The Poet As Caretaker (having said too much having not gotten it all down)
Journal of Ugly Sites & Other Journals
(Fence Books, 2016)
“No one is too beautiful for the ugly journal,” Stacy Szymaszek writes sometime between January 17 and February 15, 2013, as collected in her Journal of Ugly Sites & Other Journals (Fence Books, 2016), a compilation of five notebooks which was awarded the Ottoline Prize in 2015. And despite her apologies during the publication credits and thanks, there is very little ugliness revealed about others. This is a book about the self, a text which arrives through grief and mourning, a run-of-the-mill abjectness, a chronicle of low-level stress, grief, distress, slight moments of discord with the world that provoke the action and perforate the daily rhythms that she opens her catalog of sense and perception by imploring: “fixated on / the rhythm of / return,” and which appear, pages later, “when memory attacks” (Austerity Measures).
Szymaszek’s use of multiple dashes to lineate her prose prior to the actual break of the line is suited to our hyper-fragmentary, discordant, continuous, always-on lives. The result is a constant doubling, of friction and meaning, which provokes a schism or suddenness, or sometimes, even, closure. The clarity of a cut in a film, where we are always in a new scene. And so rather than impede our reading experience, the relentless breaks propel the text forward into a surging energy and fevered tempo, condensing observation and emotion and making drastic spatial and temporal leaps in the span of a few lines, as on notes dated between June 7 and July 6, 2013:
Carroll Gardens: catching a signal on phone while
K showering she worrying where I was thought
she would know since checking social media upon
waking is one of my most powerful habits // not
eating breakfast since Cass died was in the habit of
sharing my cereal // light-headed with dizzy spells
for a week taking a self-portrait yes there it is death
in my eyes // not knowing what my grandparents
looked like as babies // 3 lbs. heavier all in my
ass // photography workshop leader saying that
photographers control light suddenly feeling I’m in
over my head // K wondering if my symptoms are
psychosomatic // will you still love me when tattoos
disappearing into wrinkles when vagina turning to
sand? “don’t ever say that again” // Verizon man
saying I’ll be right back never came back // my goal
with a self-portrait not looking so tired directing
light away from that which makes me appear tired
The movement here resonates because Journal of Ugly Sites & Other Journals is a text of transitioning, from spring (“Late Spring Journal ”) to summer (“Summer Journal ”); from one week to another (“5 days 4 nights”), from Carroll Gardens to the East Village, uptown and back home; the habitation of transitions; of being a body constantly in transit. Just as Thoreau’s collection of notebooks from 1837 – 61 could be read simply as a bird-watching journal, Szymaszek’s notebooks could be viewed through the lens of a dog-walking journal, a ritualized pattern that forms her movements and forces her—and us—to move through her environment.
Transit generates constant arrivals, and Szymaszek’s astute quips of the quotidian which might have been boring or facile in another context, are instead imbued with the gravitas of drama, heightened by the very fact of their brief mention and fast passing. The polarization of highs and lows mirrors our hyperpolarized cultural worldview and meticulously curated lens—which she, of course, includes too, in the form of trending topics on Twitter: (“swallowed by hippo / 3 bodies found on farm / 105 year old bacon woman / gold medalist dead //”) or what’s playing on the television at the gym (“pelvic mesh recall / Christian Mingle/Obama and the gays //”). She scrolls across the page with careful distance and deliberation, a constancy that remains unbroken, as Szymaszek writes in “Late Spring Journal,” “‘no news is good news’/as a policy/doesn’t work for me.” Readers, too, experience the vertiginous sensation of simultaneously reading a historical document and knowing this is happening right now. Documentation is also an integral component of the text, especially its grounding in a New York City that is relentlessly changing. To receive a memento of what it was like in 2013 to be here, amid a HopStopped, cupcake-frenzied Manhattan is to also engrave your name in the sidewalk and claim your experience of witness: what’s lost or abandoned, what’s already left us—and what stays. Journal of Ugly Sites & Other Journals, as it follows an arc made tragic by the deaths of two beloved animals, becomes a project of endurance, a project for enduring. Every entry is a fragment that abandons punctuation and embraces the gerund where she is constantly moving, the euphoria and self-surprise of relating one’s life in the present tense. Szymaszek’s continuous use of the gerund is an especially appropriate grammatical turn because of its linguistic origins, from the Late Latin gerundium, from Latin gerundus, meaning to bear, carry on—and she is doing both, through commentary and investigation.
weird that I own Desperately Seeking Susan on DVD
watching it with her offering commentary like that’s
2nd Ave. she’s in Love Says the Day that’s not there
anymore now it’s this ugly sushi place // rush of
territorial feeling as tourists taking pictures of the lion …
// finding out Bar 82 gone for good when
taking Arial there how did I not notice this sooner?
