The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Box Girl

By

“On the streets [Joseph] Cornell walked forty years ago, there were still medical leech dealers; importers of armadillo meat and ostrich eggs. There were people like Miss Delphine Binger, who collected goose, turkey, and chicken wishbones so she could boil them and polish them and then decorate them with charms and ribbons. She sent them to presidents, movie stars, famous politicians in the same way Cornell sent gifts of scraps of paper and odd objects to ballerinas he loved.”—Charles Simic, Dime Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell

“The labor of art is the slow and painful metamorphosis of the One into the Other.”—Charles Simic

 *

Mother

I am seven years old and standing in front of the glass vitrine which hangs on the wall in a place of honor in our living room. It is trapezoid-shaped, with a flat back that lays flush against the wall, a squared front, and angled sides. There are three glass shelves inside the display case, and the glass door and side panels are trimmed in filigreed silver. The base and the top of the vitrine are also filigreed silver. My mother bought the case in Guerrero when she was in Mexico visiting her parents and sisters. One must bend down and look closely at the base to notice the small letters of the artist’s name and location carefully printed in black ink: “Simancas Mexico.”

At the age of seven, I wasn’t aware of any of these details. I only cared about the treasures within the glass case. I would stand in front of it in silence and not moving, observing each item that had been chosen by my mother to live inside. Each object seemed to possess more magic and power than if it had been placed alone on a bookshelf or side table; the fact of being one of the chosen objects, each divine and exotic for its own reasons, seemed to me to produce an effect of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. This phenomenon, even then, seemed worthy of my studious attention. The objects seemed to feed off each other and interact with each other. I spent hours standing before the glass vitrine, trying to divine the magic, the answer, the power of the box.

 

Frank

I never understood the big fuss about Frank O’Hara. His poems didn’t speak to me. Until they did. I spent one year reading and rereading his Lunch Poems. My ambivalence turned to ardor, an ardor I didn’t know quite what to do with.

I kept a copy of the slim collection in my pocketbook; another in my glove compartment. I never wanted to be far from his words. I think I had hope they would somehow seep into my consciousness, or at the very least, mingle with the mess at the bottom of my purse. Wallet, keys, lipstick, cell, crumbs, gum, tampon, a drawing from my daughter neatly folded into a square, coupons, fortune cookie fortunes, pen, notebook, bottle of pills. And Lunch Poems.

The admiration, the feeling I had for Frank O’Hara’s words and voice existed physically in my body, a pull, a rubber plunger suctioning the space in the center of my chest. I decided I needed to make something physical out of the ardor. I began to spontaneously collect things that called to me and throbbed “Frank”. I ripped pages out of books. I took walks always looking down at the street for lost, left behind objects. In the end, I used the lid of a wooden box and to it glued a selection of my chosen objects. A Manhattan bus map, a rusted metal blade, a copper chain, a scrap of black lace, a picture of a clown bent over and waiting to get paddled by another clown, a miniature antique car, steel mesh, paint, and some of O’Hara’s words:

“I shall see my daydreams walking by with dogs in/blankets,/put to some use before all those coloured lights come on!/But no more fountains and no more rain,/and the stores stay open terribly late.”

And:

“oh god it’s wonderful/to get out of bed/and drink too much coffee/and smoke too many cigarettes/and love you so much…” These words and pictures and paint and found objects are talking to each other, dancing together on the lid of a box, whispering with all their being to Frank with love and thanks.

 

Vitrine

My mother decided she no longer wanted it; she no longer wanted to “exhibit” special objects behind a glass case but rather wanted them scattered and dispersed and living with my parents among their things. The vitrine is hanging on a wall in my house now. It was emptied of its previous inhabitants and is now the home to a collection carefully curated by my husband, photo(17)daughter, and me. Nothing in the vitrine now is paid for. No, we aren’t kleptomaniacs–the glass case has become a house for objects found and collected during the time we have spent outdoors together, time at the beach and time under the trees, something noticed on the ground, picked up, examined, dusted off, exclaimed over, passed around, and pocketed.

There is barely room to add anything new. Every inch of each of the three glass shelves is covered. Instead of giving each object a polite, sensible amount of space and spotlight, we have tucked in as much as we can. Shells, twigs, stones (where did we find the one that looks like a bar of soap?), coral bits, coral hunks, sand residue, sand dollars, and beach glass live closely in a natural cacophony. Nothing is precious and every single fleck of mineral and sand inside the glass is precious. It is made up of the days of our lives, of trips, of moments, of a moment of noticing something beautiful and strange, of crackling energy collected and contained in a glass box. Brimming with life.

 

Father

I can’t think about my father without thinking about his workbench in the garage. He built his own workbench, sawed the wood and sanded it, nailed it and stained it. It is large enough to provide ample work space, but small enough for him to have anything he needs within immediate reach. It has two drawers. A protractor, a metal ruler, and other drafting tools hang from nails on the wall in front of the workbench, and the canvas bag he sewed as a Boy Scout hangs from a corner of the table, out of the way but always there.

