“Poem for Joseph Cornell’s ‘Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall'” by Bob Rich
I am standing near the sea, on wet sand, in the dark of the gloomy night, and the ocean waters in front of me begin to rise into an accumulating wave of great and watery sadness. Within moments, the wave heaves upward and expands into an immense liquid wall which threatens to soon loom over me with its approaching shadow. I wonder, “How can anyone escape such sorrow?”
But then, in my mind’s eye, I find the memory of a work of art: an upright, rectangular, three-dimensional box, which contains carefully arranged photographs that, at first, I can see only in shadow. And a white wild horse appears before me in the darkness of the wet sand, in front of the giant wave. I walk closer to the horse, with its blazing white eyes, and then the stately horse kneels down so that I can climb onto its back, where its mane flutters in the cold wind like rippling white silk. I stare more intently at the dimly-lit box in my memory. And now the white horse lifts her head and calmly directs herself toward the vast wave that lies before us. I recall that the 3-D box in my memory was designed to be like a coin-operated arcade machine; so, I place a penny into the box’s side. The box becomes lit from within, by a row of seven lights along the top of the artwork, with five more lights just beneath the seven lights. And the white mare begins to walk toward the towering trembling wall of water, while I sit atop the mare’s back, holding her mane as she proceeds forward. At once, the bottom of the artwork in the box is brightened and a ball is set into motion along a groove, rolling from left to right. Then, two rows of photographs inside the box are lit: a row of five pictures toward the top, and a row of three pictures immersed in deep blue along the bottom. Yet, all these pictures, the five and the three, are veiled in mystery: the top five photographs portray distant buildings and secretive moments, while the bottom three photographs reveal only glimpses of a woman with a warm aura. Then, the white horse quickens her pace to a steady trot as we grow closer to the ocean wave which continues to build in size, and I start to hear a rumble from within the giant wave. And, two columns of photographs get lit within the box: a column of five small pictures along the left and a column of six small pictures along the right. As I lean in toward the box to get a closer look, I see that the woman portrayed in these small pictures is self-assured, glowing with feminine strength. I notice that a few of these small photographs on the left and right show her as a smiling young girl, radiant in light as if she is destined for greatness. Now, the white horse focuses, leaning in toward the icy wind and striking out in a strong canter toward the center of the enormous wave that still grows in its percolating height. And the wave’s rumbling has grown so much more intense all around me! In the center of the box in my memory, a large prominent picture now shines brightly into view, striking my soul like a hot breath of life as the woman’s identity is clearly revealed. And I remember Lauren Bacall’s elegance; her grace that could melt Humphrey Bogart’s burnt and battered heart with a whisper; her poise and her gorgeous eyes; and, beneath me, I feel the white horse intensifying her pace into a strong gallop toward the oncoming wave. The wave is now so close that it thunders in a deafening roar, full of hissing steam. I close my eyes, wondering how so much sadness could possibly be overcome? But then, as I keep reflecting on the shining box in my memory, I see the calm serenity of white stars that speckle the blackness of the night sky. I remember Joseph Cornell’s fondness for constellations, and from seven stars in the night sky, in one electrifying instant, seven white branches of lightning flash out — connecting many stars into a lovely pattern — until the many lightning bolts have formed the luminous profile of Lauren Bacall on the dark canvass of the night sky. It’s the same portrait as the central photograph in the assemblage box in my memory, but made from blazing bolts of white.
As I consider how Lauren Bacall etched her place in cinema history, her portrait of lightning, there in the night sky, grows in increasing brightness until all I see is blinding white — and I realize that the white horse beneath me has begun to leap, with loud neighing and floating grace, straight into the crumbling wave of water in front of us; but. all I feel once we enter the wave is a gentle mist, like the soft effervescence rising from a glass of champagne, and, instead of the sound of crashing water, I hear the quiet clatter of a movie projector. As the blinding white light softens, I see that it is coming from the aperture of a movie projector’s lens, which is displaying a feature film onto a large silver screen in a darkened movie theater where I am now sitting. “Thank God,” I happily declare with a sigh of relief, from my seat in the front row of the theater. “But, what will I do if someday I encounter such a terrible sadness again?” Then, I hear a soft stirring from the silver screen above me, and Ms. Bacall looks down at me from the projected movie, as she says: “You know how to whistle, don’t you? You just put your lips together and blow.”
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About the Art: [Joseph Cornell is celebrated as one of the most innovative artists of assemblage, a creative medium in which three-dimensional compositions are made by putting together found objects. Cornell’s creation, “Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall,” pictured below, was completed shortly after World War II, in 1946, with the dimensions: 20 1/2 x 16 x 3 1/2 inches.]