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Contemporary Verse Novels and Sentences and Fragments: Charles Simic’s DIME STORE ALCHEMY

I’m not really sure why I keep writing about “Contemporary Verse Novels,” because I’m not that interested in labeling things. But it’s as good a category as any, and I like the idea that books that already exist as “poems” might also benefit from being associated with “novels.” So, on to the latest that fits the bill.

Dime Store Alchemy was recommended to me by Brian Clements, whose recommendations I’m always interested in. Knowing how much he thinks of this book only made me that much more eager to read it. And in the midst of reading so much poetry that confused me (I’ve been pretty loud and clear about how I’m not the best reader of poetry, about how poetry often baffles me), I was really, well, just happy, to open this book, read the first poem, and feel good about life. No anxiety, no confusion, no bewilderment. Instead, just a solid reading experience, and the thrill of knowing that the rest of the book to follow would be related, that I would not be reading standalone poems but a collection of poems on the same topics and themes and subject — namely, the book’s subtitle: “The Art of Joseph Cornell.”

I’ve dog-eared so many pages I don’t even know where to start. Maybe what I’ll do is include my favorite sentences and fragments from all the pages I’ve dog-eared. Maybe these sentences will create a poem of their own. Who knows? Maybe they’ll offer a pretty good representation of the book overall. If not, at least there’s this:  Joseph Cornell went all over New York collecting objects to put in his boxes, found objects that became his art, his collage work; so traveling through this book about his process, and then gathering bits of “found” text, only to piece these bits together, seems like a nice sort of homage. I hope that’s how people interpret this anyway. So, here goes:

On the streets Cornell walked forty years ago, there were still medical leech dealers; importers of armadillo meat and ostrich eggs — all over in a flash but evoking a strong feeling — unusual feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment, unexpected and more abiding than usual. Today it could be something as ordinary and interesting as an old thimble. In them the night is always falling. Here’s everything the immigrants carried in their suitcases and bundles to these shores and their descendants threw out with the trash: Poetry: three mismatched shoes at the entrance of a dark alley. We were left with the storming sea that made no sound, and a beautiful woman on a long, empty beach whose tears rolled down silently as she watched me falling asleep in my mother’s arms. Ahead, nothing but wind, sky, and more sand. The great ballerina, Emma Livry, a protegee of Taglioni, for instance, died in flames while dancing the role of a night butterfly.

Yes, I think this does accomplish what I wanted it to. Well, when I read these sentences, these fragments, I can associate them with the poems they come from, and I get the larger experience again of the entire book, which I, like Brian Clements, highly recommend. Brian recommended it to me because he thought it might help me as I thought through some of my ideas about book-length poems. I’m recommending, though, to anyone who has ever found himself alone in a city and wandering, to anyone who has ever picked something up randomly and out of curiosity, at a garage sale or on the ground or in a store, to anyone who ever wanted to put some object in a box for safekeeping, to anyone who has ever put something on display. If you are someone who has done any of these things, then this book just might be for you.


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