Joseph Cornell, an American artist from the mid-twentieth century, was best known for his shadow boxes; his glass-enclosed constructions contain assemblages collaged from ephemera he found while on walking tours of New York City.
Adam Gopnik's article “Sparkings,” from a February 2003 issue of The New Yorker, traces both Cornell's life as a man and his artistic influences. Of Cornell's shadow boxes, he writes: they provide a “visual experience of [a] city dweller,” in that the assorted bric-a-brac arranged within them show “the joys of solitary wandering” from Queens to Manhattan and back again. To Gopnik's mind, Cornell was a window shopper par excellence, always scouring stores for a material object he could add to his own, miniature display cases.
A quick glance at the “Notes” section in the back matter of The Silhouettes (Springgun Press, 2012), which is Lily Ladewig's debut collection of poetry, reveals her indebtedness to Cornell. The poet used several biographies, as well as the artist's own notes and letters, as “inspiration and source material” for the sequence of poems titled “Shadow Box” that recurs intermittently throughout the collection. Take, for instance, the first iteration of the series:
Let's build a fire. A shifting location. A change of wind and I can smell myself. Like something foreign. And into the fuller fascination. I can see the Chrysler Building from the window of the subway car on the bridge. I would measure the distance between us footwise. I would pull this poem from you with my whole body. Beneath your bright palms my breasts might become a reality. While my hands, full of acreage. Are budding outside your open third story window. The dancers push their painted feet across the page. (8)
Visually, Ladewig shapes the poem into a square that mimics the form of Cornell's shadow boxes and engages the material tradition of concrete poetry. Syntactically, she writes in sentence fragments, their piecemeal formation fostering an assemblage-like aura associated with collage. But the content, as well, provides snippets of Cornell's life and work: his New York City rambles in the image of “the Chrysler Building from the window of the subway car on the bridge,” his obsession with photographs of Hollywood starlets in the phrase “Beneath your bright palms my breasts,” while “The dancers push their painted feet across the page” acknowledges his preoccupation with ballerinas and ballet.
Toward the end of his New Yorker article, Gopnik claims that Cornell's shadow boxes demonstrate:
The balance of the metaphysical and the quotidian, the intimate address and the popular symbols, the private mythologizing of mass culture, the singing New York street and the oblique references, a dream of France dotting the work like raisins in a pudding—all these things are far closer to American modernist poetry than to its art.
While it may be unfair to align or compare too closely The Silhouettes with Cornell's assemblages, the balancing act Gopnik addresses in the artist's work, which he likens to “American modernist poetry,” can be seen in Ladewig's verse. In the final set of “Shadow Box” poems, she writes:
Repetition is necessary. It evens out the body. I watch the Atlantic Ocean even out the evening. Pressing silence into. Somewhere in the world you are moving and the steps you take bring you closer to or farther from me. If only slightly. What can I do with this room but remember it. I am getting better. Something imaginary. I've been advised to hold my sadness in my hands like a ball. To observe it. Something invisible. Fields of poppies. Fields of wild. Lavender. In the Petit Trianon. Everyone dressed in white. (62)
The metaphysical does balance out the quotidian: the speaker, on the one hand, says, “Repetition is necessary”; on the other hand, “I watch the Atlantic Ocean.” Likewise, the Chrysler Building of the earlier permutation balances itself against the “Petit Trianon” of Versailles, juxtaposing New York City with France. More than anything, though, The Silhouettes achieves a balance between the universal and the specific by placing epic images like “Sea foam green and the infinite numbers” (44), next to the personal, such as a colloquialism like “I was so dunzo” (45). In the end, Ladewig's “Small and glass-fronted” (45) shadow boxes “function” as an “accumulation” (61): assemblages that prove “The city is the place where” (30) we can collect ephemera from our surroundings so as to build our most intimate subjectivities.