Stacy Szymaszek, Emptied of all Ships

I am so behind in the reviews and posts, and here this book is, bobbing like a sail on the horizon of my room where it has been sitting next to Leslie Bumstead’s Cipher/Civilian, which I also intended to talk about. Both of these are first books. Bumstead’s was discussed at some length in a recent issue of Poet’s & Writers, and Syzmazek’s was featured in The Boston Review. I had the pleasure of reading with Bumstead at the Poetry Project in December, where Szymaszek is Program Coordinator. Is there anything to the fact that Emptied of all Ships somehow mirrors Stacy Szymaszek? I think so. But first, Leslie Bumstead.

Listening to Bumstead’s work made me wonder about the usefulness of diary or journal entries. Particularly when these have a prose line. Consider the following, from “Dear Jean,”
“The bugs here really are incredible. And traffic, soldiers, mildew. Then the business city & her men in suits. Children breathing fire at stoplights…” The unexpected “business city” is a nice surprise, so is the image of children breathing fire at stoplights, but the language doesn’t have the tang that seems essential to a poetic line. At least in this incarnation. And the “Cipher” section of her book is largely that.

The “Civilian” section on the other hand, is more spare, and to my mind, much more effective. Particularly when you factor in the political aspect of the book. There is a sense of the prose line being more pointed, but the sparse couplets in the second half glint a more powerful message:

distinguished enemy
in chosen rooms saber-

rattling a chord
unnumbered drum

The final section, “Abidjan Notebooks,” blends the two forms: spare lines on top, journal entries on the bottom. This tactic appeals to me enormously. I appreciate the play of trying to account for something while seeing in that sharp, poet’s way. The tension can be erotic, and troubling. But that’s a tall order. “Lyric communiques,” Forche says on the book’s cover, “from regions unknown to most.” Perhaps that is why I wanted some sharper communication? A fine first book, very thoughtful, not hurried. I will be interested to see where Bumstead goes from here.

Like Bumstead, Szymaszek’s first book arrives with an impressive air of solidity. If it were a “craft” it would be of the handmade variety, the kind mulled over for long hours over much conversation, much looking at it in various lights, and with a variety of varnishes. It would be seaworthy. Unsinkable. Here the resonance of form deepens the content. Luscious word play lingers on the page, the poem a kind of chute (the water metaphors will not be kept in check…) down which it is an absolute pleasure to tumble. I never got tired of the movement, never craved another sort of motion, my eye just tumbled, and tumbled:

an oar

joints ruptured
soak in
deep ink




You can see why one never tires. Just when you might, Szymaszek throws in a word that stops you. both in terms of its’ meaning/image, as much as its sound.

I was a bit resistant to the text. Resistant because I find the positioning of poems in the center of the page throws me off. Margin, margin, I want to be safely hugging (but that’s my problem). There is a kind of settling in the middle. We are in a chute, and descending through the central narrative (well isn’t it?) of the book. We might at any moment bump into one end or another, hips might be bruised, a splash in they eye, but we descend:

brief case
hundred words


I kept thinking of a depth sonar. I kept imagining underwater reverberations. A hurricane of words, I thought, the reader is in the eye, a constantly snapping lens.

of oyster
in gloved
hand he

dented pewter


her aspect


Later the play intensifies; line breaks too: “one sketch/of the stormy/petrel” a visual and oral punning, the recurring ink, the puff of words, the ting–ting-ting-ting, Language, I dashed across page 33 is a conveyor belt, the poet sorting, the poet conducting…

There is much more to say about this book. Some questions too. When the page opens up for the last third or so of the book I felt less grounded. No less happy to be in the hands of this poet, but less sure of myself, and the experience of reading. Do I have a right to suggest a level of comfort in a poem? Probably not. But I want it nonetheless. If it isn’t form that holds me, then it must be some other hard substance/decision. But this is likely not a valid quibble, and even looking down now I see on page 85 a poem zig-zagging in front of me as if to say, who are you to complain of my essence? Here:

sea is censer
approaching shore
smell of myrrh
aspect of mouth river of

that seems solid enough. So does this book. It’s a good one.

**I note that I was unable to replicate the spacing of the lines above…a sad aspect of blogging. but they do move across the page, each one spaced a little more to the right margin as if a staircase…or is there a way to do this that I’m missing? Let me know.