paperback, 80 pages, 5 x 7.75 in
Publication Date: 2015
A long poem about contemporary New York ponders self and society in poetry, politics, and the polis.
In hart island, the poet narrator walks and works in the East Village of Manhattan navigating the day to day needs and desires of a community, an organization, a changing neighborhood, as well as her own. The poem, which begins after she discovers the existence of an appropriated, politically walled-off potter’s field/prison, proposes that others are not figurative or metaphorical, but are literal, material—that alterity can be both a limit and radiance.
"Stacy’s hart island is so beautiful like the first time I saw 2nd Avenue w cobblestones. This poem’s no story, but all memory & event splash:
places of death redacted
though each unique as in
corner of Broadway and
She takes on New York’s “potter’s field” in a mode so quotable meaning full of moments all of me wants to occupy. It’s a good book!" — Eileen Myles
"At the core of hart island is a counter-burial project. Szymaszek exhumes utterances past. Better yet, she mines their latent energy by moving them around, accelerating their particles. In doing so, she reanimates the NYC that we heart. The one in which we can tap into the city’s radically democratizing potential as great collider by going out and taking it all in." — Mónica de la Torre
"One cannot know whether the dark shadow of the city in Stacy Szymaszek’s hart island breathes up through the pervasive cement, the trains, “this veneer of civilization” or whether the poet courts the shadow in order to facilitate a healing integration. What we do know is that these poems enliven the quotidian and any propensity we might have for the ordinary thought. They give us glimpses, as if from the corner of the eye, into cracks in the surface where “how a body becomes unwanted” can emerge. hart island is a brilliant, haunting achievement that calls to mind those striking moments when we think we see the hand of God on an otherwise blue sunny day." — Dawn Lundy Martin
In Hart Island, there are whispers of people who lie just below perception, muttering multivocal protests of how, based on their status in life, they are placed away and forgotten, invisible shoulders upon which the city (or the poetry world) rests. Not an anxiety of influence, but a murmuring of both injustice and desire to connect, for recognition — for people to either stand at the grave and acknowledge or appreciate, no matter who a person might be or might have been. Toward that, Hart Island is part memory, but it is also active record of life taking place on the page, a liquid unfurling of how language apprehends the incomprehensible about it, as quickly as it takes shape and then dissolves again.
Just as Frank O’Hara’s words on a plaque placed to the side of the entrance to the Parish Hall of St. Mark’s Church shape the experience of poets about to enter for a reading, I hear his echo, particularly of his great poem “Second Avenue,” in Hart Island. There’s a similarly mercury-liquid pace of poets moving through urban space abstracted through language, a similar exploration of how concrete existence shared with so many million others changes through time and in that change is all the shifting states of consciousness of both here and not-here. Change is supposedly the opposite of death, but are those buried in Hart Island actually in that presumably static state when relatives and friends are not allowed to visit and meditate upon that still connection, when those buried are not publicly named and therefore definitely declared dead? Instead, it’s limbo: a suspended state of anticipated transformation. Szymaszek explains in a preface that Hart Island is the location of the largest tax-funded cemetery in the world and one to which public access is severely limited. So those disconnected from their dead are not able to move on, but yet they do — the paradox of never-ending mourning, or the myth of “closure.” And in the place of family and friends, those who tend to the plots are inmates of Riker’s Island, another island of injustice and erasure.
The yard of St. Mark’s Church is also a cemetery, and the poets who work and read there walk over a system of vaulted spaces and read next to wall spaces filled with dead people. Some poets’ ashes have also been sprinkled surreptitiously and illegally in the back garden (and that’s all the detail I’m going to give). While to imagine so is what’s called a “pathetic fallacy,” or giving life in verse to natural or inanimate objects, the walls yet seem responsive to the hundreds of readings given at the Poetry Project. Is it so pathetic to imagine that a certain kind of ongoing vibrational energy has been set up within the molecules that make up that plaster, paint, and brick? -- Marcella Durand
by Dale Smith
In October 2001, the sixty-nine year old playwright and actor Leonard Melfi was taken to Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, where he expired four hours later of congestive heart failure. At one time he had seen a promising career on the stage and in film, contributing scripts along with Samuel Beckett, Sam Shepard, and others to the (then) notorious 1969 Broadway musical Oh, Calcutta! (his earlier work had been performed at La MaMa and other experimental theater venues). Melfi imbibed mightily, and before he passed away he had been living in a single room occupancy in the Narragansett Hotel. Somehow, hospital staff lost track of the playwright’s body, discovering only four months later that it had been interred in a potter’s grave on Hart Island, purportedly the largest public cemetery in the world and where more than one million bodies are buried today.
Like Melfi, Jan Winiarski’s remains were placed in plot 283 on Hart Island in January 2001. A 1980s immigrant from Poland, Winiarski died of injuries sustained from a New York City subway platform accident. He had been a lawyer and small business owner, but left this world homeless and far adrift from his family in Poland. While the indigent occupy many of the plots on the island, an astonishing number of infants are also found there. Aramis Caumite, for instance, lived only a short 35 weeks, and was interred in plot 67 on the winter solstice in 2014. “My little Angel,” his story begins, “you were a surprise when I found out I was pregnant. It was The Best News when I found out you were a boy.” His story is not uncommon, though most of the infants buried on the island have no recorded stories, and often remain nameless.
Winiarski’s and Caumite’s stories, like Leonard Melfi’s, have been documented with the help of the Hart Island Project, a non-profit organization devoted to finding life narratives of the more than 60,000 people buried in mass graves on the island since 1980. The 101-acre site on Long Island Sound near the eastern edge of the Bronx has been used as a burial site since just after the Civil War period. Prisoners from Rikers Island are tasked with burying unclaimed and unidentified New Yorkers in mass graves. There is no public access to the burial sites, so the Hart Island Project maintains a database of the dead along with maps of grave locations; the group also supports a narrative visualization project called The Traveling Cloud Museum, where family and friends of the deceased may send stories “to restore the identities of the buried.” Because of its size, isolation, and management by the New York City Department of Correction, Hart Island cemetery has been called by visitors, with somber aplomb, a “prison for the dead.”
Stacy Szymaszek’s recently published hart island is an elegiac poem written as a notebook by the living for the dead, with richly-textured serial verse forms covering the years 2008-2010. While the title and a brief credit acknowledgment bring awareness to Hart Island as a framing concept, Szymaszek also draws on quotes heard and “misheard” from poetry readings at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, where she works as the director. Phrases by authors like Keith Waldrop (“the calming effect of contact”), Steve Carey (“ghost proposals”), and Alice Notley (“life has its sub rosa hell”) bring a multi-vocal community of texts to Szymaszek’s own lyric plenitude. The multiplicity of enfolded images, observations, and historical acknowledgments creates an evolving textual design, and conveys her social awareness and personal stance toward New York City’s managed environments for the living as well as the dead.
In the foreground of hart island, Szymaszek observes the domestic features of daily routines, desires, fears, and aspirations. “[S]cout in December,” she says, “when / DNA is a frozen box / of letters a poorly / insulated mid-life / apartment empty / condo views bake / a pie to test / the oven drape / moves extra- / mundane.” A method of intense enjambment enables the sustained seriality of the poem to appear in discrete bursts, offering little windows of insight through a generously perceptive intelligence that measures relationships among the visible features of the present and the foregone realities of the past. Individual narrative is displaced in favor of dispersed and interacting voices, the ghost-like residues of overheard words pressing through the overseen. The accumulated sense of reading is like a ghostly passage through unclaimed sounds and material objects that become the primary sensuous reality of the written word.
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...