This is the place where he spends hours and this is the place he keeps his most cherished possessions: old tools, drill bits, nuts, bolts, screws, and nails organized by size and type in assorted glass bottles, avocado pits he carved faces into, a stone girl I made for him when I was six or seven at camp with yarn for hair and glued on googly eyes and a perpetual red smile, pencil nubs (short enough to fit in his front pocket), coins, a note from my mother, sketches of future work plans…And more, much more. It isn’t a tidy space but my father knows exactly where everything is, down to the last coin or oil-stained rag. This is his terrain, his dominion. Everything on the table is a bit worn down. Everything has a place and a purpose.

 

Peter

I’ve never given someone an anonymous gift. I’ve been given an anonymous gift, though. A few years ago I opened the mail to find a brown cardboard box from Amazon. I opened the box to find a hardcover book of poetry inside without a note, a gift card, nor a packing slip. Someone went to the trouble of ordering a book for me and making sure there was no identifying information. I questioned all the most likely suspects and came up with nothing. To this day I have no clue who sent the book.

Almost two decades ago, I was sitting on a sand bank at Great Falls in Potomac, Maryland. I was writing in a small notebook, enjoying the sound of white water and the pinch of autumn air. A man carrying a small, sleek one-person kayak entered my peripheral vision. I watched him as he took of his shoes, pulled a wet suit on over his bathing suit, gathered a neat pile of his stuff on the bank for his return, then quickly and unceremoniously put the kayak by the water’s edge, got in, and paddled off. I don’t know what came over me but I wanted to give this person something. I scrawled a few words in my notebook, tore the sheet out, folded it, and tucked it into one of his tennis shoes. I walked quickly away as if I had committed a crime. This memory pleases me and embarrasses me in equal parts.

And this is where we come to Peter. I have read many poets and I have loved many poets. Some poets have made me feel nothing with their work. Some poets have made me wince. The work of some poets has made me want to be their best friend, their student, or their lover. When I encountered Peter Gizzi’s work a few months ago, I was overwhelmed with the need to say thank you. Thank you for this:

Out of the old place and out of time

the present inches into view

into prospective blue

and what the colors apprehend

in the eye, in the head, here

revved and pounding night is

alive to so much thinking. Alive

to cobalt and what is missing

here or never seen there.

An orchestral sort of life:

Then. There. Now. Here.

Music and the head’s harvest sound

and this blend of dissonance this

love of silence and aught

watches you, sees you

negotiate the present intensities

in the world and its apostrophes.

–from “History Is Made at Night” by Peter Gizzi

And so almost two decades after the anonymous shoe note incident, I did it again. I wrote a note to Peter. Thank you for your poems. I wanted to give you something back—it’s a wishbone shaped coral fragment found in Quintana Roo, Mexico. I taped the coral to the inside of the note, sealed the envelope, and sent it to an address I found on the internet at the university where Peter Gizzi teaches. I did not sign the card. I wanted it to be from no one—from everyone. Again, I feel the embarrassment and the pleasure of giving someone something (really, nothing) to say “I’m glad you are alive.” I feel like a very strange person. Does Peter Gizzi have a box he keeps certain improbable things in? What does he put in there? Will he put this rough, white wishbone shaped coral in a box or will he toss it in the trash?

 

Daughter

A small robot made from discarded repurposed toys, an antique camera, a turtle made of shells, a Geisha doll my father gave her as a gift when he returned from one of his Navy trips to Japan, a handmade beaded bracelet, a ceramic chair made in art class, a set of four miniature silver chairs, a tiny porcelain pill case that belonged to my grandmother, a vitreous glass sucking candy made by my mother, a porcelain egg on a gold stand, five small empty jewelry boxes, rocks, shells, “gems.” My daughter doesn’t call this a collection or a box of treasures, but she carefully selects every object placed in the box with love. The vetting process seems arbitrary. The vetting process occurs somewhere deep in her spirit with no known rules and only her mind and memories and senses as a guide. Once in a while, she’ll take each object out, examine it, hold it, and recall the person or place who gave it to her.

 

My Turn

It’s my turn to be in a box. I practice Tibetan death meditation. I imagine myself in a plain wood coffin, imagine my flesh decomposing (say it! rotting), nothing left but my bones bared and bright, my skull and my teeth. I imagine the wood disintegrating into the damp dark earth and whatever is left of my skin and bits mingling with the living cells in the ground. Coffin from the Greek word kophinus, meaning basket. A basket holds; a basket is porous. I force myself to listen to the sound of the hourglass, the sand clock whisper of each available breath leaving me. A finite number of breaths. The first few times I tried to meditate on death, I cried. I felt short of breath and panicky. I resisted it. I called myself names. I felt angry and wanted more space. It becomes easier with practice, but the resistance is still there. I wish to come back into my next life as a peach tree. Clingstone or freestone? I think I’ll add a peach pit to the glass vitrine. I like the woody husk, the ridges and clefts and veins that hide a perfect oval seed within.


Lizi Gilad is a first-generation American, a Pushcart Prize nominee, the mother of an eleven-year-old light bulb, and an MFA candidate at UC Riverside's low residency program. Her work can be found in Amethyst Arsenic, A-Minor, Country Dog Review, Thrush, Weave, and others. More from this author →