The Glam and the Gloom: Cynthia Cruz’s Wunderkammer

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Cynthia Cruz is in the midst of producing an important body of work. Wunderkammer is as much installation art as it is a book of poems, or it is as close as a book of poems might come to a gallery show. Cruz is interested in the ways visual artists present their work—in how the presentation itself becomes the art object. Cruz has specifically mentioned Rosemarie Trockel: A Cosmos as a direct influence on Wunderkammer, and the catalog says Trockel’s show, which mixes fine art with found art, craft and happenstance, is “reminiscent of a Wunderkammer.”

One might better understand how Cruz curates reality and imagination in Wunderkammer by viewing the book, and each poem in it, as a cabinet of curiosities. Cruz’s Wunderkammer recalls Gerhard Richter’s Atlas—those photographs, news clippings, ephemera, drawings, and diagrams that reflect the artist’s life as well as 20th century German history. His method captures all of this in a way no single object or text could, in a contained explosion: the unspeakable horrors of Hitler and the camps beside advertisements for consumer goods, next to the ordinary psychological ordeals captured by family holiday snapshots.

by Cynthia Cruz
Four Way Books, 2014
Softcover, $15.95

Cruz’s influences include other contemporary German artists, such as Hanne Darboven, who mounts panel after panel of handwritten and typed numbers, equations, and penciled curving lines; Reinhard Mucha, who arranges ordinary furniture and detritus to create images that signify the horrors of German history and symbolize the burden of being an artist; John Bock, who produces performative “theatrical collages” out of random materials as he “lectures”; Hans-Peter Feldmann, who collects and recontextualizes found images, toys, obituary photos, and ephemera; Martin Kippenberger, who worked in a variety of styles after “the death of painting” and who staged Kafka’s Amerika as a collection of office furniture; and Dieter Roth, who worked in many media and styles, including rotting food sculptures.

Readers of Cynthia Cruz’s first two books, Ruin (2006) and The Glimmering Room (2012), picked up on the poet’s punk sensibility and compared her work—favorably or unfavorably—to albums by Nine Inch Nails, or Cat Power, or to the oeuvre of Avril Lavigne. I understand that impulse: for me, Cruz’s books evoked Lana Del Rey. Both artists self-consciously craft lyrics out of the flotsam of the Zeitgeist. The similarities to American music— grunge, goth, heavy metal, emo pop—can be traced back to David Bowie’s 70s fascination with all things Berlin, to Iggy Pop, Brian Eno, to Nico, The Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, all ending up in Andy Warhol’s Studio, where everything was decadence and art.

Wunderkammer draws from Cruz’s earlier work to make collages of images, characters, emotions, and memories. In her first two books, Cruz already has her eye on spaces she estranges: California suburbia, Greyhound bus stations, makeshift shelters, weedy lots, and psych wards. In Ruin she compares these spaces and their inhabitants to “wonder rooms”:

Anesthesia of medicine and me,
Beneath its warm bell of milk. My girlhood was
Microscopic: a locked window overlooking the
Sea. An atlas of the disaster: an un-lit hall and
A shift in the waves of the field. Blue bedside
Porcelain. Michelle, my little sister, silent as
A weed. I took all the things I loved and
Smashed them one by one.

Cruz focuses on how the addicted, the anorexic, the suicidal, the depressed, the traumatized, and the fragile attempt to control their worlds:

Grew up on self-improvement: endless
Beauty pageants and daily ballet.

The commonplace cruelties of imperfection.

This is the story of how I burned it all down.

She populates the poems with feral children and teens in a medicated fog of prescribed and illegal drugs:

Light a spoon and watch
The tiny tar muscle shrivel and melt.
Let its armies of death
Come into me.

Her characters swing between a desperation to be loved, or simply to be paid some attention, and a desire to be left alone:

On Hollywood Boulevard the teenage girl
Is begging the old man
To go into the room with her.

Her loneliness is so brutal,
It is beautiful.
It has its own language.
It is female and it goes like this.

In Cruz’s world, girls dress up as tomboys to ward off the erotic attention of adults who stop ignoring them just long enough to molest them:

His hands were moving like twin engines
But his lips unzipped my pants.
He told me, in a voice of cold pennies,
You’re the prettiest boy I’ve ever seen.
In a wasted field of spirit-weed, a few miles
Off the interstate, a lost trucker gentled me
With his slow song of longing.

Cruz places figures in claustrophobic spaces, dressed up in Andy Warhol wigs, torn leotards, blood-stained ball gowns, and ripped stockings. In the kingdom of adolescence, shaken in a weird snow globe, they listen to Blondie, Iggy Pop, and David Bowie’s Heroes on repeat. Some are in drag; others just in a costume, or in disguise, often from themselves:

In the next life in an absinthe slip
Of ribbons, water-silk coat, glass seeds
Like water at the throat, I’ll be adored
By a kneeling army of boys.

