On Stacy Szymaszek’s Famous Hermits

Stacy Szymaszek. Famous Hermits. New York, NY: Archway Editions, 2022. 96 pages.  

Midway along the journey of her life, a poet and beloved director of the Poetry Project leaves New York City. Though the poems in her new book Famous Hermits (Archway Editions, 2022) are not explicitly in Szymaszek’s signature annual journal form, they do not abandon her field of mastery: the diaristic recording of everydayness as a field for insight, revelation, and moments of pure beauty (or what beauty looks like to me), like the “elder woman” who appears in “Stop Making Peace” to sell her handmade soap, her voice suddenly lineated and descending the page:

                        mine has more
                                                            pine tar
                                    in it
                                                            because frankly
                                    I am
                                                            a master
                                                                                    of my trade (41)

The poems are peopled with aging women who, like the soap seller, sing their autonomy, the mastery of their trade, whatever that trade may be, Szymaszek included. Songs of the poet’s own autonomy and mastery abound in this book, but my favorite example comes from “What I Attach To Are Her Decimals,” 

            I am a beautiful butch with
            high cheek bones I was born to be good
            at knowing
            what I hate (31)

In the titular forty-page poem “Famous Hermits,” Szymaszek variously invokes the hermit, an archetype whose devotion to a private, interior world  I, and I imagine many poetry readers and writers, find irresistible. Six sections in, she invokes the hermit etymologically, drawing us back to the source, the Latinization of a Greek word meaning “of the desert” (52).  Szymaszek’s historical examination reminds us that in the thirteenth century, the church attempted to tame hermits by forcing them to join established orders. The female hermit, always more endangered than her male counterpart, found it prudent to “dress/ in male attire to not be mistaken for a demon/ and thrashed” (53). She invokes the hermitic impulse in action, by leaving “the best community available” (50) for poetry in New York City, by leaving the institutions that are meant to (and so often fail to) support poets, not to mention poetry, real poetry, unencumbered by institutional affiliation.

“Famous Hermits” suggests that the hermit may be the final form of the master. Szymaszek writes, “the privilege of knowing your craft is/ it is yours to abandon” (49).  This poet leaves the city (in a long line of writers who have left the city) and rather than cue the popular, romanticized “Goodbye To All That” of it all, we are given something clearer: more of a Good Riddance To All That, an I’m Leaving You To Go Look At Lizards In The Desert To All That.

Several times reading the poem I wanted to speak back to it, to claim hermitude for myself in so doing. I found myself wanting communion with the poet-hermit, and feeling thrilled when the poem continued to push me gently away. The poet writes:

                                                                my primary concern is not  
for you to relate to me but to honor me as a true other who is nonetheless
a real person
a real poetry (53)

And the poet in this book, the one whose life these poems record, is very much a real person, one who visits a real barber every two weeks, who goes to a real dentist and admires the gold fillings in his teeth, who has sex with her lover (“upper limit fucking” (10)), who calculates her hourly pay (to her own horror), who writes in a room that leaks in two places, who wants to de-program from the politics of the New York poetry community, of the over-accommodation she had to perform as part of her prominent role in it. The real person wants “to read for pleasure not scouting or anything/ to read the books my friends write free of anything.”

This is a poetry which energetically searches for a way out, a poetry that looks to Dante, who searched, in over fourteen thousand lines, for a way out of contemporary life. Dante and his inferno are never far away in Famous Hermits: it is the “option of the wise      to write your comedy,” (70) Szymaszek remarks, and I can’t help but read the poem as an earthly comedy, as opposed to the divine variety.  In “New York was hell on earth today,” she and friends search for the best translation “of the first canto of HELL” (they go with Dorothy Sayers, by the way). “Who just wants to be adored?” Szymaszek asks, and answers damningly: “Demons     Poets” (70). Let us also not forget who it was that Dante saw in the early rings of Hell: diplomats, politicians, greedy, corrupt members of the community, bureaucrats, administrators. Unlike Dante, Szymaszek’s hell is a casual, idiomatic hell, a recognizable, all-too-inhabitable hell. Does that make it better or worse?

