Quarantined Wonderlands: a Review of Wunderkammer by Cynthia Cruz

Cruz, Cynthia. Wunderkammer. New York: Four Way Books, 2014.

Writer Katy Barrett, in the February 2014 issue of Apollo: the International Magazine for Collectors, describes the resurgence of the wunderkammer, or chamber of wonders, as a feature of museums around the world. She identifies the appeal of the wunderkammer in its unique ability to reposition the viewer as owner and master of the world’s curiosities, placed together in one room, the imperialist implication being that the viewer could imagine herself as having access to the entire world at once. Poet Cynthia Cruz harnesses the metaphor of the wunderkammer in her recent collection of the same title, introducing the reader to her own unhinged arrangement of objects:

Welcome to 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. (8)

In this Wunderkammer, Cruz shocks, delights, and hypnotizes the reader with her own collection of wonders and oddities, smartly juxtaposing themes of ruin and elegance, of delicate treasures, faded memories, and disturbing inferences, and in doing so, conjures up a personal and collective collapse of linear history in which the collection overwhelms its collector.

Despite Cruz’s tendency to launch the reader into the fray of unfamiliar territory and kaleidoscopic imagery, the collection maintains a cosmopolitan and antiquarian tone throughout with its classical references, its european namesakes, its victorianisms, its solariums, sanitariums, and menageries. In the first of the series of poems titled “Nebenwelt,” the speaker is surrounded by a ruined city of treasures:

Watching at the locked glass window, I can see
The satanic mills of industry. And the small white
Horse dragging the carriage of lost memory.
Rapturous, an accordion plays God
Save the Queen and Paris is Burning. (3)

These poems are also peopled with history both popular and literary, with Robert Lowell and Marilyn Monroe, and with more than one appearance of a white rabbit. All of this collaging contributes to the overall aesthetic of the collection of curiosities, but it also creates an electric tension between the need to reduce the world into the chamber and the inability to reconcile its objects of memory.

Elsewhere, speakers descend into the liminal space of the wonder-chamber in a kind of psychonautical experience, much like Alice into an even more psychotic Wonderland, as in the second “Nebenwelt”:

When I was seven death
Crept into me: black shellacked
And lavatorial, it dragged me
Down to its sea of drowned
Animals, their wet fur, elaborate
Blankets clinging to their bodies,
Their eyes, Swarovski… (11)

or in “The Game Is Over”:

This is the second underworld
My nurse whispers,
Dragging me down further. (49)

or, again, in “Snowbound”:

When they drag me back
Into this red world with its rabbit
Glue, its skin and wounds,
Its magnificent viscosity, I’ll be
Solemn, unscarred, as always,
Countess of innumerable darkness. (58)

If the speakers are dragged into this “next world” or “Neberwelt,” then so, too, is the reader, who finds himself standing amidst Cruz’s glorious piles of trash and relics, perhaps even struggling with the question of what to do with them all. Appreciation for this collections hinges on the reader’s ability to widen the lens, to play along with the larger game of the wunderkammer itself, the beautiful junkyard into which we have been invited.

These poems are image-driven and full of surprise; readers who enjoy the fast-paced, acrobatic imagery of Dean Young will find much to love in Cruz’s command of kitchen-sink scenery andspeakers reeling with mad inspiration. Wunderkammer’s voices are possessed by an insane magic, as if they have somehow managed to speak from this other world, but are unable to reconcile their myriad histories and truths with the stasis of the chamber of wonders, its cemented, frozen nature as a collection of things that have already happened—that, for all their screaming, cannot be changed, as in “Self Portrait in Desert Motel Room”:

Glint and warp, accumulation
In the warm blink
Of a locked motel room,
This broke music
Box, of history… (47-48)

Here, as in many places in the collection, the chamber is trauma without transformation, sealed away in its room. The speaker has removed the “gauze,” but finds herself locked in a state of desperation, referring to Goya’s depiction of Saturn cannibalizing his own offspring (47).

Wunderkammer does not avoid the personal or the autobiographical. This collection is full of women’s voices and stories, and as intertwined and fractured as they may seem, Cruz plays curator to girlhood tropes alongside family history—there are mothers, girls in ballet lessons, speakers trying on gowns, and the recurring mention of hospitals, suggesting trauma. The chamber of wonders, by its very nature, includes the personal and overwhelms the personal at the same time. For the speaker to find herself inside the chamber, she must also lose herself utterly among its inventory. In exploring her extended metaphor, Cruz lands her finger on the intersection of women’s history, consumerism, mental illness, and arguably even the construction of patriarchy itself as a sort of grand imperialist curator.

Readers who come to Wunderkammer seeking a progression toward something more grounded or centrally focused will go home hungry. Even in its final moments, this collection refuses to reduce itself for the comfort of the reader:

This is not meant to be a koan
Or a fable.

I am telling you everything.

One day they’ll remove
The memory out of me. (57)

If the speakers of Wunderkammer have their moments of repetitiveness, it is symptomatic of the metaphorical wunderkammer itself, its chaotic state of arrest. Fractured and overwhelming as it may be, this world is capable of nothing new, able only to repeat itself ad nauseum, to regurgitate its junkyard treasures, as in the collection’s final poem:

                         ...After the ten year
Junket at the School of Ophelia,
I tried, but finally, could not.
Every time I open my mouth
To speak, just these terrible
Blue diamonds fall out. (61)

—Robert Campbell