In The Glimmering Room, the icy cold, milky blue, Thin White Duke atmospheres of the “beautiful doomed” in Ruin arrive with added layers of sleaze and grime:

            Dirty Cindy, little
Glitter of her father’s

Spit: invisible, androgynous, a fragment of
His, found at the bottom of his dream chest.

Draped in my black cape of smut glue and
Subterranean, they mistake me for

A man in drag in my nasty

In a series of poems in The Glimmering Room, each titled “Strange Gospels,” Cruz’s characters enact their trauma:

Daddy, I am spit
Pasting junk and shit into glittering
Black pink pearls and beads of apathy.

In their form, the poems in Wunderkammer resemble Cruz’s earlier work. They continue to show the influence of German poets such as Nelly Sachs, Günter Eich, Georg Trakl, Paul Celan, Thomas Bernhard, Ingeborg Bachmann, and W. G. Sebald. They are short lyrics, with short lines, containing clutter, glitter, filth, and excess. But these new poems are less concerned with the lyrical conveyance of ideas or experiences. Instead, the poems and the collection itself are images of experiences and ideas. The stuff in Cruz’s poems works like a list of materials from which an art object has been made: fuselage, photographs, lead, inscribed glass, steel vitrine, oil, emulsion, acrylic, shellac, clay:

A Greek crime mars the pastoral.
Charts and maps, an atlas of anesthesia-
Laced nostalgia. A long haired, white
Rabbit, muffled, shot, and stuffed.
An old yellow chiffon gown, the ribbon
Hem, ripped and red wine stained.
Curricula of the mundane.
Symptoms of trauma, like ghost
Spots of water on crystal
That will not be washed off.

The poems become the frame, the Weimar cabaret, wherein memory and trauma are displayed, compressed, and contained, sometimes with commentary—like those “ghost/Spots of water on crystal,” and sometimes without:

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
Now. Lacing up my skating boots, I
Vanish, silvery paste of vapor on the ice.
A row of pretty blonde dummies in the Dutch death
Museum, death dressed in Chanel and Maharaja
Paste jewels, a vibrant green bacteria of sea and decay.

Overwhelming feelings are smashed, rearranged, and mythologized in a cabinet of curiosities, with no obvious hierarchy:

Welcome the the dawn of the haunted.

Kingdom of what, or whether,
Or not, I wanted it.

The machine that measures beauty.
The machine

Is feeding into me.
An IV drip of consumption, whether or not

I want it. Fashion and excess.
Decadence, and its magnificent diamond

Of glut,
Glittering its warm doom and contagion.

Realities, fantasies, memories, experiences, and tragedies get revised in poem after poem, curated into enigmatic miniature worlds, jeweled boxes of whirring words:

Pharmacopoeia blonde in yellow
Fogal stockings, She Uemera
Royal crimson nail polish, and
Glam cream shadow
In pearl matte. Gold taffeta
Disaster blouse. My long dirty
Blonde hair, pulled back
In a jewel-embellished French
Barrette and bits of shredded
Paper ribbons. Sea-weed like
Debris of what’s left.

Cruz flips the formula der Maler als Dichter; in her poems, the poet becomes the painter. She transmutes herself into material and transforms that material into poems:

Sitting cross-legged inside a wide circle of pills,
In my childhood costume of pale pink
Leotard, chalk white stockings
And black Balenciaga three-inch heels.
Face made miraculously matte
With Chanel cream paste make up,
And cat-whiskers painted on my face
In liquid liner from another night
I can’t remember.

We are still in the world of the lost, of addicts and anorexics who attempt to control themselves and their world, who try to whittle down experience to its essence, but this is not “confessional poetry”:

In the dream factory, Angel carries the ward
Boombox on his one good shoulder, shuffling
To his secret beat of nothing. As the East River
And its trash-carrying barges move Risperdon—
Slow past the huge glass windows.
The girls cry at the tables,
Push their food away.
Rheinhard, the German chaplain,
Drops off handfuls of black plastic rosaries,
But nobody can save us.

