The Cabinet of Ordinary Affairs: Stephanie Ellis Schlaifer and Cheryl Wassenaar

The Cabinet of Ordinary Affairs: Stephanie Ellis Schlaifer and Cheryl Wassenaar

The art exhibit The Cabinet of Ordinary Affairs was originally inspired by Stephanie Ellis Schlaifer’s new manuscript of poems, which explores the bureaucracy of the mind through interior government officials and cabinets. For the ensuing exhibition, Schlaifer, who is also a visual artist, along with visual artist Cheryl Wassenaar, created an explorable mindspace, anchored by the cubicles of three “interior” officials: The Minister of the Cabinet of Reason, The Minister of the Cabinet of Unconsciousness, and The Minister of the Cabinet of Indulgences. Each cubicle was outfitted with a sound element and created a portrait of the occupying official. The installation also included a waiting room, a mental archive, and several interstitial spaces that explored text from various other officials and poems. In this feature, you’ll find ten still photographs from the exhibit, and a poem by Schlaifer from the manuscript that inspired the project, originally published in DIAGRAM. (I encourage you also to check out a remarkable video of the making of the exhibit by Schlaifer and Wassenaar, which cannot be embedded here due to permissions but is well worth a view!)

—Sumita Chakraborty, Art Editor

“From the Press Secretary of the Interior”
by Stephanie Ellis Schlaifer
Originally published in DIAGRAM 16.4. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

We have confirmed reports
the [                 ] exists.

We have differing reports.

We have varying accounts of
the sighting of the [                 ].

But we can confirm for you today
that [                 ] exists,
that it is—extraordinary;
singular, perhaps,
but not the only one.

For two appeared this morning—
a pair of females—
and their bodies were like
dogs the size of horses
like emus with the heads of dogs
and some have said
like wolves
and some have said
with horns
and some have seen
a double tusk of onyx
which the animal bares
when it becomes
determined, all jaw,
your number in its mouth.


Divine strangeness by intimacy
What is strange has been polluted by          what is ordinary  familiar

Is it muddled? Muddied? Watered down?
What frightens you about something so innocuous?

The innocuousness.

Everyone is becoming their own era. Post- world.


You have asked about the proposed restrictions
on the [                 ] —and I have stated
and I will tell you
—I have said that those proposals came from
outside this administration—
The President will not approve this—
She will not affiliate
or be a party to—
any program that encroaches upon the [                 ]
—that waters down or separates into
solutions and precipitates—           And furthermore—
and furthermore—
In the [                 ] you have shown her—
And you have made it very clear—
I can confirm that she has seen the [                 ]
—and she is willing
She is willing to defend the [                 ]
—she understands the consequence—
She acknowledges and will protect the [                 ]  —I tell you
I tell you—
I tell you she is willing



It hovered over the body.

The rain hovered over
and shouldered its weight.

Before the body,
an arrangement of injurious roses.

The water hovered ponderously
and shielded the body from its own weight.


It is not unusual to have dreams about waves. Your mother, your sister. Not unusual. Not nightmares. Nightmares. Either/or. The bottlenose shark. The sheepshead shark. Heads, high as a bookcase. Sharks that tunnel boxy along canals. Beyond the animal, and what is animal. Whatever bears a planetary tooth. And you must weigh how much you wish to be in the water against the danger of being swallowed whole. Dreams of waves are common. Common, dreams of the sea. Dreams of tides and tidalness. All waves coming at once. The colossal single wave that balances you barely. The small you, atop the wine-dark sea.


Stephanie Ellis Schlaifer is a poet and installation artist in St. Louis. She is the author of the poetry collection Cleavemark (BOAAT Press, 2016) and The Cloud Lasso, a children’s book forthcoming this fall from Penny Candy Books. She has an MFA in poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and her poems and art have appeared in Best New Poets, Bomb Magazine, Georgia Review, Harvard Review, AGNI, The Offing, Denver Quarterly, LIT, Colorado Review, and on PoetryNow, a podcast of the Poetry Foundation. She frequently collaborates with other artists, most recently with Cheryl Wassenaar on the installation The Cabinet of Ordinary Affairs at the Des Lee Gallery. Her work can be viewed at

Cheryl Wassenaar is a visual artist who explores the nature of text in a hybrid practice of painting, sculpture, and design. She works primarily with found commercial signage, repurposing the discarded wood into visual metaphors of communication that borrow from the language of modernist painting, poetry, and digital technology. She also collaborates with other artists and poets for site-specific multi-media installations. Wassenaar earned her BFA from Calvin College, and her MFA from the University of Cincinnati. Her work is exhibited nationally and internationally, and included in prominent corporate collections such as Camden Real Estate Headquarters in Houston, Fidelity Investments in Boston, Steelcase, Inc. in New York and Philadelphia, and Urban Institute of Contemporary Art in Grand Rapids, MI. Wassenaar is currently represented by LongView Gallery in Washington D.C. She serves as Associate Professor of Art in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri.


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