But quotidian as it may be, like Dante’s, it is a hell to be got through, and a hell to—ideally—be left. If in this book, being a poet of the institution in New York City is hell, Famous Hermits is not a journey into the inferno, but a missive from the post-inferno, from what comes immediately after the inferno: purgatory. In these poems, the poet has left New York, but she has not left the institution. Can she ever leave completely? The hourly pay she calculates, the offices she inhabits, are still institutional technologies. “How Ruckus Is Tea” opens with the poet situating herself in a new place, outside the elite city, but within again familiar confines.

                        the pilot announced “the weather in Missoula
            is nice”
                                                            vague omen
               the plant is 3 inches            to the left        and a bottle of bourbon appeared
                        on my university desk                        which a student told me is not mine
            it’s the poet’s before me         who wanders the town
            beside herself     while I marvel in her multiple editions of marvell (27)

The hermit-poet of “How Ruckus Is Tea”, whose livelihood depends on the institution, lives in a precarious autonomy, one that requires filling vacated hamlets, becoming the next in a line of other hermit-poets to fill the same spaces, the same fellowships, the same temporary housing, that they too will have to vacate to make room for the next.

My experience of reading Famous Hermits is, at many turns, exhilaration that devolves quickly into a strange anxiety. This greater, more mysterious anxiety than the straightforward one, felt when the hermit in the poem pushes the reader away, is hidden in plain sight, built deftly into the title. What could be more abhorrent to a hermit than fame?

                        I’m going to live my life this way
                                    language arrives           attention to commonplace
                        can that energy age us
                                    differently?     keep old souls youthful
                        you can look at yourself
                                    more closely from a distance
                        having let documents
                                    to let go of former selves        and their demands
                        still all I want 
                                    is for my friends         to read me

I am not the poet’s friend—I am a fan of the poet’s work, a poet who, in my skewed-by-being-a-poet-in-New-York-in-the-first-place worldview, is in fact famous. But here I am, reading her. I almost want to apologize to the poem for trespassing, when the realization sets in, after the pleasant experience of reading these ideas score the page in such plainspoken, familiar language. And within a book which bears the concerns of the “business” of being a poet, shitty as it may be—nobody’s making a living off of poems alone—I have to consider the paradoxes of the famous hermit. The material existence of the famous hermit requires my purchasing and reading her book. The second paradox is of one who craves solitude and privacy (or purports to) but must engage with language because of her poet’s nature who gloriously declares: “I’m going to live my life this way / language arrives” (84). The poet must engage with language because she believes in “attention to the commonplace,” but in this semantic interchange, she must engage with others— with the public—which is the nemesis of any good hermit. Language exists. Language arrives. Language is a kind of currency, of passing meaning between people. But other people, sorry to the hermit, are language’s instruments and recipients. Is this the central problem of the famous hermit, made alive by her relationship to language? Is this where the hinge lies in these poems, where the exhilaration of freedom expressed via language is cut with the anxiety of its logistical complexity? Can one turn toward the private when her survival, both financial and emotional, in the case of someone in love with language, requires the engagement of a public?

                        the terror of the poet was certain
                                    palpable in equal
                        to zero dollars
                                    and may have moved
                        zero hearts
                                    what is amazing
                        express your desire
                                    to be forgotten
                        as a person
                                    yet still do your 24/7 (78)

After Purgatorio should come Paradiso, but not in this economy.

In Gulfport, Mississippi, where I grew up, we had our own famous hermit. He lived in a house at back of an overgrown yard at the end of a busted cul-de-sac, but we drove by religiously, every week in the fall. We begged our parents to drive by the house, so that we could read, each week, the rhyming couplets he painted in capital letters on a piece of cardboard he hung on a nail in the oak tree in his front yard. He wrote small poems about the outcomes of the football games of each of the three Mississippi Division 1 college football teams. He used a different color paint for each team’s poem. We had access to the language which arrived for him. He made it arrive for us. We did not have access to his person. We only knew he was dead when the poems stopped coming.  I hadn’t thought of him in years, until I read Famous Hermits. Now I think of the famous hermit as the highest possible ideal for the poet, as a new possible way of existing that approaches the fine edge of the impossible. To be able to give the people language, but nothing of yourself.

Courtney Bush is the author of I Love Information (Milkweed Editions, 2023), Every Book Is About The Same Thing (Newest York Arts Press, 2022), and the chapbook Isn’t This Nice? (blush lit, 2019).