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Sifting through the wreckage
The first word of Szymaszek’s Emptied of All Ships is, as it should be, ‘water.’ Water is the primary ‘character’ of the collection, and it lives in the lines themselves. Szymaszek’s poems are liquid; one line, one word, blends into the next, as if each were a tiny wave rippling into its successor:
water / relives / reservoir (11)
tree / an oar / origin (12)
congestion / of resin (13)
Szymaszek’s water of choice is the sea, an odd focus for a landlocked Midwesterner, for whom Lake Michigan presents the nearest large body of water. This may explain the fixation, though — in being far removed from either coast, yet feeling the intrinsically human (or animal) connection to the ocean, Szymaszek has a potent source for poetry: she longs for something essential to her being that is physically far away. Along with water, this longing suffuses her sounds, imagery, and subject matter. ‘I leave / a tin of sardines / open for / a month / / is it / still / you / there?’ the narrator asks plaintively, and rhetorically; she anticipates the lonely silence that will answer (28).
Concerned as she is with sea voyages, which have long epitomized human curiosity and the quest for progress, it seems ironic that much of Szymaszek’s imagery reveals water’s power to destroy human life and its trappings. But Szymaszek’s focus on impermanence fits perfectly in this watery medium; she has created a context in which these seemingly opposed ideas can, and must, co-exist. Perhaps more ironically, she successfully combines opposing views of the power of ink-on-paper. Writers, above all others, hold writing dear as the ultimate preserving mechanism, but Szymaszek questions the verity, and even the validity, of the written word’s claim to eternity. Which is true? Is ink all-powerful, as in the lines: ‘ink a hinge here / ’n here / ’n mother / make me limber,’ in which ink creates a body (66)? Or is ink merely a substance that water easily washes off? Or, as occurs more frequently in this volume, is ink something that is arbitrarily preserved, so that ‘one paragraph / on a miscellaneous / custom’ survives, while something of greater consequence (we don’t know what) is lost (25)? Szymaszek embraces both possibilities, yet she also explores the likelihood that purer, superior forms of communication exist. Her lines may be tightly controlled, stripped down to the minimum, but they allow for largesse of interpretation as bountiful, fluid, and full of inherent contradictions as the sea itself.
In keeping with this atmosphere of inconstancy, the narrator’s perspective in Emptied of All Ships shifts incessantly, taking us with her as well. Are we voyaging across the sea? Or have we sunk beneath it, to explore a shipwreck? Or both simultaneously? In the moments beneath the surface, at least, Szymaszek’s lens is focused on the relationship between water and human life, or ‘land life’:
The sea allows nothing to remain intact — least of all words on that delicate stuff, paper. And our decorative treasures, like chandeliers and wallpaper, objects we use to light and brighten our bare rooms, end up drifting through the dark like useless trash. It seems fitting, then, that the narrator parses out her careful lines, allowing white space to dwarf every poem. Either she has chosen to preempt inevitable decay by selecting her own diminishment(s), or, in the spirit of cataloguing the aftermath of a wreck, she writes in fragments to mimic the scant physical remains. Szymaszek’s lines manage to be clear, abstract, slightly narrative and emotionally evocative. Not always all at once, of course, but her lines as a whole create a multi-layered, richly atmospheric text.
The structure of Emptied of All Ships is only sporadically linear; more often it is circular, enacting a wave-like motion that progresses forward while forever circling back. Whatever progress is made is inevitably erased from existence, and then begun again. For instance, in the middle of the book, after we have passed through a storm, catalogued items remaining after a shipwreck, and seen the bodies of dead sailors, we arrive at the lines: ‘ships launch / into world’ (39). This heralds a fresh start that could be the journey whose end we have already witnessed, or it could be an entirely new voyage. It could also show us the very first voyage of the first ship. In Szymaszek’s work, these possible readings can co-exist harmoniously; one does not necessarily preclude the others.
