Sunday, May 10, 2009

Amy Leonard: Under Glass

Image taken from a blog post on cabinets of curiosities by Bioephemera. Lots of links on Wikipedia. A book of poems by David Barber called Wonder Cabinet.

AH: Could you explain what a wonder cabinet is? How and where did you learn about it? Did it immediately inspire any of the poems in the collection or the book as a whole? Or had you assembled the book and then the idea of the object worked with what you had created?

DB: Does it sound like something Lewis Carroll dreamed up? It’s a somewhat obscure frame of reference, but that wasn’t always the case. Wunderkammern, or art and curiosity cabinets, as they came to be loosely called, were a popular phenomenon stretching from the late Renaissance to the early Enlightenment era, and scholars now tend to think of them of as forerunners of modern museums. A wonder cabinet was literally a gallery or alcove where aristocrats with a bent for learning housed their personal collections of natural marvels and strange artifacts, oftentimes unheard-of relics and novel objects gleaned from the terra incognita of the New World on the early voyages of exploration and discovery.

The title materialized only after I began assembling the manuscript. I was hoping to play off both its metaphorical connotations and historical associations: a wonder cabinet was a quasi-scientific classification system in the age before Linnaeus came up with the gold standard of binomial nomenclature, but it also served as an idiosyncratic personal archive that reflected a collector’s fascinations and fancies. Wonder back then was considered to be a kind of prerequisite for knowledge and understanding: all the stuff you acquired for your cabinet was supposed to function as a panoply of objects for aesthetic and spiritual contemplation. There’s a terrific little book on the subject that really sold me on the idea: Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, by the former New Yorker writer Lawrence Weschler. It’s a portrait of a fellow out in LA who set up a public gallery called the Museum of Jurassic Technology – in essence, a newfangled wonder cabinet. Along the way, Weschler offers a crash course in the history of wonder cabinets that’s quite captivating. It got me to thinking – wasn’t my collection of poems something like that, an eclectic hodgepodge of affinities that’s rife with objects and images constellating around art and nature? I’ll have to leave it to my readers to decide whether the concept works as bona fide organizing principle or more as an apologia for indulging my incorrigible antiquarian proclivities.

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