“The Cabinet of Simplicity”
Awhile back, Glen Armstrong pointed me in the direction of Weldon Kees and Kenneth Fearing, two essentials that never made it into my literary education. There’s an uncanny familiarity about them, especially reading back to them through the New York School and others. A favorite for me of Fearing’s selected poems is “The Cabinet of Simplicity”, which begins as a kind of manifesto, the kind of manifesto that might actually be acceptable.
It will be known as Doctor Barky’s cabinet, a new magic
Something for which there can be no substitute.
May be used as an ornament or worn like a hat.
Doctor Barky’s patented magic cabinet of strict, strict
If others might hold the whole universe in the palms of their hands, Doc Barky, rather, shoves it all into his drawers, these special drawers as a part of this special cabinet.
What is this cabinet? Could be his “order of things”. But whatever it is it’s more magical than scientific. Yet whimsy gives way to “discords struck from violent streets” and “death” and then, more convincing, to a dark dreamland where “he cut off his head and gave it to / a girl with stone lips”, her body “burned from within.” Later he’s “dining on her lips.” Somehow there appears to be a connection between cannibalizing stone lips by way of a decapitated head and Barky’s need: “a need to arrange the / world so that he can understand it, / And still more, to create a fixed world.” I start off liking Barky from the start with his magic cabinet and supposed naiveté, but by this point I become horrified by what might happen as he imposes this “fixed world” if it extends much beyond this cabinet.
But then each drawer of the cabinet is designated by Barky for this and that, and his order of things seems tame again. “The doctor has finished. / He steps back into the shadows forever.” So Fearing asserts, really as a set up, because candles continue to burn around “the magic box” and “the mechanical heart draws into itself / The veins and arteries of chaos” or perceived chaos in Barky’s universe. Fearing has been amping us up for a final kicker:
Comrade, this is no poem,
Who touches this
Touches Doctor Barky’s patented magic cabinet of
certified, strictly guaranteed simplicity and