To endure, Szymaszek seems to say, is also to care. And it is this role of poet as caretaker that seems most prominent, and most urgent, in 2017. The care of noticing is itself a literary construction and a protest or demonstration, and yet this is, at the outset, a neutral project, a text of pre-text, a project of pluralizing one’s private thoughts and feelings, the private made public and thus, political. We get the sense that even Szymaszek is uncertain about how to marry the two, as when, a few pages later, she admits feeling guilty for being “a bad gay … not knowing that DOMA was going to be ruled on this coming week and what the hell is SCOTUS // being a bad citizen all the ways …”
Sometimes the ugly resides in the shame of the things we are meant to take care of in this world, the things we are accountable for and which are unwell, or which might otherwise be hidden, as when Szymaszek describes her cleaning of the office “revealing its true abjection,” or when she notices how “snow melts revealing winter turd garden dashing everyone’s dream of an easy cover story.” (In the same notation, Szymaszek relates a dream:
… my iPhone
having an app where when tapping on a picture of
a friend every word you’ve ever exchanged with her
appears in tickertape fashion across the screen
checking transcripts seeing where things taking ugly
turns // Cass walking into a cloud of exhaust
Within the framework of the ugly, Szymaszek is just as interested in investigating its origins as identifying its current presence and postulating its future form. In the East Village, at some point between June 7, 2013 and a month later, Szymaszek writes, “lines in head not getting into notebook this line standing in for all of those lines.” That this book is a poem-of-process is evidenced often, as when Szymaszek admits not being able to write because of her being surrounded by beauty, or in a touching, heartrending account of her last afternoon with her dog, “taking pictures reminding myself to interrupt this impulse to narrate every experience pausing to be present with K //.” (Cass’s death haunts this text, but rather than re-direct the motive, as Szymaszek imagines, “keeping me from seeing even uglier realities.” The trauma of separation from a loved one speaks greater truths about the self that survives.) And because this isa book about the self, the notion of self-care and the desire to be noticed also bandages the ugly interior, as when Szymaszek wishes “that grackle would alight on me distinguish me”—or her affirmation of erasure, that she “can sit in a room and be ignored longer than you can,” or even her fear that she will be totally overwritten, as in books in which she’s acknowledged under misspelled names. “Will future generations,” she asks, “know it’s me?” (“7.25.12 – 7.27.12”).
Journal of Ugly Sites & Other Journals might be written in the persistently passing present, but it is that future which Szymaszek says she has “no fantasies about,” and which is yet at the heart of her project—a view of the future because of the past—as when she writes, “redirecting fear into concern for the demise of the honey bee having read that humans can only survive 4 yrs. without them.” Just as David Markson uses literary ephemera alongside facts of nuclear waste in his Vanishing Point, another notebook, albeit fictional, Szymaszek seems to suggest that what’s at stake in the moment she is writing this is much more than the moment she is writing this. The nuclear waste we are accumulating will stay around a lot longer than Desperately Seeking Susan or the Supreme Court of the United States. And so her interest in pop culture and the experience of strangers and moreover, the autobiography—“feeling like I know him through his autobiographical work”; “hoping that after reading their life stories I would understand why”—uncovers a greater concern for the human project of a deeply personal intimacy made communal, as when she writes:
… interest in
people mostly via their journals memoirs confessions
biographies and autobiographies // American in my
method of attachment so an online test tells me
an Ugly American //
A few lines later Szymaszek laments her increasingly masochistic worldview, which serves this notebook and yet “having once been a person who invoked community as an unequivocal good //.” To narrate and edit one’s life in real time is deeply narcissistic, but the flip side of such a private gesture to the public is its endeavoring toward empathy; to see yourself in everyone is also to see everyone, as when she writes, toward the end of Austerity Measures, “found/a way to relate/to everyone.” Or later, while uptown: “used to have fantasy that I could absorb everyone’s pain hyper-metabolize it //.” Perhaps nothing signifies the power and promise of Szymaszek’s journal and call for empathic concern then a few lines after a notation of her Twitter feed (“stabbing at Target/actor eat bitten/baby shot in face mother shows anger //”), when she’s at the vet, discussing the condition of Cass, her beagle, with a doctor who’s been probing the dog’s anus:
“will have nothing” // “do you ever look at this?”
should have told that vet the truth—that we have
fallen into it a great red orb larger than earth
The world is either coming together or it’s coming apart. But Szymaszek’s question remains an absolute. It is once again the call of the caretaker. To know, and moreover, to notice. To see and speak and sometimes, especially, to ask one’s self—but to really consider. Do you ever look at this?
CHRIS CAMPANIONI is the author of seven books, including A and B and Also Nothing (Otis Books | Seismicity Editions, 2020), a re-writing of Henry James's The American and Gertrude Stein's “Americans” which merges theory, fiction, and autobiography. Recent work appears in American Poetry Review, Ambit, Nat. Brut, Poetry International, Journal of Cinema and Media Studies, and Life Writing, and has been translated into Spanish and Portuguese. He teaches at Pace University and Baruch College, and edits PANK and PANK Books. His selected poetry was awarded an Academy of American Poets College Prize in 2013, his novel Going Down was named Best First Book at the 2014 International Latino Book Awards, and his hybrid piece, “This body's long (& I'm still loading)” was adapted as an official selection of the Canadian International Film Festival in 2017. In 2019, he was awarded a CHCI-Mellon Global Humanities Institute fellowship to join the Consortium for the Transnational Joint Research Center for Migration, Logistics, and Cultural Intervention.