Stacy Szymaszek’s A Year from Today, review by John Rufo

Stacy Szymaszek’s A Year from Today (Nightboat, 2018)

Review by John Rufo

[Summer] I read Stacy Szymaszek’s books on the train, bumped up against backpacks and elbows, hands wrapped around cold metal stanchions to stabilize, though invariably everyone wobbles and pivots as the subway gets dizzy in its speeding up and slowing down from stop to stop. The words on the page bounce with the tracks: are they spaced on the page to mimic these leaps? Opening and closing the book as I get on and off, I am always trying to stand clear of a closing door in the middle of reading Szymaszek’s recent A Year From Today, “stand clear of closing doors 3x / nothing / derailment on my mind.” It’s summer, but I count the number of boots vs. no boots, trying to determine if the no-boots people forgot to check the forecast for sudden July thunderstorms or are simply braving their chances and doing it for fashion. In these poems, seasonally arranged starting in spring and concluding in winter, we often await the F train from Brooklyn to Manhattan and back again. I’m taking the B downtown while writing this on my phone, taking pictures of phrases and sending them to friends, saying “From Stacy’s new book!’ then maybe getting photos of some stranger’s wistful whiskered small dog looking askance over its shoulder bundled into a bag, and an afternoon light picture of St. Nicholas park once I emerge from the underground. A consistent awareness of corporeal time in the poem’s light: “hour and ½ uptown and back down / hour waiting / 2 minutes to look at my ovaries.” Writing is never not with the person writing, as Szymaszek says: “forget half of what I write as I write / in my head walking if I wrote on my hand / I’D FORGET / MY HAND.” In these poems, we never forget the hand nor the time, how it’s told, how it’s archived vs. how we perceive it: “the test result service emails / auto-send at 4am when I tend / to wake in panic or from a dream.” These things are an autobiographical mattering of the psychological, social, spiritual, and corporeal experience of floating in the informational sea: events, medical reports, plans, meeting up, travel. And information meets imagination: Szymaszek envisions a “butch angel” performing gynecological exams: we awake from dreams to our emailed 4am test results and then slumber with the numbers rattling around the room. I feel a kinship of kinetics and movement both in the crowded train space but also in the atmospheric collectivity made by the activity of this stationary-in-motion daily way of being. Stacy Szymaszek knows what it means to be in communion on the commute, the importance of where we’re going to or departing from and the additional attention paid to how we got there.

[Fall] Szymaszek’s three recent books Hart Island, Journal of Ugly Sites, and A Year from Today exist in this quotidian zone of habitual wandering, purposefully presented as poetics speaking in a private language that’s still for you, becoming “more autobiographical,” more revealing as they go: “Why would I write if I thought no one / would read it”? An odd joke goes something like: “What if you opened your daily newspaper and, instead of the dryly written reports, you were given Pascal’s Pensées?” Stacy Szymaszek’s poetries dance where the abstract philosophical and theological fragments intermingle with the day-by-day weather and warfare: where every question about St. Francis meets a delayed subway; where the pile of books in the apartment is always in relation to both their contents and the dog sniffing around their paperback covers (“Diderot’s The Nun / Perec’s La Boutique Obscure / Baldwin’s Another Country…”); where making breakfast in the morning almost always also means reading about terror committed by the United States, in and outside of its invented borders, and hearing a “robin making a ruckus” in the flower box. We “have to learn some ITALIAN…Italian for beginners at 12:45” while, in the same day, facing a string of homophobic stings as “gay news makes me cry.” We have the daily news and the regular neighborhood image: one recurs in A Year From Today of schoolchildren holding onto the same rope while they walk together: “the preschoolers grip the rope and walk / around and around,” “preschool walks lines of 15 kids holding a rope / day in day out,” “15 hands on a rope / singing about bees.” I admire the slow zoom, where singing about bees and state violence are part and parcel of the everyday without succumbing to a pessimistic grind. Violence in Ukraine, Palestine, and Staten Island sit adjacently without losing their particularities, and the page isn’t simply a space for reportage but for processing as well. When you hear news like this, what are you eating? Do you eat for the rest of the day? The emails don’t stop either, the duties of “REPORTS / GALORE.” How did you sleep?

Frank O’Hara finds his way as an influence (with a great piece of advice about finishing Lunch Poems and then leaving it in a public restroom for the next person to find it), but also Pasolini (his unsolved murder, still unsolved), Leopardi (imagining his work on onion skin), Alice Notley (phrases from Mysteries of Small Houses milling about, and the spacing of A Year From Today feels indebted to her crystal ships), Renee Gladman (who appears throwing a frisbee in the grass and presiding in philosophical geographies), Eileen Myles (grabbing coffee in the afternoon, casually poeticizing), and many others. It’s a life brimming with poetry and poets, and yet we don’t feel like this is simply a list of names, but a living-with. “Administrating isn’t processing,” Szymaszek takes care to reminds us. There are many types of archives, and Szymaszek’s A Year From Today is about future and belief: “somebody should get this down otherwise no one will believe it!” This archive work wants the reader to face the incarceration crisis of the United States and specific antiBlack violence sponsored by the government, while insisting that we “all take notes / on the dreams of others” as a form of socialism. Writing in A Year From Today becomes active listening and action, to the “spider spider” forming a web in the bathtub to the preschool children holding the rope outside to the anti-Fascist protestors all on the same page. The problems are forward: “Phobia as energy,” writes Szymaszek. “That moves around.” In order to counter and fight phobic violence, Szymaszek reveals a certain complexity shining in the everyday, bristling lovingly and humorously like a spruce tree with reminders: “drift / wake DRINK WATER FOOL.”

[Winter] I drink water and I try not to be (too much of) a fool. We miss Stacy Szymaszek dearly at the Poetry Project. This review can’t even begin to get entangled in all the work Stacy has done here, from organizing marathon New Year’s Day readings to editorial notes, the grant writing and workshops, reading series and their various introductions: all of this activity and more in service towards intimate and gathering poetics. I might sound nostalgic (one of the first readings I went to in New York City was the Marathon as assembled by Stacy) but all of these events – some enormous and celebratory; others smaller and humming – reverberate through A Year From Today as well: any casual reader will glimpse what the Poetry Project has done and continues to do by way of Stacy. We are lucky to have had Saint Stacy Szymaszek, “in an everyday theology,” in our midst, “haunt[ing] the religion section,” and the Project’s copy of A Year From Today (although it has made its various pilgrimages, courtesy of Laura Henriksen who kindly smuggled it up to CUNY for me one afternoon) proudly sits on top of the office bookcase, a cool orange-covered altar gazing over the desks.

[Spring] There the book will continually re-visit, cyclically, a year from today and many after.

Photo: Sean D. Henry-Smith

John Rufo

John Rufo is the poetry reviews editor for the Poetry Project Newsletter. Work has been published, or is forthcoming, on Poets [dot] org, Ploughshares, The Offing, The Capilano Review, Tagvverk, Entropy, The Journal Petra, NOO, and Dreginald. Links and contact at johnspringrufo.tumblr.com