On Talisman Books
Dime Store Alchemy by Charles Simic
Greetings, my fellow book lovers!
Today, I’m very excited to bring you.
Sal Randolph is an artist and poet who lives in New York. She writes, an exploration of deep attention and new ways of seeing.
In this piece, Sal explores Dime Store Alchemy, her original talisman book.
The commonplace is miraculous if rightly seen, if recognized.
There are certain books I think of as talisman books—books I carry around with me, keeping them close, whether or not I open their pages. It’s as if they contain a secret well of energy whose charge I can tap into at any moment. They are reminders of a certain way of being, and of writing, they are promise and potential and consolation.
Charles Simic’s Dime-Store Alchemy is my original talisman book. For thirty years I’ve carried in countless bags, placed it in countless stacks. During a time when I was separated from my library, I had to buy a second copy. I was glad to have it, but the new edition, while it has all of the contents, doesn’t have the magic of the original with its faded cover. I was relieved when my old copy and I were reunited. Picture me on the subway, reaching into my bag just to touch it.
Dime-Store Alchemy came out in the early ’90s, when I was living in Provincetown, a small town at the end of Cape Cod thick with artists and poets. During those years I worked variously as a papermaker, a weaver, a manuscript typist, and a barely-paid freelance writer. I taught poetry classes at my kitchen table and sent out my own poems to journals and publishers.
Charles Simic was a poet I already loved. He had recently won a Pulitzer for his book of prose poems, The World Doesn’t End. His poems are typically brief and imagistic, simultaneously observed and surreal. He would go on to be Poet Laureate, and was widely mourned when he died this past January.
Dime-Store Alchemy is Simic’s book of art writing; its subject is the artist Joseph Cornell who is best known for his boxes, small dioramas that juxtapose images and objects. They are neither painting nor sculpture, but rather constructions Cornell invented for himself, working in the basement of his mother’s house. Cornell’s boxes are dream-like and magical, evoking memories of childhood and states of absorption. Each one is an intimate cosmos.
If you open the pages of Dime-Store Alchemy, you will indeed find Joseph Cornell and his works, but you will also find poems, speculations, reveries, lists, memories. There are bits of history and of phenomenology. There are conversations between the imageries of poets and of painters. Each time I look in, I come across something surprising. Like Cornell’s boxes, there is a feeling of infinitude within its small confines.
The ideal talisman book is outwardly small and inwardly vast. It should function like an oracle when you open it at random. It should contain a multitude of ideas and images and its language should spark and inspire. It should hold your most secret aspirations in object form.
Simic quotes Joseph Cornell describing the collection of notes and materials that were the wellspring of his work: “a diary journal repository laboratory, picture gallery, museum, sanctuary, observatory, key…the core of a labyrinth, a clearinghouse for dreams and visions…childhood regained.” This could easily serve as a description of Dime-Store Alchemy.
On the cover my old paperback is a reproduction of one of Cornell’s boxes. Within the box is the image, cut from a magazine, of a young girl carrying a basket. She is facing away. A few white birds flutter around her, one landing on her hand. Resting nearby, on the bottom of the box, are a white ball and a long thin stick that reaches up through an empty, white space. Near the top, the stick meets a ring or hoop that circles part of the word “Apollinaris.”
Here’s some of what Simic says about that piece :
APOLLINARIS, Apollo, god of light. Apollinaire the poet, who loved street performers, musicians with cornets and tambourines, tightrope walkers, jugglers.
Here’s the long pole given to us by the god of sleepwalkers. Here’s the hoop of the dead girl and the parrot and the cockatoo that flew out of the pet shop into the snow when we were little.
Emptiness, this divine condition, this school of metaphysics.
Dime-Store Alchemy promised me something, a future I couldn’t quite see. What I imagined or hoped in the ’90s was that someday, somehow, I would write a book that answered that promise. In the years that followed I moved from Provincetown to New York. I put aside poetry and turned to making art. Only recently have all of my disparate selves of language and image and making begun to fuse again.
After thirty years of carrying around the book, the time has come to to answer Dime-Store Alchemy’s mysterious call. Of course this doesn’t mean imitating Simic’s way of writing—instead, it means writing something like my own talisman book, as impossible and hubristic as that task is. Still, I am embarking, with Dime-Store Alchemy close at hand, now transmuted from touchstone into atlas and guide.
The Books That Made Us is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts from a different guest writer each week, consider subscribing today.