I recently heard Cynthia Cruz read at the Brattleboro Literary Festival. Fine-boned and soft-spoken, she walked up to the lectern and showed us the cover of her third book, Wunderkammer.
“That’s James Joyce’s daughter,” she said, indicating a gorgeous young dancer slinking sideways in a scaled and feathery costume. “She ended up dying in a mental asylum. But I just love this photo.”
The startling black-and-white photograph summons us into the “beauty and ruin” of Wunderkammer. The girl’s intent gaze, her frozen pose, the bizarre silvery costume all open the door to a decadent underworld, a winter landscape of cream cakes, jewels, Benzedrine and ballet, where bloodhounds roam outside “Hotel Oblivion” and a child in a pink leotard sits “cross-legged inside a wide circle of pills.”
Wunderkammer means “cabinet of curiosities,” and Cruz’s book is a marvelous and rare collection. The poems unfold in a dream sequence of self-portraits and nebenwelts (next-worlds), revealed by a speaker drowning in clutter, lost in a culture of waste and excess:
Is feeding into me.
An IV drip of consumption, whether or not
I want it. Fashion and excess.
Decadence and its magnificent diamond
Glittering its warm doom and contagion.
– “Wonder Room”
In every poem, Cruz renders the “glut” in startling imagery and precise lines strung taut with emotion. She weaves fragments of memory and trauma into a hallucinogenic masquerade, embellished with glam make-up and sequined stockings. We enter her glittering underworld and it enters us, so that we become complicit in the book’s vision, seduced by “All of this vast collecting, this glamorous/ Danger and doom” (from “Hotel Oblivion”).
The power of Wunderkammer lies in the sheer gorgeousness of language combined with leaps of imagination and fearless psychic revelation. Cruz chooses beautiful sounds for terrible things, layering assonance in the book’s opening poem, for example— “Was found drowned in a cream velvet/Mini gown…”— and playfully rhyming “guillotine” with “dream” and “coconut cream” in the final Nebenwelt. Her poems have a wry sense of humor that tempers the traumas they reveal. With delicious and exacting detail, the childlike speaker begins her surreal story:
After I licked clean the saucers
Of Schlag and ceiling-high cream cakes,
I ran twelve miles in my ballet leotard
Through the German forest of snow.
How do I feel about my botched suicide?
Lacing up my skating boots, I
Vanish, silvery paste of vapor on the ice.
Cruz was born in Germany and an old-world European landscape permeates many of her poems: images of sanitariums, palanquins, chateaus, Dresden porcelain, French macaroons, and repeatedly, Berlin. Yet the book also travels through a sordid 21st century American geography, from the “all-night/ AA disco” to “the Greyhound/ Station bathroom” to the “Hotel Hilton pool” in upstate New York. In “Kingdom of Cluttering Sorrow,” the speaker is driven in a beige Mercedes “…across the dead/ Zones and bridges/ Of America, its eternal labyrinths,/ Interlocked, and without meaning.”
Inside these labyrinths lies the dark clutter of history, tales of terror and suicide. Starting with Lucia Joyce on the cover, Wunderkammer is haunted by beautiful dead women and the specter of madness—Marilyn Monroe and Ophelia make their blonde appearances, along with the stylistic ghost of Plath. Like Plath, Cruz has mastered the surprising and often ecstatic death image, her fragments punctuated with short, capitalized lines: in “Death Song,” the moon is “A dark, death/ Lick” and the speaker buried under the earth whirrs “like a wheel/ Of bees.”
We might expect to feel depressed inside this velvet underworld, but Cruz’s language is transporting, her obsessions contagious. The poems may be a response to the glut of consumer culture, but there is still some hope, something alive amidst the waste: “the animals/Come to me, brushing up against me,/Tasting my palms with their warm wet tongues” (“Todesarten”). At the end of the book, the speaker drinks “warm medicinals… Imperial Childhood Tea.” We sense the possibility of healing.
Reading Wunderkammer, I felt oddly elated, inhabited by the interwoven images and repeated words. I surrendered to the poems, growing “woozy” (like the speaker in “Some Velvet Morning”), riding “an endless train of fur and splendor” until the journey ended with the last lyric:
“After the ten year
Junket at the School of Ophelia,
I tried, but finally, could not.
Every time I open my mouth
To speak, just these terrible
Blue diamonds fall out.”