A trench at the potter's field on Hart Island, circa 1890. Image via Wikimedia commons.
hart island
by Stacy Szymaszek

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.

The streams of perception that animate hart island enact knowledge through quick but focused brackets of attention. The poet’s devotional imaginary is composed by sensation and image in apposition, enlivening details of the everyday that haunt experience. The illusion of immediacy in this “condensery” art (a term fellow Wisconsin poet Lorine Niedecker used to describe her sedimentary verse) lets Szymaszek register moods and conditions for seeing oneself in relation to a larger background environment. “I think I would like to remember,” she says, “any day of my life like / super-autobiographical memory / people remember every day / of their lives a video quality ‘I go on / scraping the potatoes’ narrating / the kind of lover I would be in / a rent controlled apartment." This claim on behalf of the everyday comes through notably in another overheard line from a reading at the Poetry Project by Robert Kelly (“I go on / scraping the potatoes”) and in the image of the self in precarious juxtaposition to love and economic circumstance. The brevity of life imagined against the backdrop of the eternal dead increases pressure to acknowledge the details of the here-and-now, as if absorbing the intimacy of life completely.

hart island is framed by death, mystery, and absence. Szymaszek asks, “[H]ow long before our bodies / can merge with air.” In the context of her attention, the islands of Manhattan and Hart intentionally overlap: “accept the island as a / regulatory function ‘the ‘black spot’ where the no-go / zones meet flesh.’” Is death managed like life? Must contemporary economic and social systems even penetrate through death, ordering and numbering bodies as they accumulate on this patch of earth? Szymaszek suggests that the ghost-like communion between life and death persists in the systemic coordination of carefully and numerically arranged graves. Such order, economically imposed by the city, mystifies death due to the silence of individual narrative. Instead, Szymaszek increases awareness in her writing to show how personal memory, overheard language, and commonplace knowledge interact to bring meaning to respective stories. She is concerned, for instance, with

how a body becomes unwanted

yet everywhere touched

buried in married memories

index starting with ear how an ear

becomes unwanted and wears

that indignation whereas a hand

hides its information how a hand

becomes unwanted and works a hoe

with steady pulse it is unwanted

the cargo of bodies cross

                            Long Island Sound. 

The image of prison inmates interring bodies, and the forlorn figurative motion of the dead ferrying themselves toward the remote island location, reaches across geography and time. Szymaszek’s poetry approaches a diverse and buried past that is hard to incorporate into the transient activities of the living. The notebook-like layers of her poems bring into view a world exposed to the dead, and a future destination for the living that is quiet, perhaps void. Such acknowledgment asks readers to pause over life as sudden passage, over how we inherit intersecting realities approachable according to perspective. Szymaszek’s method is one of exposure, comparison, and overlap: she occupies her island location with an unsteady sense of temporality and her position in it.

As elegies, Szymaszek’s poems aim for a devotional splendor while guiding readers through the emotional registers of song:

places of death redacted

through each unique as in

corner of Broadway and

Houston word like “something”

stands in for what possesses by-passers

to laugh mystery everyone is

reading plot ready as weather

slow to process this shade of

blue about the mouth unique

as in if under an overpass a single

person is missing further

excluded from the heart

of the city no one has the right

to say the world is empty.

There is a joyous sadness to Szymaszek’s art that defies the world-weary ennui of the cynic. In a time that rarely pauses to consider death, and in which we systematize the procedures of interment with slim regard for the stories and voices that resonate through and beyond the grave, Szymaszek’s writing achieves what G. R. S. Mead discovered in ancient peoples’ superimposition of imagistic meaning onto everyday practices of life. “In the religion of Egypt,” he said, “the deepest and most fascinating mystery of antiquity, the visible creation, was conceived as the counterpart of the unseen world.” That unseen world filled the living with immense dramatic possibility. The unseen world that aerates hart island is addressed to the reader through the poet’s personal experience and through an urban materiality, “this veneer of civilization.”