Joseph Cornell’s L’Égypte de Mlle Cléo de Mérode, by Lisa Fleck Dondiego

Joseph Cornell’s L’Égypte de Mlle Cléo de Mérode
by Lisa Fleck Dondiego

       You don’t make art, you find it. You accept everything as its material.
       —Charles Simic

On a layer of red sand beneath glass:

broken piece of comb,
frosted slivers
for reflection.

Porcelain doll’s arm,
broken at elbow,
for fitting her into his frame.

Plastic rose petals
for throwing at her feet,
preserving her beauty.

Three miniature tin spoons
for measuring out sand grains
in her hourglass.

Twelve cork-stopped
apothecary jars filled with spirits:

crumpled tulle, blue
celluloid, bone fragments,
for curing all ailments.

Metal chain, rhinestones,
sequins, pearl beads,
for seduction.

He labels the jars:

“Grasshoppers and locusts.”
“An instrument to measure the Nile’s waters.”
“Sphynx.” “L’emeraudes de Cléo de Mérode.”

In one jar, Cleopatra’s needle is threaded.

In another, his Queen’s entombed,
dancing on yellow sand,
a pinned butterfly
that no one may touch.


Joseph Cornell, L’Égypte de Mlle Cléo de Mérode cours élémentaire d’histoire naturelle, 1940.

Note on Joseph Cornell’s L’Égypte de Mlle Cléo de Mérode
For this poem I scrutinized Cornell’s box of that name, and borrowed the materials he used in it, which he had gathered from his many scavenger trips to junk shops in New York City. I more or less “scavenged” these same materials from him, and in writing about them, borrowed their arrangement as well. As a person who suffers from claustrophobia, I found an additional benefit – that I was able objectify and deal with my claustrophobic fears by exerting complete control over my materials, as Cornell had before me.

Lisa Fleck Dondiego’s poems have appeared in The Westchester Review, Haibun Today, and in several anthologies, including Red Moon Press’s yearly anthology and in the Contemporary Women Writers of the Hudson Valley’s A Slant of Light. She has taught for 9 years in the Learning to See workshop series at the Greenburgh Library in White Plains, NY. Her chapbook, A Sea Change, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2011. She lives in Ossining, NY, with her husband.

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