On Famous Hermits by Stacy Szymaszek

In the fall of 2023, it is a bit late to be reviewing Stacy Szymaszek’s Famous Hermits, which came out months ago. But that does not matter so much. In fact, there are parts of Famous Hermits that seem already posthumous. I wouldn’t write that in a review (for fear of sounding morbid), except that Szymaszek said it themselves, in an interview with Sallie Fullerton. To write posthumously means to write for a wider audience than your peers: dead, alive, and future people. That means you have to cast off the provincialism of some US poets, who are so fixated on their US lineages that they forget about the rest of the world.

Syzmaszek wrote Famous Hermits in 2019, after they left New York City for Missoula and later Tucson. The book’s eleven poems are arranged in the order they were written. So you can almost observe Szymaszek writing the book. You can see how she changed her writing once she left “the elite city.”

The first ten poems continue the “verse journal” form of her previous two books, Journal of Ugly Sites & Other Journals and A Year From Today. It’s a flowing record of things heard, thought, read, spoken, felt, and observed. For example, in “This Is The First Day Of Our Lives!”:

Szymaszek explains the idea behind the verse journal at the beginning of A Year From Today. She writes, “what if I publicly declared (did not exclude, nor confess) the particulars of my day-to-day struggles, formally, in writing?”

Why declare and not confess? My first thought was Foucault, who associated confession with the medieval Church and, later on, psychology. It’s a way of producing and controlling the modern subject. Szymaszek would rather not take part in that: “I’m not generating a personality in a non-industrialized city / setting inquisitive energy free.”

Confession also implies that you’re performing shame or telling a conversion story. Szymaszek does neither. They refuse to write narrative; they even say (in Famous Hermits), “a story is what I will never give anyone.” She doesn’t objectify or “use” life.

What holds together Szymaszek’s poetry, if not narrative? Its music. And her consistent attention (the unforced but focused attention of meditators). And one more thing, her attitude toward words, which I’ll explain later.

What are the contents of this verse record? Dreams, thoughts, quotations, train sounds, a haircut, a trip to the doctor…—but the poems are not merely “a graph or picture of a mind moving,” as Philip Whalen wrote. They are also full of complaints, like “the put-on words of quasi-populists / buggin’ me,” or “how many times do I have to quit this job?” And these complaints become, in the last poem, a mode of writing.

The last poem is also called “Famous Hermits,” and it’s a thirty-seven-page serial poem. Here the “I” is not a neoliberal “I” that hoards identity, experience, and wealth. Nor is it the alienated “I” of some US poetry, that seems at times to embrace its own disempowerment. Instead, it is an “I” that refuses:

The refusals are not melodramatic or totalizing. They are small, light movements. I understand the basic dance of Szymaszek’s poetry as, how can I maintain freedom within changing constraints, external and internal? She’s writing against what Pier Paolo Pasolini called our “shared, compulsory and wrong education that pushes us to own everything at any price.” Another image comes to mind: Szymaszek sits with their back to the wind and writes notes in pencil. I think of the “Famous Hermits” sequence as a manifesto in pencil, in a spiral notebook, written in a daily, accretive way, with stray marks.

The lines fall loosely into place. To Szymaszek, poetry is (among other things) a moment of freedom. Not a neoliberal freedom to consume what you wish, but one’s ability, however momentary, to respond, like the spider in their Tucson apartment who “release[s] a leg that has been grasped by an external agent.” Or like Szymaszek when they keep their balance on an icy sidewalk:

Poetry as an activity already affords some autonomy because it doesn’t make money, and you don’t have to objectify yourself to write it (though some people do). You don’t have to do anything.

And poetry is also freedom from definition, from knowing:

There are nights that don’t / ever happen is a line by the Italian poet Alda Marini. As I understand it, Szymaszek refers to hidden time, moments that are undefinable and free because they are also death. (As Heriberto Yépez writes, “time is death and empire is the denial of death.”)

Szymaszek writes.

