One of the most poetic visual artists is the American surrealist Joseph Cornell. Each one of his small-scale installations—whether it be filled with antiques, bits of broken glass, balls, sand, or clippings from books and magazines—serves as a small, intimate world that draws the viewer in, inviting him or her to make sense of the work’s poetically suggestive juxtapositions. For this reason, the Japanese poet Takahashi Mutsuo, has long been drawn to Cornell’s work.
This World, or the Man of the Boxes
Dedicated to Joseph Cornell
Pilgrim on earth, thy name is heaven,
Stranger, thou art the guest of God.
—Mary Baker Eddy
The shade of sooty quince
The bloom of dusty roses
——And beyond that
A fence of metal wire entwined with vines
Of spiderwort or knotgrass perhaps?
There tossed among the plants
Reclining in a weather-worn wooden armchair
Hands folded at his abdomen like a dead man
Who could he be this man who looks as if
He was washed here from some distant world?
This man is a decrepit adolescent a broken angel
Swept here by the ark of dreams a boat in the shape of a box
When was that? Yesterday or a hundred years ago?
The world to which this man really belongs is not here
The world to which this man really belongs
Is far away through the fissures of dream
Guarded by sensible, steadfast parents
This man wearing a starched collar is a clever boy
He has two beautiful younger sisters
And a younger brother with an upright spirit
This family of angels with wings hidden under their fancy dress
Is enveloped in golden happiness
That world of distant memories
Is like a box floating in a galaxy of tears
One morning suddenly that box-shaped boat ran ashore
In the doorway to that timeless world of happiness
When was that? A second or a hundred million years ago?
Dreams are always nightmares interlopers with foul intent
Drawn by death the father was pulled backward
And the rest of the family were dragged quickly away
It was here they disembarked the backyard of a sickly city
Here not even angels could escape human fate
The mother grew ill from anxiety the sisters grew thin
And wrinkles spread across the brother’s spotless soul
In this false world perched atop the scales
This man was the quiet, noble head of the household
Working harder growing old faster than everyone else
But that was not the reality of who he was
His real self is hidden under the disguise of an old man
Strewn across his chair seated like a corpse
He inhales the blue-green seas of his own world of reality
Watches clouds trailing behind airplanes over the sea
And pricks up his ears to overhear the daytime dialogue of the stars
This man suddenly stands from his chair
And slowly descends through the fallen leaves
Underground he finds his own private box-like world
With objects neatly stored in shelves and drawers
Candy boxes pill boxes candle boxes
Cut-outs from old images musical scores lost wooden blocks
Shells brass rings sky blue marbles
Cracked glasses soap bubble sets——
These too are fragments of the real world
Drifted here through the fissures of dream
This man gives himself plenty of time
How long? One week or thirty years?
He chooses the fragments then puts them together
In just the right place in just the right box
While the faint reflection of the golden happiness
Belonging to the real world so far away
Turns into pale afternoon sunlight and falls
Upon his deftly moving fingers
Is this man no longer at his chair in the garden?
Is he no longer at his basement table?
If he is nowhere to be found
This man must never have been here at all
What we thought we saw was nothing more
Than the shadow of his real self
His shadowy eyelashes drawing the bow of vision toward the real world
His shadowy hands caressing the flotsam from the real world
It is not for us to lament his absence
Like little birds we should descend into the garden to bathe as usual
And play on his basement window like light
Then what about these boxes?
The objects captured inside the princesses
The ballerinas the rabbit princes
The parrots the honeybees the butterflies
Does this man lodge inside them
Borrowing the forms of these ephemeral creatures?
Like the garden and basement these boxes are also
Cheap hotel rooms inhabited briefly by this man’s shadow
It swings upon the roost pours some sand
Creates nimble cracks across the panes of glass
And then vanishes
The destination for his shadow is the real world
These wistfully nostalgic boxes before us are
The frames around the well through which
We peer into that world and are drawn in
NOTE: Takahashi originally wrote the poem “This World, or the Man of the Boxes” for an exhibition of Cornell’s work held at the Kawamura Memorial Museum in Sakura, Japan. This poem was such a success that in 2010, when the same museum once again held a large scale Cornell exhibition, the curators invited Takahashi to write one poem to accompany each of the artworks. The result was the collaborative exhibition “Intimate Worlds Enclosed: Joseph Cornell x Takahashi Mutsuo,” which drew large crowds and quickly sold through multiple prints of its catalog. The English renditions of the poems in the catalog were done by Jeffrey Angles. For more information, see the museum’s website: http://kawamura-museum.dic.co.jp/en/exhibition/201004_cornell.html.
TAKAHASHI Mutsuo (1937- ) came to international attention in the 1970s for his bold expressions of homoerotic desire. He is one of Japan’s most prolific contemporary poets, with over three dozen anthologies of free-style verse, haiku, tanka, and other forms of poetry to his name. He is also one of the most thoroughly translated contemporary Japanese poets, with four volumes of his poetry available in English. A translation of his memoirs Twelve Views from the Distance, translated by Jeffrey Angles,was published in 2012 by University of Minnesota Press.