Cruz’s poems collect and archive, but as Vanessa Place says of Hanne Darboven’s panels, the repetition is an “accumulating, emphasizing, analogizing, allegorizing.” Out of herself, Cruz makes a symbol, a code:

Awoke in cobalt blue
Fogal stockings, and Kiss
Stage makeup, inside a bathysphere
Of wounding music. A mansion
Of German, rooms of strudel, and quadruple-
Layered raspberry cream cakes.
Starve the shame down to androgyny
And numbness. Beige plastic trays
With my name engraved on them.
A rabbit-eared radio in the cabin is transmitting
The parade of the dead. Dazed, I’ve lived inside
This adored orphanage, this sorrowful
Wunderkammer. Always gleaning or wasting in its
Accumulating. Darboven panels and a handbook for
Cataloguing the stars. Glam and gloom, a diamond
Gold necklace wrapped around my waist.
In drag, embellishing, collecting, then
Deconstructing to stop the brutal onslaught.

Reading Wunderkammer is like wandering through an art gallery. After aimlessly meandering, paying more attention to the wine stewards and the people than to the art—only occasionally getting caught up in the look of something—the relationships within the artist’s work suddenly begin to make sense as a style. One then begins to comprehend the genius behind this wreckage, which at first seemed random. Because of this, some individual poems in Wunderkammer seem slight. But once curiosity is piqued, those become as full of wonders as the poems that seem more obviously “poetic.” Among these, one of the finest is “Rattlesnakes,” which begins,

Meet me with Saint Peter at the all night
AA disco. Halfway to Hades, in the Greyhound
Station bathroom, I cut all my hair off,
Smoked another cigarette until my brain
Finally clicked back on.
God is singing in my head again
In the voice of an insane woman.
What she says I cannot say,
Not to anyone.

Another is “Self Portrait in Desert Motel Room,” which combines the grace and brutality of Cruz’s poetic and artistic skills:

After the medicine of television, after
Microwave, after the gauze
Is taken off—

A bewildering
Mishap, my long dirty blonde hair
Pulled back—

No beauty in this
Salt-marred diorama of
Silent desperation.

Slide after slide displays
On the wall of the mind:
Goya’s black painting

Of Saturn devouring
His own children. Dirt, seed,
Teeth, and the silver

Scintilla, and speed
Of cars flashing past
On their Benzedrine highway.

Glint and warp, accumulation
In the warm blink
Of a locked motel room,

This broke music
Box, of history,
In a gown of glittering

Self portrait,
Disguised as human.

My favorite poem in Wunderkammer may be “Hotel Oblivion.” It is a catalog of Cruz’s obsessions with the shimmer of Germanic nihilism, the muddling of reality with fantasy, the love of beauty alongside the grief and glee at its destruction, the decadent display of food and fashion and drugs, and the erotic costume drama of trauma. All of this gets exaggerated to enhance the aesthetics of the horror:

At Hotel Oblivion, the snow
Goes on for days. A small saga,
Its secret voices bloom against the rotting.
The rooms are painted mint green
Frosting. The men are handsome.
They wear wool blonde suits, take opium,
Ride white horses in a flood
Of bloodhounds, vanishing into the crushed
Black spider of the forest. It hurts
To look at us. Afraid, we mask our faces
In glam makeup to ward off the invisible.
Wear ancient Warhol wigs and Red
Falke or Fogal stockings. We are promiscuous
In our thinness, don’t leave the green mansion,
Are trapped inside the snow box, noiselessly
Splendoring. Outside, the bright pines
Weep electric diamonds and stars. At midnight
Supper is served on delicate Dresden
Porcelain: lamb and endless French
Macaroons; Vermouth in small crystal goblets.
When the men return, they let loose
Their horses. Nomadic, they wander
Back defeated to the fortress, broken,
All of this vast collecting, this glamorous
Danger and doom.

A century ago, in the heyday of Modernism, when Williams Carlos Williams stood agog at the Armory Show, American poetry was better traveled and more urbane than it seems to be now. It conversed and battled with international art in an attempt to get the tragedies and the scope of historical change into its jagged lines and taut images. American poets are still learning from visual art, incorporating methods, writing impressionistic, abstract, and narrative ekphrastic poems, and creating pages that resist sense as purposefully as Abstract Expressionism. Yet poets seem to lag behind the painters, sculptors, archivists, collagists, and photographers who remain our avant garde, even if we poets pay them too little regard.

Cynthia Cruz executes a formal innovation on a scale not seen since Pound and Williams attempted to get the 20th century into a poem. She offers an expanded conception of the poem as a Neo-Expressionist art object. The poems in Cynthia Cruz’s Wunderkammer show her to be a cosmopolitan force in the 21st century art of American poetry.

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About Rick Joines

Rick Joines writes and teaches in Denton, TX. His poems and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in Birmingham Poetry Review, The Rumpus, Southern Humanities Review, American Literary Review, Quarterly West, Tusculum Review, Contemporary Poetry Review, Byrn Mawr Classical Review, and in a chapbook, Paradeisos (Anaphora Press).