempt to express the working of the subconscious (Pioche, 1995).

Simic's Dime-Store Alchemy (1992) has stimulated a professional creative journey, a journey still generating unexpected approaches to Creativity in the Classroom, an undergraduate course I teach to teachers-in-learning at West Chester University in southeastern Pennsylvania. My intent in the course is to challenge college seniors to gain new perspectives, skills, experiences, and insights into their own creative and imaginative processes. Simic and Cornell have helped me to help students to seek out unusual connections within their own lives (Zweig & Abrams, 1991) and, by analogy, in the lives of the children they will teach. …