Wunderkammer: Kitsch and Violence in Cynthia Cruz, Lara Glenum, Plath and Celan

by on Jan.29, 2015

Lately I’ve been reading this new book Wunderkammer by Cynthia Cruz. The title refers to cabinets of curiosity, or wunderkammers, a subject matter I’m interested in. These chambers (sometimes rooms, sometimes boxes) was how back in pre-modern-science days people collected curiosities, often from other parts of the world, objects not following some kind of scientific classificatory system but rather tied together by their capacity to incite “wonder.”


In the book Artificial Kingdom, Celeste Olalquiaga traces kitsch back to this “science”, which in its undead state turns into things like the “fern-craze” of Victorian England, when people would get aquariums and put ferns in them. I’m fascinated the wunderkammer’s inevitable connection between collecting, imperialism, decadence/death and of course Art.

I might even say that Surrealism – which so often stands in for “kitsch” in contemporary US poetry discussions – is based on the idea of the wunderkammer – with its collection of strange, useless, outdated objects brought together by occult forces. Benjamin famously called surrealism “dream kitsch”; and Clement Greenberg called Max Ernst “postcard kitsch.” Between those two phrases you get the connection between the wunderkammer and surrealism.

Of course this can be seen most clearly in Joseph Cornell’s boxes:


These boxes of dream-trash, rescued from the garbage heap of New York City’s dreams.

Cruz’s poems are almost all wunderkammers – some of the poems are actually called wunderkammer, but even the ones that aren’t have the sense of a collection of objects brought together by some strange act:


A Greek crime mars the pastoral.
Charts and maps, an atlas of anesthesia-
Laced nostalgia. A long haired, white
Rabbit, muffled, shot, and stuffed.
And old yellow chiffon gown, the ribbon
Hem, ripped and red wine stained.
Curricula of the mundane.
Symptoms of trauma, like ghost
Spots of water on crystal
That will not be washed off.

In many ways this poem seems to straight up describe a Cornell box. Like Cornell, Cruz’s poem is invested in the necroglamorous: the rabbit is stuffed, the chiffon gown old and stained, the crystal has ghost spots. But it is glamorous nonetheless, anesthesized by “nostalgia” and more specifically the nostalgia for glamor. The numbing seems to be physical: the speaker seems stuck like a stuffed rabbed, she cannot “wash off” the atmosphere of the piece, which primarily consists of the “chiffon gown” -its material seems to immobilize her. She cannot really get out of the box so to speak until the negative ending “will not be washed off” which for me works as a relief from the stultifying, stunting but beautiful glamour.

[Remember Cornell’s fascination with glamorous silent-era movie stars (a fascination he passed on to Montevidayo’s favorite, Jack Smith):


This book is in pretty obvious conversation with another contemporary book of poetry, one I know well – Lara Glenum’s The Hounds of No (Action Books, 2005).

Lara’s book has a lot of the same motifs and concerns: glamour, weimar germany, Dietrich-ish fashions, and violence. It even has a poem called “Wunderkammer” (and perhaps “Shelly” on the cover with her contorted body owes something to the 1920s dance that Joyce’s daughter does on the cover of Cruz’s book).

Here is Lara’s poem:

I was a meat-based creature I was chunky with carbon
I grew spleens, nails, fat-lobes, etc.
It all ended
I ascended into Heaven The angels sounded like highpitched
techno wails Their spooky faces were all identical
One angel came forward & sank his fist into my stomach
as though it were a ball of wax He pulled out a dried-out
milk gland It looked like a tiny tumbleweed He then pulled
out: Two wigs A city A goat skeleton He mounted all these
on a styrofoam plaque He said, Good job, buster
He sent me back to earth
I sprouted eleven ovaries & nine penises I dangled edible
babies from greasy crimson stalks I wanted nothing more
than to be eaten alive & shat out Just like in the last life
I was later rewarded first prize at the angelic banquet for my
silvery leaves & cuckoo colonies
This time I’d been an exceptional plant

The similarities are obvious – the title, the importance of poetic “stuff”, prevalence of violent fashion etc – but there are of course big differences. One big difference – and this runs throughout the two books – is that Lara’s speakers are very active while Cruz’s tend to be “anesthesized” – while Lara’s speaker jump around and go all grotesque (they are hyper active even in death – “out of the coffin I leap”), Cruz’s speakers seem nearly asleep, unable to really tear their way out of the pervasive “chiffon” atmosphere.

I’m very much interested in this element of Cruz’s book. They often begin by setting the scene – often with phrases like “In the dream factory…” or “In my embellishments” – so thickly that the we get trapped. Like in Lara’s poems, there’s a lot of “cream” in Cruz’s poems. While the cream in Lara’s book tends to be bodily fluids (usually sexual), it tends to be associated with fashion in Cruz’s book. There’s the chiffon in the first example. In another we get:

“Glam cream shadow / In pearl matte”

“Face made miraculously matte/With Chanel cream paste makeup”

The make up makes a mask – not the kind which hides secrets, but the kind that turns one’s entire face into artifice. But there’s much more:

“For centuries I swam in its murk and/Viscera, its worrying warm milk/whispering to me…”

“Unknown paste of pearl/and jewels…”

“They leave on the cream-/and-white dappled horses”

In “Wonder Room” she refers to the driving engine of her poetry as a desire for “Fashion and excess./Decadence, and its magnificent diamond/of glut.” It’s a “glutty” world of fashion, where the speakers can barely wake out of the creamy chiffon. No wonder they are repeatedly “dragged” places. It’s the premier verb of this almost verbless glut of a fashion death.

