American artist Joseph Cornell (1903-1972) has long been a favorite among poets and writers. His work first appeared in art shows and galleries advertised as surrealist, frequently accompanied by and/or incorporating text. In his own lifetime, he directly courted the friendship and patronage of poets such as Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop. In addition, poets ranging in diversity from John Ashbery to Charles Simic have also written about the attraction his work holds for them and/or composed poems in his honor. Cornell also completed a number of various homages to poet Emily Dickinson. In short, there’s poems-a-plenty in existence that interact one way or another with Cornell and his work. By joining in such company, Kristina Marie Darling is taking the risk that her work be held to a similarly high standard. Or rather, in composing a book so directly addressing Cornell’s work, the assumption is that Darling herself is aware she’s aiming high and must be willing to hold her own work to these standards.
Composed entirely of footnotes, The Moon & Other Inventions is a book of poetry where suggestion transforms into demonstration. With page after page of ample blank white space above several footnotes for text and/or images that aren’t there, Darling pulls off an interesting book of blanks and misdirection. Early on, one footnote identifies “A commonly held belief about divine providence. For a more detailed exposition, see Appendix D.” Of course, there is no appendix D, only appendixes A and B—“Illustrations” and “Maps and Diagrams,” respectively. This book exploits cat and mouse tactics. There are footnotes for pages left intentionally blank, which refer us to missing appendixes, while those appendixes that are present contain images, rather than text. It’s more than a bit circular, as the reader spirals in and out of one textual dilemma after another.
For instance, there’s a run of footnotes where we are informed about a certain apparatus: “She placed the apparatus beneath her bedroom window,” and, “She assembled her telescope once the moon began to fade. The apparatus groaning as she fastened its lens in place.” This could perhaps refer to the spyglass of which a photograph appears in appendix A as “Figure 1: An Unspecified Sighting Instrument” (the second, and only other item in appendix A is what looks to be an astronomical chart under the heading of “Figure 2: Her Attempts to Document”), yet “apparatus” is later used in a such a way that it clearly refers to what must be some type of mechanical device: “She opened the cage when the shades were drawn. The apparatus buzzing beneath a plaster ceiling.” And flipping back to the first use of the word (only partially quoted above), this does seem the likelier case: “She placed the apparatus beneath her bedroom window. The little gears turning as the moon ascended a marble staircase.”
Cornell’s numerous uses of lunar imagery and frequent referral to astronomical tools and ideas have clearly inspired Darling’s book title, chapter headings, and appendixes. Darling’s chapters also refer to other familiar tropes from out of Cornell’s oeuvre. For example, chapter three is titled “Horology” (no doubt representing the use of clock faces by Cornell, perhaps symbolizing the suspension of time in art) followed by chapter four, which is titled “Ornithology” (Cornell favored cockatiels and birds and empty bird cages appear frequently in his work). It’s easy to find many more such references amply scattered throughout Darling’s headings and footnotes. The delight of a poet playing with the cultural knick-knacks fancied by Cornell’s imagination has never been on more rampant display. Darling’s Inventions are at once intimate and inviting, full of speculation and sure to inspire the imagination of readers in their own engagement with Cornell’s work. Darling sets up a mischievous textual game full of borrowed signs and symbols and invites readers in. For those familiar with Cornell, there’s much recognition while for those not, this book hopefully provides the spark to ignite their interest. Any visit to Cornell’s universe is well worth the trip.