Review | case sensitive, by Kate Greenstreet

Caveat lector. Readers who like their poetry spoon-fed should probably look elsewhere; but those who prefer the search to the easy answers will find much to entice and challenge them in case sensitive. “What’s the appeal of a mystery?” Kate Greenstreet asks early on. Her answer: “Someone is looking for something, actively.”  This edgy—not to say jagged—collection both enacts this active looking and requires it of the reader.

Greenstreet presents the terms of her narrator’s search in scraps, like fragments of documents rescued from a fire, half-overheard conversations, or barely remembered dreams. Hers is a fluid world: memory cannot be trusted; people vanish; spirits hover; the speaker herself is nearly invisible. “Can’t tell you how your phrase ‘the letter from a ghost’ / makes me feel. Recognized,” she says. In fact, there is a letter from a ghost, “delivered five years late,” apparently (although this information appears much later in the book) from Mary, a friend of the narrator’s mother’s who disappeared long ago and has left her house to the narrator. Much of the book deals with the search triggered by this mysterious letter—the narrator’s sudden flight from her marriage, a cross-country trip punctuated by stops at anonymous motels, arrival in a coastal town, her tentative occupancy of the inherited, almost empty house. “How familiar it feels. Not like it’s my house, but like the house is my friend.”

The ghosts, the dream-shards, the house in which the speaker spends her days reclining on a lawn chair under a skylight in the unfurnished living room combine to suggest that the something the speaker is “looking for . . . actively” is home, the past she once inhabited and can no longer recognize. Loss of home is explicitly equated with ghosthood, loss of the self. In one poem Lot’s wife looks back because she is losing her home and, in becoming the pillar of salt, ceases to exist. (“That was it. Nothing happened to her. She wasn’t mentioned again. Except as a warning.”) 

The image of the inherited house, both familiar and vacant (“Why is the house empty anyway? / No one thinks of it”), captures the way memory functions—a few (but too few) promising leads, an uncertain sense of having been there before, but no smoking gun, no explicit confession. “You look for home and you land somewhere. You look for friends and find the dead,” Greenstreet observes. At the end of the book, however, she enjoins us to “try to recall the idea that all messages join, somewhere.”

The mystery of case sensitive then is not merely an enjoyably noir thriller, not merely a piecing together of cryptic clues to a puzzle, but also and more so a mystery in the ancient religious sense: a ritual journey toward revelation and recovery of the soul’s secrets. Mary, the mysterious benefactor, is (or perhaps was, since she may have been murdered) a nurse. Through her gift, she functions as midwife to the process of discovery. At the end, however, we should expect not to know “whodunit” but rather what it means to pursue such a quest.

Greenstreet doesn’t make it easy. Her narrative is neither chronological nor linear. I have to confess that, when I began reading case sensitive with an eye to reviewing it, I expected to emphasize other, more formal qualities—Greenstreet’s use of found materials, her deft handling of apparently random associations, her deliberately flat diction—rather than the submerged and fragmentary story line. It was only in subsequent readings that I began to appreciate how structural (and therefore formal) a role that narrative plays in the book.

“A story has to leave out nearly everything or nobody can follow it,” Greenstreet declares, and she is true to her dictum. The laconic prose paragraphs in which most of the story is revealed are disrupted by other voices, seemingly irrelevant quotations (some from historical figures like Lorine Niedecker and Marie Curie, some unattributed) that suggest both a car radio between stations and the mind itself simultaneously striving to recapture memory and distracted by free association.

The language of case sensitive also mimics the mind’s act of recall. It’s conversational, even prosaic. Many passages are spoken in the affectless voice one uses to recall a dream:  “I was visiting my mother in jail and ran into Perry Mason in the hall. He was with someone, maybe Della.”  Or, even more tellingly, “We lived somewhere. I was out in the yard, I looked around. I thought, where are we?  Where do we live now?”  In spite of the absence of verbal fireworks, Greenstreet’s voice insinuates itself into the reader’s consciousness. How else except through this almost childlike language could she tell the story of this journey into the Dream Time?

And, in the broadest sense, case sensitive is a story, not a collection of discrete poems. Granted, many of the poems have been published separately in journals. Granted, the book is almost insistently divided into sections, each of which could function as a chapbook, with titles out of a library’s card catalog (“Great Women of Science,” “Book of Love,” “Where’s the Body”), each with its own set of notes—a device, by the way, that I found confusing when I tried to correlate the first footnoted passage with the notes at the back that, it turned out, applied only to the last section.

Nevertheless, case sensitive is best read straight through, then read again—and perhaps a few more times. Trust me, it’s worth it, although you should not expect the formulaically neat ending in which the detective calls all the suspects together in his library to expose the culprit and, in the process, to account for every clue and red herring. Greenstreet’s gnomic passages of ghosts, letters, and sudden journeys make the fullest sense only when read as part of the whole and, only as part of the whole, make credible her hope that “all messages join, somewhere.” Dashiell Hammett, another author whose characters stumble into complicated detours and eerie correspondences in their search for untidy truth, would approve.   

Kate Greenstreet was born in Chicago and currently resides in New Jersey, where she works as a graphic designer. She is the author of case sensitive (Ahsahta Press, 2006), and three chapbooks, Learning the Language (Etherdome Press, 2005), Rushes (above/ground press, 2007), and This is why I hurt you (forthcoming from Lame House Press). Her second book, The Last 4 Things, will be out from Ahsahta in 2009.