‘hart island’ by Stacy Szymaszek

  • COLDFRONT RATING: four-half
  • PUBLISHED BY: Nightboat Books
  • REVIEW BY: Ken L. Walker


“the face of candor”

book cover

The oldest maintained cemetery and the oldest unkempt cemetery in the United States are both in Massachusetts. Both—one in Duxbury, the other at Copp’s Hill—offer some particularly stringent visual metaphors for the real origin of America: militaristic violence. There are cannons and other peculiar armaments, minutemen-type ephemera; some headstones date to the latter 1600s. Most white Americans like to tout the splendor of (European) immigration as the true representative of the U.S.’s departed. But one might only find the nature of that belief on Hart Island—the easternmost part of the Bronx and, perhaps even more accurately, site of the rest of America’s hidden guts: a prison camp, a huge psych ward, a tuberculosis sanatorium, and a boy’s reformatory. Leave it to the fields of the dead to show us where to hold the light.

Stacy Szymaszek’s hart island is a personal eulogy, an encyclopedic-esque conversation with the transgressions and transmutations of all the souls Hart Island has attempted to cover and conclude. Disciplined landscapes are what New York is all about (technically, poetry, especially the formal kind, is as well), but Stacy strays from that to construct a complete notebook for the hovering souls floating north of City Island, an internally external offering for the dearly gone. As in:

watch this watch is wound

by the motion of our arm

flipping through the script with

underdeveloped denouement

two women in black walk on

opposite sides of the avenue

The few times I’ve seen Stacy read, in person, I’ve always been compelled to go straight home and write, to not go out for that drink and conversation but to go to that place I wanted the poetry to take me anyway. Moreover, her work makes me think intently about the craft of notebooking, of journaling, of treating the notebooking process innovatively. A friend once told me about this notion of approaching the notebook in an anti-imperial way. How does one do that: keep a notebook that breaks apart stereotyping, that shreds capitalism in its methodology as opposed to its statements and containments? I think Stacy’s work does that. There’s an open tenderness, a just-enough vulnerability not at all confessional, adhering rather to a tradition of poet-as-radical-archaeologist, emotionalized surveyor, reflexive inspector.

hart island also excels at closing that gap of spatial relations between reader and writer. Basically, its poems compassionately immobilize (like a pinching of the wrist). And—because of its nearness to a palimpsestic, gentrifying, renovating, innovating, forgetful New York filled with tons and tons of lacquered-over souls—it underscores the notion that a poet bears the remembrance of the Other. The poems channel Borges, Sebald, the artwork of Aleksandar Duravcevic, even a bit of Nelson’s Bluets—not for the body of the Self and Other, but for New York, the city-as-body. And not via some intrinsically driven Baudelaire bullshit, either, but in a very real, centrifugal fashion.

I read many of these poems on my morning commutes, suspended 200 or so feet in the air on a moving steelworm, and was immediately transported to an amalgamated Village scene: a blur amidst all the solidity of 1st or 2nd avenue; the borders of Tompkins Square; a musty, discarded hat punctured with a needle, covered in curry-scented grease. Where Baudelaire’s drab, overarching city does nothing for us any longer, Szymaszek situates us in her dirtfall tango twirl. She doesn’t want to leave the dizzyingly unpolished island without remembering how chaotic a soul-in-limbo suspended through or over a city can be. She writes:

when felt at every

point on the avenue

bars too full for numbing

the face of candor

attempt to withhold alas

a question edge closer to

the bells the recording

of church bells

Look at the form. Little towers, or, stacked graves. Hart Island, the place, is the largest tax-funded cemetery in the world—more than 850,000 bodies—so each of these notated records, transmuted and lineated, can, in shape, represent all the buryings. Szymaszek’s poetics further intrigue in that she’s doing what every great poet does: training the reader how to read the work while reading the work. Take the two previous excerpts. How easily they could be rewritten and reinterpreted, just like any individual’s viewpoint of NYC:

watch this watch is wound by the motion
of our arm flipping through the script
with underdeveloped denouement
two women in black
walk on opposite sides
of the avenue


attempt to withhold
alas a question
edge closer to the bells
the recording of church bells

That happens constantly throughout this book. One meditates on five lines, then rewrites them in silence and comes out with a different sensual take on poetic reconnaissance. It’s beautiful and softening and set up to create readership autonomy by end-of-line and middle-line breaks.

The truth is, in New York City, anyone can reach an absolute state of aloneness—a grain of ocean sand on a huge pile of snow—but there’s deviation and difference between lonely, lonesome, and alone. And if one is lucky enough to make it home with a wallet in hand and one’s physical person un-assaulted, then it’s nothing but autonomy that gets one there. But pay close attention: one is never on one’s own terms. Autonomy happens on New York’s terms. And perhaps hart island would like to point out that those terms are, at least in part, dictated by the souls of the then and the souls of the now in combinatory choreography, a gorgeous melancholy. And that is not farrow. That’s just easily accessible modernity, cropped to fit the future. And if one listens closely enough, as Szymaszek does, one learns that nostalgia’s for all people. hart island acknowledges the perplexing paradox of all the bodies—dead and alive—as perhaps a single, multiply complicated body.