Curiosity and rarity

A review of Cynthia Cruz's 'Wunderkammer'

Photo of Cynthia Cruz (right) by Steven Page.



Cynthia Cruz

Four Way Books 2014, 72 pages, $15.95 ISBN 978-1-935536-47-5

The brain, a kaleidoscopic disco[1]

In her latest collection of poetry, Wunderkammer, Cynthia Cruz sets the stage for her readers with the first poem, Nebenwelt. In German, this term translates literally to “world next to/beside.” Paul Celan is given credit for coining the adjective nebenweltlich in his writing, using it to describe “a level of experience beside that posited as ‘real,’ namely a world of metaphorical transformation, specifically that of poetic language.”[2] The title Nebenwelt appears five times throughout this collection, as if to remind us that these poems enact an otherworldly landscape and a kind of diving into the unknown. Through the multivalent forces of Cruz’s language and metaphor, these poems transcend reality.

Curricula of the mundane

The collection’s title is a German word that literally translates to “wonder chamber,” typically known as a cabinet of wonder or cabinet of curiosities — the word cabinet in this case derives from its sixteenth-century origins, meaning “a secret storehouse” or “treasure chamber,” and from the Middle French cabinet or “small room.”[3] Created as microcosms of the world and as memory theaters, cabinets of wonder became popular in Renaissance Europe; they were crammed with boundless collections of objects and relics relating to natural history, religion, mysticism, art, and antiquities.

Just as these little museums archived everyday life, the bizarre, and the exotic within their walls, Cruz has created a treasure chamber/memory theater between the covers of her book, curating clutter and excess — the stuff of the world/otherworld — into a sort of organized chaos, as in this excerpt from “Junk Garden”:

Sweet narcosis of blonde
Beers and the recurring image
Of your face.
Annihilating daylight.

Sickly hopeful
In my new black skirt.

Once, when I was a child, I called out your name.

Meanwhile, the exterminating had begun. (21)

It is German here, in its warp

I’m attracted to Cruz’s work, partly because of its illusory realms that both draw and disturb my attention. I want to place myself in the center/the very deep of its visual and sonic textures. This book is, in essence, made up of collages: layered image/language that readers will interpret/reinterpret in their own way, making their own connections between the disparate objects collected and arranged in this treasure chamber. The poems are never the same; every time I read them, I notice some new detail — an accumulation of details. They bring to mind the photomontages of Hannah Höch, for example, in the way they defamiliarize the familiar.

I experience a natural kinship, reading these poems: I, too, am an American woman with a German mother (and father); I often look to contemporary German artists for inspiration in my own creative work. Whether in the poetry’s language or mood — Schlag or gloom — I feel there is a similar German warp running through my fabric, too.

The din, I am trying to tunnel through

Wunderkammer resonates and glimmers with bedazzled imagery of emeralds, diamonds, and pearls, din layered between fur and velvet. As in these lines from “Mnemosyne Atlas,” words reflect like windows/shards of light in a kind of shifting architecture, from infinite focal points:

What gorgeous and out of nowhere.
And glittering. A silver waste, a warm

Unknown paste of pearl
And jewels. Some small foods.

It’s true. I lose
My mind, but I get
This, instead. (14) 

Navigating the nonlinear space/the glitter and afterglow of these poems, I fluctuate between knowing and not knowing who or where “I” is, as if I’m sleepwalking or tunneling through this limbo between reality and dreamworld. It feels familiar, like standing in front of an abstract painting: viewing it from outside the picture plane or inhabiting it with my entire body, and both at the same time. 

Paste jewels, a vibrant green bacteria

I appreciate Cruz’s use of color throughout this collection. The prosaic beauty of her palette is striking. “An all-night pharmacy of bright pink / Pills” (33) to “a bloom / Of bright red / Blood” (34), and she limns lines that fluctuate between dark and light: “bruise-like blue of the Gloomarium” (20) and “chalk white stockings” (13).

Overall, the work leans toward greens — or perhaps this pervasiveness is just my own impression of the images/afterimages: “vibrant green bacteria of sea and decay” green lawns, “primordial forest[s]” (45), green Eden, “windows of glass emerald” (14), rooms “painted mint green / Frosting” (26), and “a green ocean of terror” (45). In the science of color/chromatics, green is sometimes considered a positive and restorative color, a symbol of rebirth/renewal. It is believed to relieve depression. In a negative light, the institutional nature of green is associated with illness, and green is often linked with materialism and possessiveness (as in “green with envy”). This sort of contrast/contradiction is a device used throughout these poems: Wunderkammer houses both the excess of bling/beauty as well as debris/decay.

I swear the earth is still humming

Cruz’s poems are immersed in consumption and accumulation, archiving the excesses of material things — of fashion, trauma, dreams, memory, history — the things of the world, humming in a collage/a self portrait/a body of work. In the poem “Zwischenwelt,” Cruz writes:

My worlds
are lapping, one flooding over
the other. I am the zoom, the snowball white
Of lithium. Empress of waste and excess. Towers
Of bottles of Triple Sec and Zoo. Chaos,
Herzogian, I am inside my childhood, a no
Man’s land of the mind. (27)

In an interview with Adrianna Robertson for Lumina Journal, Cruz says, “the subject matter of [all of] my books is about failure. I think that failure is reaching beyond what you are capable of. It’s about trying to do something that you feel you can’t do.”[4] Just as Renaissance cabinets of curiosity were more than simple warehouses for artifacts, Wunderkammer exists as more than a collection of poems — this book is a rarity, an art object, an installation piece drawn from the mind of Cynthia Cruz, who renders her haunting other-world through its labyrinths and beyond, fearlessly.


1. Section headings are lines borrowed from the following pages of Cynthia Cruz, Wunderkammer (New York: Four Way Books, 2014), respectively: 3, 7, 22, 36, 3, 8.

2. Anthony Stephens, “The Concept of Nebenwelt in Paul Celan’s Poetry,” Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies 9, no. 3 (1973): 229–52.

3. Online Etymology Dictionary, s.v. “cabinet,” accessed August 28, 2015.

4. Gillian Ramos, “Blog Exclusive: A Conversation with Cynthia Cruz,” LUMINA, January 28, 2014.