English professor publishes poetry about wonder rooms

Allison Funk has explored the notion of what it means to be beyond ordinary, but rather wondrous in her book of poems titled, "Wonder Rooms." Photo by Theresa San Luis.

English professor Allison Funk ruminates on the worlds of wonder rooms through her poetry.

Her fifth book, titled, “Wonder Rooms” was recently released and published by Parlor Press.

According to Funk, she’s very happy to have the book in her hand.

“I wanted to explore the notion of wonder rooms in a lot of different ways and I feel as if I’ve done that in this book,” Funk said.

Wonder Rooms sometimes called “curiosity cabinets” or “chambers of wonders” were precursors to modern natural history museums in the Renaissance era, during the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe. Often very wealthy men or princes would collect things, Funk said.

According to Funk, collectibles displayed in rooms contained stuffed bears, alligators, fish hanging from the ceiling and shelves–all manner of natural objects that you’d find organized in a museum today. Wonder rooms showcased the “curiosities” European explorers collected on their voyages to the New World.

Wonder rooms contained items that were ordinary in their own habitats, “but introduced to one another, / Alligator to polar bear, // Ostrich to starfish, they became a bestiary like none other on earth. / A country found nowhere // on maps,” Funk writes in her title poem.

“In this book I’m exploring various ways of understanding ‘wonder,’” Funk said. “From the weird things that were displayed in Renaissance wonder rooms to the ‘curiosities’ in our own lives—what baffles us.”

So many things come to mind according to Funk such as mysteries and joy; the wondrous; the things we wonder at.

Funk’s curiosity was piqued about the topic roughly seven years ago after she read an article about a special exhibit at Washington University on wonder rooms in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

“I just loved the way ‘wonder rooms’ sounded—I knew almost nothing about what they were at the time.  I did know almost immediately, though, that I wanted to write a book with the title of Wonder Rooms,” Funk said.

Years later, she has unraveled in her mind meanings within such rooms through poetry. Some are rooms that she examined in person, some that she saw pictures or etchings of and some that she dwelled in.

According to Funk, physical rooms can be representative of the “rooms” of people’s interior lives, as well.

“I’m in this room where we’re sitting now, for example, and there’s also a room, actually rooms, in my head. Think of our memories,” Funk said. “We imagine a future of rooms, too. Ones we haven’t yet inhabited.”

Funk said she wanted to highlight as well through her book three formidable women and their “wonder rooms”: Dora Maar, Maria Sibylla Merian, and St. Teresa of Avila.

Through a fellowship to visit France in 2009, Funk stayed in the room of a house that belonged to 20th century photographer and painter Dora Maar, a mistress of Pablo Picasso. As she investigated her, she realized Maar was an amazing female artist, Funk said.

“The things in Maar’s rooms said so much about who she was—the clothing in her closets, the paint and canvases on her tables. What we collect says a lot about who we are,” Funk said.

16th century nun St. Teresa of Avila of Spain, considered a mystic, wrote books about spirituality and moving through rooms to reach Christ, according to Funk.

“In her book, ‘Interior Castle,’ St. Teresa wrote about habitations of the spirit. I wrote about her world view,” Funk said.

She also wrote a poem depicting Merian, a 17th century naturalist from Germany who voyaged to Surinam in South America to study insects in the rainforests.

“Moths and butterflies unknown at the time to Europeans she discovered,” Funk said.

Funk added that in highlighting some extraordinary people– the rooms in their minds—she hopes these poems will be informative.

Contemporary American poet Jennifer Atkinson wrote of Funk’s book: “The poems in ‘Wonder Rooms,’ this powerful, heart-breaking, elegantly composed collection, are like the cabinets within such a room. Each is its own intimate interior space, where a reader is invited in the unknown.”

Funk said she wants people to think about what rooms they have inhabited and to perhaps travel back in their memory.

“Where there are maybe rooms where they had things significant happen to them—rooms filled with wonderful memories, and others about which they might wonder,” Funk said.

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