CUTBANK REVIEWS: "Wunderkammer" by Cynthia Cruz













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


Wunderkammer by Cynthia Cruz

Reviewed by Kelly Corinda

Cynthia Cruz’s new collection, Wunderkammer, is full of glittering and distorted self-portraits, dream-like landscapes, other worlds, and underworlds. The collection wanders between and beneath our world and nebenwelts (next-worlds or side-worlds) while remaining “quarantined inside a wonderland of endless/Dream” that moves seamlessly through the atmosphere of “gloom and glam” that the poems create.

The title, Wunderkammer, refers to a place where curiosities or rarities are exhibited, and originated from a German word meaning “wonder chamber.” The poems in the collection range from mystical, musical, and Old-World infused to electrical, medical, and American. Cruz’s language is consistently dark and dazzling as she moves between these realms, as well as between concrete locations such as Berlin and Greenpoint, and imagined landscapes full of snow, oceans, bloodhounds, and horses. The haunting, gorgeous language explores memories of trauma through the dialectical relationships of covering and uncovering, burying and unburying, excess and deprivation, this world and the next.

Many of the poems are self-portraits or offer instances of performance such as in “Self Portrait in Fox Furs, with Magic,” “Self Portrait in Emeralds, with Music,” “Autobiography,” and “Final Performance.” The difference between what is shown in the portrait or performance and what lies beneath the surface is iterated again and again through lines such as:

They’ll hook the gloomed world

Back into me, its menageries

And zoos of wounds, its museums

Of memory, and trauma.

from “Self Portrait in Fox Furs, with Magic”

The interior world of zoos, museums, menageries, and oceans, and their associated depths of established memory, turbulent emotion, and raw and repressed trauma are juxtaposed with the beautiful but grim descriptions of makeup and clothing present throughout the collection. Cruz describes outward appearances that are glamorous yet sinister, such as a “sequin/Thread of dead things” and “glam makeup to ward off the invisible.” The poems revel in descriptions of ballet leotards, Fogal stockings, Balenciaga heels, amethyst jewelry, glitter, grease paint and makeup kits that appear in the form of protection, first aid, and ways to divert or confuse an expression of identity. An illustration of the distortion of self-portrait and self-expression is rendered strikingly in “Self Portrait in a Desert Motel Room” where Cruz writes of:

Glint and warp, accumulation

In the warm blink

Of a locked motel room,

This broken music

Box, of history,

In a gown of glittering


Self portrait,

Disguised as human.

In “Out of the Desert Hospital” she writes “A mansion/of German, rooms of strudel and quadruple-/layered raspberry cream cakes./Starve the shame down to androgyny and numbness.” Here the collection again plays with the dichotomy between excess and deprivation, a world where layers of cakes and cream cover a murky territory that hides underneath.

The poems also make reference to attempts at healing through various nurses, hospitals, drugs, and “golden pills.” None of these seem to do the work of healing past traumas, however there are some glints of hope. One instance of this is the desert animals in “Todesarten” who are memory-free and expect no explanations and whose “warm wet tongues” lick the speaker’s palms in a “blue heaven.” The final poem in the collection, “Some Velvet Morning,” also offers a glimpse at the possibility of healing or redemption in the “warm medicinals” the speaker drinks: “Royal/Princess, Everlasting Chiffon/Gown, and Imperial Childhood Tea” as she vanishes into the “brilliant white/Hives of memory.” The poems speak to the value of descending through memory and pain as a way to define and grow from experience. Hospitals and “golden pills” cannot heal as much as clarity and movement can.

The meanings of entire worlds and lives are broken down into exquisite musical lines and repeated mentions of white horses, pulses, snow, sequins, cakes, creams, diamonds, emeralds, and palanquins. Existence and the memories of existence are told in the “embellishing, collecting, then/deconstructing” of lives and objects. Cruz takes our world and all possible worlds and collects, embellishes, and displays them as in a Wunderkammer, to be explored by the living and animated by the “sweet bloody hum of the impossible animal,” until we reach a nebenwelt, an afterlife, or just some velvet morning.


About the author:

Cynthia Cruz was born in Germany and grew up in northern California. She is the author of three books of poetry, Ruin, The Glimmering Room, and Wunderkammer. Her most recent book, Wunderkammer, was published by Four Way Books in the fall of 2014. Cruz’s poems have appeared in The New Yorker, AGNI, The Paris Review, Guernica, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn.

About the reviewer:

Kelly Corinda is a poet from New York. In 2012 she won the Julia Carley and Edna J. Herzberg prizes for poetry. Recent work can be found in The Sugar House Review, Smoking Glue Gun, and Dum Dum Magazine.