September 2015

Patrick James Dunagan


Hart Island by Stacy Szymaszek

Stacy Szymaszek came to New York City several years ago to serve as the latest in a dizzying line of terrific poets overseeing the Poetry Project at St Mark's Church. It's a demanding job with countless social pressures and logistical nightmares, which are no doubt endlessly taxing upon the consciousness, especially when one is a poet. It's the kind of job position where writing poetry (if you continue writing poetry) becomes, albeit rather oxymoronically, a necessary solace from the world of poetry writing. With hart island, Szymaszek delivers a poem tracking her days going about the city, from 2008-09 and 2009-10, to and from work at the Project, attending the recording of voices "heard and overheard" both in the air and upon the page, conducting her poet's business.

Utilizing voices of the city as her sounding board, Szymaszek joins a lasting company. Many poets have employed the sights and sounds of New York as background grist-mill for generating work, the city generally playing a fructuous role, as both inspiring muse and torturous interrogator. Ted Berrigan nailed many a poet's quintessential 20th century experience when referring to New York in his poem "Whitman in Black" as "[Walt] Whitman's city lived in [Herman] Melville's senses, urban inferno / where love can stay only a minute." Poet after poet finds it impossible not to feel tested while nonetheless invigorated navigating the tumultuous squall of the urban monstrosity.

Szymaszek joins Berrigan and innumerable poetic forbearers, alongside many of her contemporaries, writing her way through the vagaries of city life, an "inferno" of ongoing transactions, both social and other, where "love" is a fleeting promise quickly swept under by the demands of navigating a course of survival:

siphoning energy from where
poems are made a cave of unscented
nostalgia combusts pick the hole
in the wall where you'll never see
anyone you know those misanthropes
you promised love

In a short note at the front of the book Szymaszek explains that the title of her poem comes from "an island in New York City at the western end of Long Island Sound." These waters are just northeast of Manhattan, directly east of the Bronx and north of Queens, thus a locale within immediate vicinity of the city's heart, yet access to which may be easily controlled. In the past "the island has been used as a tuberculosis sanatorium, boys' reformatory, and an asylum" while "it is currently the location of a 101-acre potter's field, which is the largest tax-funded cemetery in the world. More than 850,000 bodies are buried there." Yet those who "may have a loved one buried there cannot freely (if at all) visit them" as "public access is severely limited" by the Department of Corrections whose Rikers Island inmates "are tasked with conducting the burials." It is this island, home to thousands of unaccounted lives, cut off from the bustling metropolis surrounding it, Szymaszek would have serve as the "shadowy unconscious" of her poem:

how a body becomes unwanted
yet everywhere touched
buried in married memories
index starting with ear how an ear
becomes unwanted and wears
that indignation whereas a hand
hides its information how a hand
becomes unwanted and works a hoe
with steady pulse it is unwanted
the cargo of bodies cross
                            Long Island Sound

Szymaszek borrows her "sense of history" from Charles Olson, who defined it as "the function of any one of us," grounding it as an activity composed by the body of the individual observing, interacting with, and, in the case of the poet, recording events as they occur. This is the story of experience. 

sugar skulls promiscuously melt
in living mouth typed list
threw it out stand upon
a Dutchman under blue tarp
if I hug you any closer I'll be
behind you funnier today than
when I crushed your tamales
the horror of being conjoined
and losing your weight in sister

The poet's life feeds material for the poem. Szymaszek holds the poem to exploration of what's encountered throughout day-to-day moments of passing and going, often at the fringes of speech, accompanying actions, and thoughts.

the other is another
literal body o limit
and radiance we breath
the heated mousy dust
in the church
love nest

The poem both asks, "how long before our bodies / can merge with air," and reveals, "skull cup is hidden / in the composition," with equal measure. It dowses readers in sultriness "when conversation / fails there is the mouth so hot / it's borscht on the rocks" while never diverting into a confessional tone. This is a poem for anybody and everybody, but most of all it is a dalliance with language:

true feelings of commune blinking
lights at Sing Sing the princess
of darkness has a rub out style

Finally, it is a statement of life's endurance:

errrrr good omen puppy runs
from tattoo shop into avenue and
does not die its humans form
a running mob around its hand
automatic over mouth onlookers
hands over mouth not to die

Szymaszek tackles being a poet in the city and stakes out her territory. Her poem bustles with its own marked fervor, alive to the ever-present kaleidoscopic barrage of voices abounding in city life.

hart island by Stacy Szymaszek
Nightboat Books
ISBN: 978-1937658342
96 pages