On a recent unseasonably cold Sunday, I set off across Central Park to catch a small show of “shadow boxes” by Joseph Cornell, collage like assemblies of objects within three-sided wooden boxes, at the Metropolitan Museum. I wanted to see the show because I had been thinking about how the paragraph, as a unit of expression, is similar to the Cornell box in that it creates a kind of compression within which the connections between seemingly unrelated subjects can be revealed.
On the way I encountered my friend Mary Carlson, an artist who has been developing the theme of saints and demons in small porcelain sculptures that are charged with both humor and drama. Immediately we came on the Shakespeare Garden. Despite a lingering wintry bleakness, a few peculiar bulbs were spearing into the light. Mary has about her a visceral non-verbal charge that acts as tinder on my consciousness. Squatting and almost touching the flowers, she exclaimed “Oh” and “Ah!” as if to begin a sentence that didn’t come. One spear, not yet opened, was crimson with fine yellow stripes: old time movie house usher’s uniform coming up out of the earth. “Ah!”
Having to catch a train, Mary left. Almost immediately I came upon a violinist and a cellist playing a piece of classical music I know so well I could anticipate each phrase and yet couldn’t identify. I can almost never identify music, even if I have performed it in a chorus a week before. I trace this disability to my experience of my father-composer who could be both demon and angel, if not saint. There was a period in my life in which I couldn’t listen to music intentionally, could only catch it indirectly as at brunch or in the elevator, in which situations it would seem like a touch of heaven. The violinist that day had about him a sensitive masculinity, a humble grace, an easy competence, and an aura of emotional refinement that reminded me of my father. The way he played seemed to say: this is the one thing that I know for sure, no matter what, is worth doing.
Next I bought a hot crepe from a food truck—spinach, mushrooms and Gruyere—and ate it on a cold rock by the cold lake with its storybook rampart overlooking. Though the day was dank, the trees still leafless, I realized I was in one of those New York spells in which seemingly disparate experiences become related in an internal way, within an invisible container, a time and place bubble, much like the the elements in a Cornell shadow-box.
I found my way through the weekend crowds at the Met to the Cornell show in a remote part of the museum. Called “Birds of a Feather,” it was united by an avian theme. The boxes in the first room each had a big wooden parrot in it. The backs of the boxes were papered with the French newspaper of the time: Le Soir, or "Evening." Each box had slightly different combinations of elements in it, some a bit like what might be found in a bird cage— a chain hanging from the ceiling with nothing attached, small plastic ball, the fragment of a photo of blue sky with clouds. Painted on Le Soir in many was a black shadow of the parrot, not fat and too big like the caged bird, but knife-like. The parrot was clearly in captivity despite his illusions: his grandeur, that blue sky. As we now oversized human beings have become, our culture, our traits, our contradictions, wild array of feelings, our intelligence, our saintlike qualities, our demons, in bits inside with us: our newspapers, our diversions, our photos of the sky.