JAIME TOWNSEND Reviews
HART ISLAND by Stacy Szymaszek
(Albion Books, Philadelphia, 2009)
DISINTERNMENT: upon Stacy Szymaszek’s HART ISLAND
Great things have happened / On earth and given it history(George Oppen - “A Language of New York”)
I have to begin this as a lesson in space. In between lines how everything happens, how the dirt beneath us moves and suddenly we are ‘there’, faced with another that is the same, the future. Ghosts are more conditional, experiential; they are marked and marked over with something solid of our choosing. Within the possibilities of an endless cemetery, the breakdown of a unilateral dialogue begins; traces placed in the midst of a wordless space, only to be revived, called up as witness. And to imagine a ‘here’, the contemporaniety of each body that has ever existed; of stories, shared vestiges linking to form a core channel of breath. This site, where overheard lines become the picked-up construction site of a complete and resonating locale, a poetry—reading on the heap of a particulate history.
Like the absence in the pulse of the city, a silence that follows each beat:
Island of one
policy named for
its organ shape defunct
missile silo lunatic
shoe compost TB
limb box Academy
Award winner un-
identified East Village
soft body area
by 25 years
‡ Stacy Szymaszek’s long poem Hart Island is a work of presence & material bound in real time, an “encountering” in the same way that George Oppen applied the term, describing the intimate relationship between mind of the poet and the flesh of the poem: “the image is encountered, not found; it is an account of the poet’s perception, the act of perception; it is a test of sincerity, a test of conviction, the rare poetic quality of truthfulness” (“The Mind’s Own Place”). Our perception of time is real only insofar as we are interpenetrated by it, that it aggregates a multivalent us, drawing the relational together into a model that, by its nature, resists the strictly linear or straightforward. As each line opens itself up to hinge on the “real”, immediate moment, (which is never static but rather all-encompassing) a quiet, yet forceful pulse responds. Echoing sense, not declaring it. This is where enjambment and caesura can illustrate “one” to be “one million” – an island of humanity that is concurrent, full, yet metered by isolation.
‡ A meter couched in physicality; the poem’s consistently variable prosodic feet suggest walking – all the slight alterations of tension in the line’s musculature, insistent movement, the open-endedness of mobility (especially of a plotted mobility) that continues to unfold layers of experience. It’s a type of site-specific poetry that gets carried around by the poet, an aura or heat map radiating out from a seemingly singular point of reference which grows to encompass all of the daily activities that find a common resonance within it. Further, there are the latent potentialities that this form carries by its very nature – constant discovery, a simultaneous recognition of location and disruption (movement’s force), a fullness in the potentialities of place: “one foot in the other world / the other foot in the other world” (Ted Greenwald – “ONE FOOT”). I am thinking about George Albon’s book-length poem Step in connection to the duals paths traced throughout Hart Island; how both works display the ways in which a singular, natural, and unforced rhythm of thought will invariably take you to unexpected places – how sparseness on the page is not a constriction but, instead, an allowance for expansive conceptual movements that progress along a forking line; literally how much can happen between points of reference: “print as enlarged / location, geographies / of the whorl” (Step 51).
a woman applied
for a disinterment Hart
Island chaperone leads
her to “he calleth his
own by name”
manifest with a
number she chews
the mouth has to
go dry a rose
a day a congenital
‡ The day, and the rose, both placed on a grave, each holding the space of immediacy, each yielding to an overwhelming tension between the transitory (a clipped rose’s rapid necrosis) and the eternal (in his Paradiso Dante envisioned the form of the godhead to be a golden rose, that which is constantly unfolding). The unfolding of the day, as a cut rose incrementally shedding its petals and leaves, or drying between the pages of a book, elucidates this balance between the non-contemporaneous now which eternally calls us to become and very real condition of physical existence within the inescapable condition of physical mortality. In Stacy’s work what is put down, in the sense of forming a marker on the page or in the public record, creates a dialogue with the body that is forgotten, buried in an unmarked plot – “no exhumation record / of the bodies beneath / the Waldorf-Astoria”. Someone’s song, something that has not completely passed beyond, can be experienced again through this very political act of attentiveness. Exploring these forgotten landscapes, both exterior and interior, Hart Island is very much a poem of New York, of Manhattan specifically, but also of its shadowy, inverted mirror, anchored just offshore. A bustling land of the living must have its consequential filmic negative, its reciprocal. Here, an appropriated, politically walled-off potter’s field / cemetery / prison / abandoned missile battery haunts Stacy’s mellifluous descriptions of the day-to-day on the Lower East Side.
‡ The questions of quantity and potency break in again and again—deceased bodies numbered in their plots, relegated to a sense of organizational value, just as living bodies are numbered for use:
on the avenues
film crew warms
in a row of trucks
lives off artists
arrive with numbers
Frozen in time, or through a sense of relegated capital (or even more immediately in the physical conditions of a cold winter day in NYC), the dead and the living share the same conceptual value in the machinery of the immanent, neoliberal regime. The leveling perspective presented in Stacy’s work, that time and/or physical conditions (even of those between life and death) create no real dialectical opposition, addresses how these systems work to number, and thus regulate, the body within the labyrinth of exploitive historical record. Who really is that upper limit that holds the power to name, to construct importance in terms of the individual (who is always a reflection of and proxy to the multitude)? Reimagining the conditions that cause this troubling separation, Stacy expresses an uncanny, astonished joy in the bare recognition that there can be more than one, that the self is a braid of the relational, the all-unified: “the other is another / literal body o limit / and radiance”.
‡ A no go zone. We fly out above to the bordered, abandoned expanse. A dot in the Long Island Sound, a cut in the widening Atlantic, growing more severe in the approach. Filled in with classification, the body remains a secret something, buried, hidden. We create stories for it, shear them, sterilize the site, hide the remains. Personal myth piles up around discarded missiles, mouldering, still deadly. The “we” forever a convenient dumping ground. An imprisoning – to constrict the expanse of a single life deep within a list of names. Or to forget outright. A silo, streamlined for an exacting, brutal delivery.
a million exhausted bodies touch
totally compos mentis ex-missile flue
empath of cold terror air
conducts brainwaves where the wardens
‡ Something larger than life reveals itself within Hart Island – a rare, stunning conglomeration of self-assurance and abjection, singular perspective and solidarity, forthcoming in each line. Stanza by stanza, section by section, Hart Island sings it’s immediacy in a tone that is acutely present to (and within) all times, all at once. Its music plots a course both horizontal and vertical where time meets vibratory tone, proportioning a field, street-map, and skyline, but never defers its restless activity entirely to tonality, or gesture. Within, there is the sense that something is always occurring —great leaps in each seemingly captured moment—this dirt that has never stopped spinning the same events, descriptors, scenes, and people past our eyes. Where a small patch of land holds not just the remnants of close to a million that are gone, but the millions still remaining, and their echoes; the vibrant heart of the city beating even in its daily margins of forgetfulness.
*source-text for quotes: From Hart Island (Albion Books, 2009)
Jamie Townsend is the managing editor for Aufgabe, as well as the co-founder of con/crescent, a periodic hub of creative mumbo-jumbo. He is author of the chapbooks STRAP/HALO (Portable Press @ Yo-Yo Labs; 2011), Matryoshka (LRL Textile Editions; 2011), and THE DOME (Ixnay Press; 2011). He was selected to be a 2012 Millay Colony fellow.