Szymaszek plays expertly with language and structure, but she also examines substantive material for her reader to digest. She fully explores the running theme of impermanence, for instance, in the section of the book titled ‘auction.’ What remains of this particular ship is ‘one log / of the harm / that came,’ indicating the disaster that befell the crew, and a clear image of death: a ‘Green- / lander / with / a stitch / through / his nose / / coin in / his mouth’ (23-4). He is stitched ‘inside a sail,’ and shoved into the sea with little ceremony (24). The narrator then reflects:
to stay afloat
What is left behind of this man? ‘one pot / of ink / / one paragraph / on a miscellaneous / custom’ (25). The narrator goes on to detail what is listed in that paragraph: random items, worthless things bought at auction, and comes up only with the cliché, ‘poor guy,’ then a final stanza with an extra touch of harshness: ‘skylark / flicks a card / in another’s / face’ (26). Szymaszek has previously shown the ephemeral nature of human life, but here she looks at the fully preserved words on the page, all that’s left as a record of this man’s identity, and finds nothing (or little) of worth. What does a poet do when she questions the value of her own medium? This poet goes on sifting through the wreckage, questioning, but she continues, simultaneously, to write.
Szymaszek explores a different angle of the problem in ‘...radio silence,’ when ‘a brass / speaking / tube’ connects two ears in private communication (27). These are words not meant for preservation; nor are they meant for public broadcast. Radio silence is preserved when two people communicate privately, with words and/ or means that ‘could prove / fraudulent / in time,’ but in the moment are completely ‘lucid’ and dependable (27). This is what matters most: the moment, not the aftermath. The future, in fact, is threatening, and must be avoided. The communicator negates the future here by actively choosing to destroy written words: ‘binding / the pages / with lead / plates / and / throwing / them / overboard’ (28). Ironically, this destructive act preserves whatever was privately passed from one person to another. Is this, then, communication at its purest and best? Perhaps, Szymaszek suggests.
The character James, who emerges as a protagonist in the section, ‘some mariners,’ adds complexity to Szymaszek’s exploration of communication. It is obvious from the start that James and the narrator are intricately connected. The narrator ‘drink[s] ink from China’ and subsequently ‘James’s feeling arm / is full’ (57). If we read James not as the narrator’s ‘embodiment’ or ‘other self,’ but as his lover (or as both lover and embodiment/ other self), the sexual relationship between them may elucidate what is the purest, most potent form of communication of all. ‘James.../ transmits a letter / I think / of you / often / into the mind of his lover’ (69). James could only accomplish such a telepathic act if his lover were linked to him as intimately as the narrator is — it’s a fait accompli, before he even puts pen to paper. What is also unclear is which partner is dominant and which is submissive during sex — what seems more likely is that James and the narrator alternate having control. ‘Hatch the surface / with your teeth / then meet me / in the evening / underneath,’ the narrator commands (65). But then the narrator says: ‘grappling iron your legs / moor me in full tide / whet against protean shoulders’ (67). But if we view the two as components of a whole, the question of ‘power’ becomes irrelevant — what matters is their perfect union, and the seamless communication they enact as one.
But this, too, is fleeting. There is a sense that this love affair, however it has been conducted, comes to an end by the end of the book, as we are ‘approaching shore’ (85). If the narrator is James’s lover, this makes sense: as the book, which has been the medium of their affair, ends, so does their collaboration. ‘Friends become / ink on the knees / held to chin’: only scant physical traces remain (82). Is ink, then, what we resort to when the primal moment has passed, when we have no other recourse, even knowing, as we do, how futile the act of writing may be? It seems so. When James ‘inks the backs of his hands / in Greek,’ it is a mournful, defiant attempt to preserve what is left from his marvelous voyage. At the same time, it is desperate for him to write on his own skin, a medium less reliable even than paper. Perhaps this is James’s way of accepting the end of his affair, by allowing whatever words he has written to fade, or wash away in the bath. But James’s act of self-writing could also be seen as an act of self-creation, one that could overturn (should we choose to believe it) our previous doubts about writing’s potency: by writing on himself, he is writing himself, and can now leave the writer, narrator, reader, and all others behind.
Photo Thomas H. Garver
Laura Sims is the winner of the 2005 Fence Books Alberta Prize. Her manuscript, ‘Practice, Restraint’, will be published by Fence Books in October. She recently published two chapbooks: Bank Book (Answer Tag Press) and Paperback Book (3rd Bed). Her poems have appeared or will soon appear in the journals First Intensity, La Petite Zine, How2, 6X6, 26, 3rd Bed, and Fence, among others. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin, where she teaches creative writing and composition at Madison Area Technical College and Edgewood College.
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