Wednesday, May 23, 2007



Emptied of All Ships by Stacy Szymaszek
(Litmus Press, New York, 2005)

Stacy Szymaszek’s Emptied of All Ships is a troubling book, but troubling in a good way. On first glance, it’s easily recognizable as utterly American—one can even hear echoes of Melville in lines like “Call it James,” but it is the easy to recognize aspect that most makes the reader see how different it is. Take the line above. Melville’s famous opening line is “Call me Ishmael.” Melville brings up the question of whether or not the narrator is really called Ishmael; he brings doubt into our minds, but we don’t wonder about whether or not Ishmael is really a male—Melville doesn’t bring into the foreground issues of gender, but Szymaszek definitely does. “Call it James.” Is it a person? Is it male, female, or other? Are our conceptions of gender too strict to describe James, a lover in the book? Szymaszek, I believe, answers yes in this book. James (a traditionally male name), in the section Some Mariners, becomes both a lover/ex-lover and a persona for the poet, but he/she/it is a more complicated character to tie down (pardon the play) than most of Melville’s characters, but let me come back to him/her/it.

The book is composed of many poems, some of which originally came out in chapbook form, that all connect together well due to the theme of the book, which is basically the sea and what happens on/in it. However, even the sea is not just the sea in this book:

every sea
a battle scene
cast anchor
and survey
of sharks. (32)

The sea as almost a character itself in the book, as it could be seen as one in Moby Dick, represents many different things, from the unconquerable to the space of desire to the space of discovery to the space of mainstream society. The sea as presented is multi-faceted and changing. Take, for instance, these lines:

beneath the tarpaulin

you are the sea monster

I am your sea. (60)

Obviously, the sea is both a space of desire and a representation of desire in this section, but in the section quoted above, the sea is a “battle scene,” the place where wars are fought to figure out who is in charge or claim control of a space.

The poems in the beginning of the book explore the sea, the people on/in it, and voyaging into it (though “emptied of all ships”). The people who pop up in these poems are sailors in Melville’s sense—they are not ordinary people tied to safety, tied to bank accounts and traditional beliefs of society; rather, they are people on the fringe or are people ready to explore the edge of safety or of what lies just beyond safety. We could call them outlaws or outcast, but that would not quite be accurate. They seem more like bits of our psyches loosed from the mooring.

The poems from the first part of the book set the stage for the section Some Mariners, easily the most fascinating section of the book, not just for the style, but for the way this section mimics and speaks out against other American works. The character James is just the tip. He is our Ishmael, but we are even more doubtful about who/what he/she/it is. He could be a she, but she could be an it. We are told something is wrong with James’ arm and that one of his arms is a feeling arm, and beyond that, we see James and the narrator engage each other on various levels. Sometimes James and narrator appear to be involved sexually, but sometimes the narrator seems to be involved with another “you” sexually. Is it James? Was it ever James really? Sex and desire permeate this section of the book, but the construction of the section is also fascinating. Included in the individual poems that make up the section are translation attributed to James. Do the translations deal with trans-lating as much as trans-locating James?

Szymaszek’s Emptied of All Ships provokes many questions with language that is both evocative and subtle; moreover, this book signals a new way of perceiving in American culture of desire and leaves the reader waiting and wondering what Szymaszek will do next.


William Allegrezza teaches and writes from his base in Chicago. His poems, articles, and reviews have been published in several countries, including the U.S., Holland, Finland, the Czech Republic, and Australia, and are available in many online journals. Also, he is the editor of moria, a journal dedicated to experimental poetry and poetics, and the editor-in-chief of Cracked Slab Books. His e-books, chapbooks, and books include In the Weaver’s Valley, The Vicious Bunny Translations, Ishmael Among the Bushes, Covering Over, Temporal Nomads, Lingo, and Ladders in July. His book Fragile Replacements is forthcoming in 2007 with Meritage Press.


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