Review | The Last Four Things, by Kate Greenstreet
Ahsahta Press, 2009
There can’t be a manual for how to read a nonlinear text. But if from the words of a poem, “you receive a transmission of ‘meaning’ energy / you cannot decipher,” that can’t be a bad thing. The transmission itself is unmistakable. It’s like being in a meteor shower–a streak burns in the sky, and another, and sometimes a hot rock breaks through the roof of the house. The reader, a little off-balance, appreciates the mix of racing lights and intervals of dark.
Admirers of Greenstreet’s first collection, case sensitive, have much to look forward to in her new book, The Last 4 Things, also from Ahsahta. Divided into two sections, each of which may be seen as a single long poem, and accompanied by a DVD, this new book offers a variety of ways to experience what poetry is, what poetry can be. The first part of the book, bearing the same name as the title, includes ten blank pages, which function as rests, silences, gaps, transitions. The second part, “56 Days” is laid out as prose, each entry dated as in a journal, between December 3 and January 27 of an unspecified (but contemporary) year, with not all fifty-six of the days included. The title of the first section announces religious concerns (echoing the Catholic Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell), although the poet seems no longer to have “the Magic of Believing” that belonged to childhood, and the poems themselves carry an apocalyptic or “last things” feel:
The world was ending, and everybody knew.
We lined up to say goodbye.
I saw some people out on the bridges.
One guy said don’t worry—when it comes,
there’ll be nothing left.
The text is alive with spiritual inquiry, not doctrine. Elsewhere, with that glint of wry humor familiar from earlier work, Greenstreet points out, “Luckily, our souls don’t need protection. / The main thing is, to keep them interested.” By “apocalyptic,” I mean phrases that suggest the conditions of war, the pain of refugees, the “disappeared,” the historical and immediate imagery (and sense) we have of the world burning.
To speak of method. Empathy. Our times, time.
Disappears with me. Sleep a minute.
Perhaps this early couplet describes something of her purpose. She notes the problem of subjectivity: the world disappears with us. And if the human project is empathy . . . it’s an exhausting enterprise: one needs to “sleep a minute.”
Greenstreet explores the life within, consciousness, our vulnerability, our ethical obligations, what our best defenses might be. Photography, with its transforming light and chemicals, the questions it raises about what is real—the image or the thing itself— and the peculiar ways that it stops time and creates artifacts for memory, sometimes even substituting for memory, becomes a motif that lets technical matters serve allusive purposes. Is a photograph a stay against change or an emblem of it? It may be that the only way to get “the real picture” is by having a “limited depth of field.” Can the making of art be an armor “strong as bullets”? She acknowledges, “And making art, too, is a kind of disappearing. A bucket with holes, on purpose.” I love that “on purpose,” fighting back against futility.
Greenstreet’s method is choral (many voiced); like a DJ, she “samples” speech, allowing phrases from different contexts to mingle and generate interesting friction. “The Last 4 Things” is neither an argument, nor the laying out of a single idea. The reader enters a field of signals. Just as many lists of “fours” compete for our attention, time itself shifts quickly between instants of past, present and futurity, and the personal pronouns multiply. As in case sensitive, “I,” “you,” “she,” “we,” “he,” and more, jostle each other, sometimes speaking, sometimes being spoken of. Being denied a single-subject focus, while disconcerting, is essential to the experience of Greenstreet’s work.
The first section can be read as a single poem, or as a sequence under a single title. Some passages are in quotation marks, others in italics–among the voices, you will recognize, here, a phrase from Emily Dickinson, there, words from Isaiah and Corinthians, a whisper of Whitman, a trace of Wittgenstein. Clusters of lines move freely on the page, gathering in twos and threes, leaving the left margin only to return to it or suddenly be justified along the right; a page of couplets will be followed shortly by one of paragraphs; a page may have only six lines on it; another is blank. Fragmentary, fluid, changeable. Greenstreet builds a poetry of inviting sentences and swerves of subject. Often phrases and partial phrases arrest the reader by their overheard quality, by their spoken rhythms, or by one’s sense that “I could have said that.” (Disclosure: in one or two instances, I did say it . . . Greenstreet borrowed from a correspondence of ours, transforming words I had used.) And it’s not surprising that, in a book that explores consciousness, dreams would have a strong presence. It’s nice that Greenstreet’s a good dreamer, and funny, as in this small excerpt in which the dreamer, like a rueful Delmore Schwartz, discovers that a mysterious prop in the dream has the power to impose an obligation:
We were climbing but,
because we had the rakes,
we had to stop every little while and
do some raking.
The concluding poem of this section carries a number of Greenstreet’s themes: the camera, the interior self, time, architecture, our common ground:
For reducing the speed, distributing the light
of a lamp. Dear within, dear second.
You see a building cut in half, its rooms exposed.
How vulnerable a building is,
how simply cut away.
Born on this earth,
we’re all alone tonight.
The sphere of mortal life, the fruiting spike, the ear.
I’ll take your photograph.
