Joseph Cornell and Houdini

by Jan Zlotnik Schmidt


(Joseph Cornell watched Houdini perform at Coney Island in 1905 when he was a young boy.)

There are all kinds of boxed-in worlds. 
Boxes that trap memory. 
Boxes that enclose and hold in desire. 

A miniature woman, looking like Frieda Kahlo,
Is suspended in her shallow wooden box. 
Held up by threads, filaments attached
to a firmament in wood. 
Perched in air,  her blue cobalt
flowered skirt fanned out like a miniature
parasol,  she hangs there paralyzed 
in her etherized world. 
Waiting to be set free.  Or maybe not. 
Maybe she’s suspended in a moment of desire. 

In another box of his the firmament is dreamed
black with specks of stars, a petrified cosmos. 
Miniature constellations, like flecks of white dust,
splatters of paint in patterns, held in place.
Orion, Ursa Major, Cassiopeia, the North Star
in a spangling of hope.  And in the front of the box
fluted large emptied wine glasses speak
of once human presence.  A couple perhaps
staring out at the  night sky.  Remembering their youth.
Their desire to break free.  Their unfettered longing.

Did the young boy who watched Houdini    
swathed in black cloth  then shut in a trunk
and finally emerge to gasping crowds
imagine the lure of boxes trunks and closed in spaces?
What they could provide.  
And did Houdini love that feeling of crouching
wreathed in chains, inside a trunk, 
in utter darkness set down in the sea?
Hunched over, did he have the pleasure of
suspended motion, of hearing only his sharp intakes of breath?
Did time stop for an instant as he remembered    
his surge to the surface of the sea
then the quiet return to dark depths?

Did they both crave circumscribed worlds?
That solitude, that silence,
that stillness of memory?



Jan Zlotnik Schmidt’s work has been published in many journals including the The Alaska Quarterly Review, Cream City Review, and  Kansas Quarterly..  Her work also has been nominated for the Pushcart Press Prize.  Two volumes of poetry were published by the Edwin Mellen Press (We Speak in Tongues, 1991; She had this memory, 2000) and another, Foraging for Light recently was published by Finishing Line Press. (2019). Ralph Almeida is a multidisciplinary artist who lives and creates in Brooklyn, NY.