Another similarity between Cruz and Lara is that both are influenced by the grotesque fashion montages of Sylvia Plath. Seems like if one made lists of people influenced by Plath you would get some pretty radically different poets. Both Lara and Cruz are drawn to Plath’s excess and gothic sensationalism (in other words the truest kind of Plath-devotee because they refuse to wash the corpse clean, they leave the make-up on).

And of course Plath not only has the anesthesized characters (“I rocked shut as as a seashell. They had to call and call And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.”), but more importantly she has a wunderkammer poem (or one might say that they are all wunderkammer poems – collections of stuff like lamps, scarves, thumbs etc) – I’m speaking of course of “The Arrival of a Bee Box.” It too hinges on agency – will she set the bees free, will she kill herself etc. The magic of Plath’s poem is the way that metaphors break the box: by imagining the reason for the noise from the box (as slaves, as riots etc), she in a sense breaks the mysterious box. In Cruz we are always already inside the box, and that’s why the chiffon drown us rather than break the box.


In Plath, Cruz and Lara there’s a whole lot of German references, and maybe my favorite wunderkammer poem of all time is Paul Celan’s “Nacthstrahl”:

Most brightly of all burned the hair of my evening loved one:

to her I send the coffin of lightest wood.

Waves billow round it as round the bed of our dream in Rome;

it wears a white wig as I do and speaks hoarsely:

it talks as I do when I grant admittance to hearts.

It knows a French song about love, I sang it in autumn

when I stopped as a tourist in Lateland and wrote my letters to morning.

A fine boat is that coffin carved in the coppice of feelings.

I too drift in it downbloodstream, younger still than your eye.

Now you are young as a bird dropped dead in March snow,

now it comes to you, sings you its love song from France.

You are light: you will sleep through my springs till it’s over.

I am lighter:

in front of strangers I sing.

(trans. Michael Hamburger)

Plath and Celan for me have always made up a fascinating couple. Plath – “the bobby-sox American” who is consistently held up as the posterchild for how one is not allowed to write about atrocities like the Holocaust unless one has personal experience of them; and Celan, whose biography almost always seems to overshadow his poetry. If we take away their biographies, however, there is this same gothic surrealism, in which the world and its violence acts like stuff – like kitsch even! – that may at any moment drown or overwhelm the speaker.

Contrary to the model of “witness” or “confession,” the art – the kitsch, the stuff, the wonder – in Plath and Celan tends to ruin the sense of self, troubling the idea of an easy expression. The very language in both of them become so saturated, so dense that it appears to be in conflict with the idea of easy communication. Plath’s later poem merges a high, dramatic diction with baby-talk (this will not do anymore black shoe) and – more importantly – German. Not only do we get “Herr Doktor” famously but also “Ich ich ich” – the german language sticks in her throad, “gluts” it, does violence to her mouth, its very foreigness defamiliarizing her mouth and her English language. We might say that her ur-tongue, her pre-mother tongue, her father-tongue becomes an unassimilable foreigness.

Celan – who was famous from Romania, lived after the Holocaust in France, but wrote in German, the language of his family’s executioners – is most famous for his defamiliarization of the German language. This happens most obviously in the knotty neologisms, his “breathturns” so to speak (the name of one of his essential volumes), his glutty “wurtaufschüttung” (pilingupofwords), in which the constantl yoking together of words re-writes standard German words.

And it is this anesthesized, aestheticized, violently baroque space that I think Cruz is investigating in her book.

[If I get time, I’ll tell you about my other favorite wunderkammer-poem, Kim Hyesoon’s “Pinkbox”]

5 comments for this entry:
  1. Hugh Behm-Steinberg

    If you don’t know about her work already, you should check out Rosamond Purcell: http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/ole-worm-cabinet

  2. Johannes

    Thank you! Had not heard of this person before. /J

  3. Hugh Behm-Steinberg

    You might like her book Owl’s Head. Here’s the publisher’s blurb:

    A derelict antiques and scrap metal business in Owls Head, Maine, is the setting of this multi-layered word-portrait of its owner, William Buckminster, proprietor of an extraordinary collection of discarded and decaying items, no-longer-functioning remnants of previous lives. Buckminster’s world, which includes both his vaunted talents in the local pool halls and his sure knowledge of the seemingly endless number of fascinating objects from his vast supply, are inspiration for Purcell’s carefully crafted meditation on collecting and entropy, and the signals both send to those of us willing to pay attention. 34 duotone footnote photographs.

  4. adam s

    Am glad to read someone pairing Plath and Celan…I years ago while corresponding with Reginald Shephard linked them, but because of the timbre of some of their repetitions. Moore and Bishop strike me as at times rather curiosity cabinetish–one object arranged with another and despite the odds a poem emerges; although they’re at this point something like canonical, I think they both at times really “beg the question” why the fuck is this a poem? This for me is their link to Ashbery, who strikes me as often very, very kitsch.

  5. adam s

    Well if one counts locations, or supposed memories, or environments, as objects. Sure, “Over 2000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance” has its grand, philosophical ending line, but that aside, it’s a patchwork of snapshots of places, and the stitching is a bit incongruous or, to quote (or misquote) the poem “pulled by invisible threads”: Dead man in an arcade, a duchess, prostitutes, volcanoes glistening like Easter lilies, a family with pets, a burin.