Elliptically, we start in the middle of a photographic explanation, “For . . .” The address is to the interior self, the second self, but also to fleeting time (a second). The movement of the pronouns passes from “you” out to “we” and narrows back to “I.” The second stanza is a portrait of demolition, but the words “exposed,” “vulnerable,” “cut away” intimate the nakedness of a human body, and the building seems to be one of the many we’ve come to know in our time, opened by war and natural disaster. Like a lens, the third stanza moves back to a greater distance, expanding the view to humanity, to our doom, mitigated by growth in the graphic “fruiting spike” and by “the ear”–the organ essential to poetry. The soft rhyme of “sphere,” “ear,” and “there” pulls the reader to the end. If we can only “stand there,” in the right place, the voice seems to promise, something will be preserved. The fragile “I,” with its nonetheless tensile strength, will attempt, through art, to preserve, although the poet earlier raises the question: “What would illustrations of the inner life tell?”
In the second half of the book, “56 Days,” the apocalyptic mood is more fully present. Even the title suggests an end. Photography, fire, houses, the making of art persist as motifs, along with new subjects: a baby, belief, provisions against disaster, and phrases drawn from Proverbs 31. (“She considers a field and buys it” is a generative phrase.) Repetition is one of the tools that allows Greenstreet her discontinuities. “We come down from the mountains” and other phrases thread through the journal-like entries, sometimes elaborated or combined into “We come down from the mountains. Yellow trees, green trees, swift river. Farmlands, warm rain.” The chanted naming of green things infuses this section with its lyric qualities, though the mood is often of flight, danger, war, disaster.
The point of view in this section is firmly in the hands of a single “I.” Some entries are straight, linear prose; some are dialogue; most are the snippets of statements and turns that the reader’s grown accustomed to. Some statements are almost proverbial: “‘Faith’ isn’t always replaced by ‘faith in nothing.’” Or “Do a dangerous thing and you’re in danger. That’s how it works.” She continues to sneak in lists of fours: “Incident, occurrence, happening, chance . . .” As with the conclusion to “The Last 4 Things,” “56 Days” ends with the imperfect assurance of that thing we like to do: “Someone was there to take a picture.” A snapshot. A take. A kind of evidence of who we were/are. If it’s little enough to go on, sometimes it’s all we have. Greenstreet affirms that we are likelier to be changed than saved. And either way, we’ll need our best equipment.
So, what are you going to do about that DVD? Some will eagerly pop it into their computers and have a listen/look. Before reading the book? Or after? Or while? The DVD does not reproduce the entire book, only selections. I’d recommend familiarity with the poems first, I think, in order to see more of what Greenstreet is attempting with the film. She is not only a poet, she’s also a photographer, a painter–and now, with this pair of ten-minute accompaniments to the book, a filmmaker–“video experiments” she calls them.
The films are a second art work, in which the poet appears, reciting in her medicinally low-key way, but most of the film is a stream of images, often cued to the text in surprising ways. Silences (both visual and aural) serve as breaks analogous to blank pages. In the first, “4,” the images are frequently of travel (trains, roads, bridges, stations, a plane that evokes the footage we know of those 9/11 planes steering into the towers), scenes of nature (out-of-season cornfields, marshes, slides of shells), human beings, and man made things ranging from buildings to other art works, including a number of Greenstreet’s paintings. And that stream of images occurs in split screen, mixing color alongside black and white, or playing abstractions (painted squares, for example) against realistic scenes.
The second film, “56,” provides a long, repeating cataract of images, especially of a pair of chimneys seen mostly in winter and viewed through a window, or beheld from the road, looking back at the house. Partly through repetition, the hunched pair of forms comes to suggest a human couple. Birds that perch upon them gradually seem like dramatis personae. In the background, voices sound, talking in other languages–not dramatic speeches, just domestic chatter, a vocal hubbub, like something you could hear through an apartment wall but can’t quite make out, or a snatch of language that rises suddenly and floats through an open window. It’s like a car radio, driving into new zones where new stations are picked up, distorted, loud, then fading. The voices suggest, however, that we are all afoot in the world, talking in our various languages. How will we translate? How will we understand each other? I discover, for example, how hard I try to make out what is being said—we seem to need to grasp each other’s meaning. And I have no doubt that Greenstreet intends my efforts.
The films at times become a reading of the text (an interpretation), at times a descant that picks up elements and spins them further, sometimes harmonizing, sometimes dissonant. Or, the movement offers a destabilizing play of rapid shifts between focus and blur. Are the films a translation of the poetry? Are they an equivalent (that is to say, a representation) in another medium? Are they a bit of unfinished business for the poet, a further way of ramifying or getting at what the poems seek to say? I would say the films are a supplement, another body for the poems, an additional way of seeing words, pushing them off the page. At first, the flow of imagery, music, and words (either read aloud or appearing as text, with different fonts acting like different voices—sometimes both simultaneously) bombards the viewer. Greenstreet has excellent timing, however, both aurally and visually and, ultimately, symbolically. This becomes more obvious with repeated viewings.
Greenstreet persuades her reader that it isn’t only the poems that are full of “‘meaning’ energy,” but the world itself, the beautiful given world with its “feckles / of rain.” Despite the troubles that she’s well aware of, that world is transmitting, if we are receiving.