Sunday, February 12, 2006

A Shaker cupboard

Adam Gopnik's essay on Shaker art in the current New Yorker is a typically insightful and pleasurable piece: e.g.,
In an amazing midcentury case with cupboard and drawers made by the carpenters in the community in Enfield, Connecticut, two doors, above and below, mismatch, while two central drawers are broken up arrhythmically into smaller parts. It is like a cupboard in Morse code, stuttering out one half and two shorts.
He's referring to this (as usual, click for a larger image):

The image in the magazine is even more striking - the cabinet glows like a Stradivarius cello. I started working on a spare-as-possible poem about it:

Shaker Cupboard With Drawers (c. 1825-1850)

Below the fire-maple top
there is a door above

Between the narrow sides
there is a drawer,
then one on the left
and two smaller on the right,
a spiral started
and finished

Above the fire-maple base
there is a door below

When I first started thinking about the poem I had "there is a door above". I had thought there wasn't a base, and was aiming at "Above the ground/there is a door below" as the ending, because "ground" is such a usefully significant word. I had in mind an asymmetric poem; the above draft obviously doesn't succeed. I poked around on the web and asked some friends about better words than "top" and "base" without any luck, so I decided to at least describe the wood. "Fire-maple" comes from my misremembering "tiger maple", a wood used in some reproductions I came across. "Tiger" doesn't work. (As it turns out, the wood is pine and butternut (aka white walnut.)

So I decided I'd need to make major changes in the draft, and continued to look at the image and poke around on the web. One thing I had noted was that the hinges of the doors were on the right, which seemed odd. I discovered why when I came across this by John Kirk:
The keyhole to the lower cupboard door is at present upside down, for the round part is at the bottom when it should be at the top. The bottom board of the upper cupboard is only a loose piece of quarter-inch-thick yellowish plywood. There are stains and signs of wear on the bottoms of all the shelves in the two cupboards and on the bottom of the present top board. The original yellow paint covers the lower forty-nine inches of the left side. There is new yellow paint on the upper part of the left side and on the entire right side. Two broad grooves extend across the entire back.

All the anomalies are resolved when the piece is turned over and the drawers repositioned, as shown in the computer-corrected image

Gopnik again:
Shaker design, while reaching toward an ideal of beauty, unconsciously rejects the human body as a primary source of form. To a degree that we hardly credit, everything in our built environment traditionally echoes our own shape: we have pediments for heads and claw and ball feet, and our objects proceed from trunklike bases to fragile tops.
I take it he didn't know about the inversion, which presents a wonderful demonstration of the above: the cabinet looks more natural with a small head and long legs.

I've as yet no idea how to incorporate the above into the poem I'd like to write - it will have to be something much more complex, I think.

(Images via this page.)



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