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Stacy Szymaszek’s A Year From Today articulates the freeing of desire from obligation, separating daily routines from more private interiors. It completes a trilogy of journal writing that began with the beautifully realized hart island and the elegantly understated Journal of Ugly Sites and Other Journals. Expanding on those, A Year From Today is collated from journal entries written between April 2014 and April 2015. The book’s four main movements are simply indicated by season. “Spring” opens with a “goblet of___Spanish wine,” a rich indulgence. But most portions of the poem are not so sensually elevating. The work speaks to the mundane, too, showing her routines as the former director of the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, an institution of renown for New York City poetry. As a book of locations, Szymaszek’s writing gives insight to the stresses of urban commutes, interpersonal relationships, and social obligations and exasperations through a focused and detailed attunement of language as a complex medium for experience.
Her work is also a meditation on the approach of middle age. A sharpening of mind, and a knowing nod to the limitations of self, help document the diurnal challenges she faces. Not in contrast, Queerness contributes an important sub-theme to the book, as does the aftermath of the 2016 US presidential election and the backlash of conservatism that now dominates national, and international, attention. That political tension is high, though it’s the vulnerability and persistence according to the terms of her life in a given period of seasons that really bring something new and unusual to the poems. There is a restlessness in Szymaszek’s lines. They are jagged, breaking over the page in long movements only to be followed by more condensed verses. There is a sense of urgency and hurriedness to her form, a literal sense of note taking. But the poetry is lived, an internalized, masterful apprehension of things. Szymaszek practices what Allen Ginsberg must have meant by “first thought, best thought”: get the poem down, have it already inside always. The language is the tool to strike with first. The thing out there is part of that process of mutual making and receiving. But no one knows how the poem will come together until it does. It’s when words come out to meet the liquid-like self, held somewhere between language and the incoming reality of new perception, that a writer like Szymaszek determines a manner of seeing.
The prepared submission of attention to a totality of experience, its various pulses and frequencies, means that poetry cuts through a phenomenal range of perception to hear into those particles and particularities, the possibilities of connection that retrieve insight from an apparent disorder. For instance, in “Summer,” Szymaszek writes:
see a Philip Seymour Hoffman movie___maybe his last___he walks out of the frame
___________after shattering disappointment___he trusted the American
all you need to know is that our bombs and our aid packs are the same yellow
_________________“once your belief in humanity vanishes / all time
___________becomes borrowed…”______I reread a Jennifer Moxley poem
5 years older than me___her work a deep comfort
having to do with one’s body knowing__the 70s___the phase
___when___a nation’s disgust____with its government was high
how did Reagan do it?_____wipe away our depth
___one’s body knowing….
The expression of political anxiety and social impermeability is mediated through sudden and juxtaposing images. There are references to movies, poems of friends, memories of Reagan’s America, the physicality of the body, encounters in retail stores, and arrivals of email. “America” is a contradictory threat to “one’s body knowing.” Bombs and “aid packs are the same yellow,” leading to the poet’s observation of “a nation’s disgust.” If the diary can be understood as a vehicle of self-scrutiny, then it is so here, though the terms of that temperamental quest are only suggested, allowed to separate from the arrival of one perception into the next. Or, by contrast, the arrival of perception is shaped by the ongoing mediation of the poet regarding her present reality in contrast to the historical frame her life inhabits. But the notebook entry acknowledges a world first, and through it the particular components that drive Szymaszek’s self-exposed investigations of daily routine.
Dante’s moody opening to The Divine Comedy also establishes a predominant background for Szymaszek’s journal-poem. That dark wood where the Italian poet loses himself in middle age, searching through the phenomena of public culture and private life, reverberates through A Year From Today. Similarly self-exposed, Pasolini’s November 2, 1975, murder haunts these poems. Through him, Szymaszek registers some of her own worry as she approaches middle age:
this poet Pasolini and want to___um__Nov. 2 is the 50th anniversary
of his unsolved murder___and I think about
___________that often___that no one has solved this man’s murder
___________T brought me a second copy of Divine Mimesis
___with Leslie’s ex libris stamp__pages are falling out of my copy
I put them next to each other___one Italian lesson in Chicago and several
Arabic__headache worse post-Stefano___“flirt
__________________with Zoraida__I say that because your speaking is angular
__seduce her!”__wait is he acknowledging that I’m the queer here or
__do Italians just want to seduce everyone with their musicality?
Self-interruption, jagged entries, fugitive reflections—these contribute to the ongoing assembly of self and identification that the daybook form allows. Pasolini’s The Divine Mimesis, published in Italy shortly after his death, draws directly from Dante, acknowledging the dark wilderness of midlife, when passion and ideology refract, disintegrating the self into a collaborative fiction. His is a spiritual meditation on conditions of language, place, identity, and history. Szymaszek’s identification with the queer Italian poet-filmmaker opens new directions, new ways of seeing his life and, by contrast, her own. This affinity brings to mind several questions relevant to the daybook’s form. Like, what is it to be connected to an idea, memory, image, or person through time? How does the past, one’s own and the cultural history one constantly negotiates, inform the experience of the present, or lead to an increase in our capacities to transform one moment into the next? The poet’s likes and dislikes are really just accidents of person. But poetry locates those personal affections and remakes them into portals through which readers explore and compare their own pathways and conditionings. “It may be impossible,” Szymaszek writes, “to shed / your first public / identity.” She suggests that our identities are folded into ourselves, not so much fragmented as alchemically mixed. The notebook enables a kind of fluid discovery between the public and private, or it contributes an illusion of private confession exposed to public scrutiny. Either way, one does not completely separate out the definitive persona from the social masks; at best she finds the connective tissues across the temporality of herself, encouraging multiplicity through reproductions of form.
To publicize the self in the name of art acknowledges the necessary fictionalization that happens when the familiar and the unknown meet. In the final section of the book titled “Winter,” Szymaszek writes,
grateful to lay back in
5 inches of hot water
dusk must be a good time
for the boiler___historic storm___horrible fallacy of the present___spewing
from the radio
___________don’t know what’s really happening
or___who exactly is on the streets
in the shadows of a “driving ban”
while in here it’s blanket and bingey
on drama__pack the crack__in my forehead with anti-aging
cream__part of me wanting to keep visible the difficulties
of women between 40 and 50__of which
this crack is born__and sometimes splits like a dry thumb
effort at “cow face” ritual__also half-hearted__involving holding an under bite
and looking to the stars….
The banal routine of evening hygiene and comfort dramatically slams up against the “horrible fallacy of the present spewing / from the radio.” The background noise is let into the poem just as the “anti-aging / cream” and “visible difficulties / of women between 40 and 50” disturb the calm interlude of Szymaszek’s day. If one source of pleasure in this poetry derives from recognizing the ways our lives are distributed against the many textures of the social and everyday demands of a global present, then sympathy and identification with the subjectivity of the poem give hope to the many isolated moments that contribute to who we are, how we are, where we are. Szmaszek delineates an experience of early twenty-first-century living that prefers comfort but never really believes it will come. Relationships fizzle. Friends die. Jobs drain energy. We age and feel different about ourselves. In sharing these moments as they fold into an array of daily perception, poetry actualizes moments of our investments in Szymaszek’s life, and so increases curiosity in the terms of our own means of living with poetry and everything else that requires our attention now.
A Year From Today
By Stacy Szymaszek
Paperback, 9781937658762, 136 pp.