And so she leaves New York, asking, “what is it to leave an elite / city of the world / where people go to succeed”? She calls New York “the elite city,” perhaps to resist any romantic notions that readers might attach to its name. She rejects it. The heartbeat of New York says you want, or you need; you NEED to be at the scintillating “center” of (human) activity, i.e., consumption. And for some US poets New York is their capital; to them it is still the city of O’Hara, Lorca, Mayer, Baraka, etc. So “it’s threatening when people leave ‘the best community available’ / because it may be that we have given up on the dream.”

After one year in Montana, Szymaszek moved to Tucson, Arizona. Thus the hermits of the title, for the word hermit comes from

Her desert companions are her lover, cacti, the mountains, old women, dead poets, lizards, a plumber, a spider, and a mouse. She dreams that

Szymaszek also writes in a fourth century desert milieu, in which the Christian monk Antony, in his wanderings, espied “a man that was part horse,” as St. Jerome wrote, “whom the imagination of the poets has called the Hippocentaur.” It is by the actions of the hermits, as well as by their voice, manners, dress, and comportment, that one judges the veracity of their words. And it is the poet’s life that gives meaning to their poetry. This “meaning,” which can often be apprehended simply by reading the poems, is (I think) what Szymaszek calls “integrity.” It is not moral “goodness,” but whether the poet understands “… that the stakes are myself / I have no other / ransom money, nothing to break or barter but my life” (Diane di Prima).

This realization is a great aid to poetry, and it allows one to dispense of many obstacles. One obstacle to writing poetry is fear, which produces egotism, competition, careerism, and mediocrity. Szymaszek writes:

Another obstacle is being caught in a state of hardness, that is, non receptivity, un response-ability:

A third obstacle is lack of discipline (bare will) and a fourth is distraction (by advertising, television, etc., and the states of mind they generate).

After Antony saw the Hippocentaur, he met a she-wolf and followed her into a mountain. There he discovered the hermitage of his friend, Paul of Thebes: “And after the holy kiss, Paul sat down beside Antony, and began to speak.” Paul asked “whose empire is it that now sways the world; and if any still survive, snared in the error of the demons.”

Syzmaszek has not turned their back on the civic world. But their poetry bears the seal of Antony and Paul’s holy kiss. Something animates it—love? The love cannot be identified in a particular word or line. It cannot be objectified as a “thing,” an element, of their work (“for a THING can be funded”). Rather it moves across the lines, and line breaks, pauses,

The words are good conductors because they have been activated, similar to how Emily Dickinson set words into vibrating matrices. What activates the words is Szymaszek’s unforced attention and her attitude toward her lexicon. It is analogous to how she relates to the animal subjects—iguanas, vultures, cows, and mice—of her pastel portraits, which she has been creating for a few years and which her partner, Kimberly Alidio, once called self-portraits. She treats the animals (and the words) with the same dignity that she affords herself. They are funny or awkward, yet regal:

The abbreviation “org” (for organization) sits in a way that makes me laugh. And the deadpan “o” of “o a fir.” To strip English words of posturing is a kind of antipoetry. In a 2019 essay titled “Antipoetry,” Szymaszek wrote, “we don’t need to add more poetry to [poetry].” Or as Nina Simone told her musicians during a recording session, “Just relax, relax. You’re pushing it. It’ll go up by itself.” Stripped of posturing, the words become humble, oddly shaped, at times charming.

Yes, charming. I forgot to mention that there is a lot of humor in this book. I felt joy reading Famous Hermits, to find the “poetic” removed from English words. Szymaszek writes with integrity. And with their particularity, their crabbiness, intact. An “art hermit.”


Translation credits:

“shared, compulsory and wrong education” is from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s final interview, with Furio Colombo, translated by Anna Battista.

The story of Antony and Paul is from St. Jerome’s The Life of St. Paul the First Hermit, translated by Helen Waddell in The Desert Fathers (1957).


Will Fesperman

Will Fesperman is a poet and translator. His chapbook, Pacific Ability, was published last year with Spiral Editions.