Hart Island by Stacy Szymaszek
Nightboat Books, 2015; 77 pp
Reviewed by Davy Knittle
In her introduction to the long poem Hart Island (Nightboat, 2015), Stacy Szymaszek locates the island itself as the “shadowy unconscious” both of the poem and of New York. Hart Island occupies 101 acres in Long Island Sound east of the Bronx and houses New York’s municipal cemetery. Nearly one million people have been buried there since 1869.
Until recently, and at Hart Island’s time of publication, visitors, including the families of those buried there were permitted only as far as a gazebo near the ferry dock, and not in sight of their loved one’s graves.
The Department of Corrections manages the island, and oversees the work of the Rikers Island inmates who bury the bodies. As the result of a lawsuit, family members have had access to the graves of their loved ones since mid-July of this year.
Szymaszek’s poem doesn’t visit the island, but thinks of it, where other thoughts of loss – of friends and days and the old ways streets have been – recall the dead who are buried there. If Szymaszek’s book is a kind of Hart Island, then it too is a burial site, where lived moments are fragmentary and fast and both lost and located in their burial in the poem.
The poem locates her life, day to day, from 2008 to 2010, split into two sections, each one breaking across the calendar like a school year. More likely, they delineate the program years at the Poetry Project, which Szymaszek directs, and which is housed in St. Mark’s Church at 2nd Avenue between 10th and 11th Streets in the East Village. On the grounds of St. Mark’s Church are memorials to several poets, Allen Ginsburg and Frank O’Hara among them.
The poem, too, memorializes poets who have died. One major resonance is Hart Crane, who is carried in the book’s title and in its multiple attentions to New York, coupled with Szymaszek’s earlier turn toward him, namely in her 2008 chapbook “Orizaba: A Voyage with Hart Crane.” I think of the book’s title, also, as “Hart’s Island,” where Szymaszek’s New York exists against the presence of Crane’s. Szymaszek’s is a city where lost lives and incidental details compose moments together, where who is doing what becomes impossible to track, as it does when you look at an active city street:
trip to notary .99 cent soap and tooth-
paste more expensive pills for exertion
headaches trip on new bike lane
paint cyclists still wowing
lingering over vowels in tandem
with English flutist downside
of beards they get funky
in this heat (56-57)
Szymaszek’s lines trip over themselves. They make logical leaps, echo each other, speed up and slow down like a body in city space. Szymaszek takes a trip to the notary, encounters .99 cent items, maybe in a store, and then goes to get another thing, in a place where it’s more expensive. Maybe it’s part of the same trip, expense getting us from one place to another. “Trip” is also how Szymaszek is moving, tripping over the paint (as caused by headaches?) or maybe it’s the cyclists that trip because they’re wowing. “Wowing” and “vowels” slow the movement to lingering, part of tripping’s work.
The cyclists in tandem might be on tandem bicycles, might just “wow” together, the “o”s like wheels. They’re “with” the flutist, so in the same space, where proximity is a kind of togetherness, where Szymaszek’s thinking works with the movement of the city to constitute it, where sense of place is a palimpsest of days and the small interactions they occasion:
coffee and kasha
coffee light and kasha
with gravy or borscht
hot or cold smiles
at me everyone
who works here
on the avenue (8)
Hart Island is Szymaszek moving through space with one ear to the unseen, whether lost or immaterial. Many of the book’s spaces fit on a map. They’re real rooms and blocks, fixed in time. Here, Szymaszek could easily be in the B&H Dairy, a kosher vegetarian restaurant on 2nd Ave just below St. Marks Place that was closed for months this year after a gas explosion destroyed several buildings and killed two people in its block.
None of that had happened yet, in the poem, which is part of a moment that feels like now but isn’t. This is true, also, of the phrases Szymaszek heard or overheard at the Poetry Project and included in the poem, which is followed by a list of quotations, where the phrases are indexed by speaker and date.
Attending a reading at the Poetry Project feels to me like being part of a living, public document, particularly now that the audio of many of its readings are archived online. Being there reminds me that the production, readership and exchange of poetry is a community process, and that one history of American poetry is a history of poets together in public and semi-public and private rooms, a history that Hart Island both produces and records.
Hart Island is a reliquary for lost people and things, and the efforts to memorialize the quotidian as one day takes the place of the next, for example with a: “ghost bike for fallen / unknown riders” (26). People who are known are mourned alongside those who are not. Szymaszek notes: “wish friends would re- / populate as quickly as the fields” (42), which comes along with “crocodile tears for the unnamed / dead” (51).
Hart Island itself lurks around the poem as a site of inevitable and unexplored loss, a site that can’t be seen, or couldn’t when the book was written, but which bears down on everyday movement.
The city, as Szymaszek writes it, feels like an extension of attending a reading, where the private space of thinking overlaps with that of the Project (as both public gathering space and private workspace, for Szymaszek) and that of the city. As we read, we return to the Project just as Szymaszek does. It’s the center of the poem, where the dead and thoughts of them, and the city itself, all exist at distances from it.
It follows, then, that it’s where the poem closes. Szymaszek’s homage to what’s visible and invisible in New York makes the people in the St. Mark’s courtyard seen, in a final tableau, the city, the night, persisting where the poem does not: “one night the gates were left / open and the people who were / sleeping continued to sleep” (69).