From Kate Greenstreet’s eponymous poem, “The Last 4 Things”
by Virginia Konchan
“I know what I tell myself. Sometimes he seems to be the camera/ (who we will be later).” And: “Born on this earth,/ we’re all alone tonight./ The sphere of mortal life, the fruiting spike, the ear.// Stand there./ I’ll take your photograph.” Being begins with the projection and recognition of ourselves in the gaze of another, Greenstreet reminds us: what does that projection look like in conceptual or post-lyric poetry, wherein all discourse is constructed (or constructivist), all poems, propositional realities, and all poets, supreme fictions, themselves? More importantly, how does the tenuous reality of our world, and art (as sustained projection), depend upon who tells the story, or control what is seen through, or in, the lens and frame? From Greenstreet’s chapbook, This is why I hurt you: “The story changes as perspectives change. See, I’d still be there, but my organs would be gone. My eyes. How power works. Power over.” Greenstreet’s focus is as far from auteur theory as possible: what she wants is to know and represent what her subject desires (“What you wanted,/ I wanted that for you.”)
Cinema “solved” the Platonic problematic of truth and representation (the projectionist’s lament) via cinéma vérité: an attempt to record events directly without a narrator’s voice-over or other stylistic “interference” (New Criticism, and the objectivist school of poetry—also largely composed of men—can be seen as other attempts to reify masculinist perception as “truth”), though, in cinéma vérité the camera (as recording instrument, not perspectival bias) is acknowledged. Anthropological cinema, attentive to the social and political implications of what is captured on film, as well as the modes of representation, is a fitting analog for Greenstreet’s multi-media work: her six chapbooks and three full-length collections (Young Tambling, The Last 4 Things, and case sensitive) create spaces (aural, visual, and semantic) for the arrival of presence-as-value. Of her own process, Greenstreet asks herself: “how do I feel when I say it? And, how far would I be willing to go in order to have people hear me say it?” An art, in other words, of finding not only what will suffice, but language that feels truthful, and necessary.
From “disappearing ink”:
It’s quiet lately at the fortuneteller’s.
To control content, use actions.
hasn’t appeared yet, but
whose purpose we deduce.
I know it’s there.
Love, I think.
Or maybe it was goodness.
So many hopes for the outside.
(O hunger, O equivalent)
I approach it calmly.
It spills into everything.
Greenstreet’s materialization of language often takes the form of directorial asides (recalling John Stuart Mill’s dictum that oratory is heard, and poetry, “overheard”), shifting the male gaze to the woman-cineaste as narrator rather than subject narrated or filmed. The compositional methods of painting, film, and poetry all rely on skills equal parts technical and virtuosic: Greenstreet resists, with modernist élan, pretensions of mastery, in collections that mine the speaker’s own culpability (This is why I hurt you) through archaeological poem-sites that mark a subject’s disappearance (“Very beautiful showed the lie…We don’t know what it means but we do know that the person disappears”) while exposing the very search for the ding an sich (artifactual “truth”) to reveal more mirrors. A necessary artifice, perhaps, yet Greenstreet’s commitment to form tends to be literal (i.e. the shredded lines, sealed in plastic, of the text our weakness no stranger) rather than abstract, her drive for precision echoed in her description of “what’s missing in poetry” (“…a couple of maps,/ a good-looking equation.”)
“disappearing ink” and Greenstreet’s first two full-length collections (case sensitive; The Last 4 Things) bear witness to the modernist tropes of poetic impersonality, ambiguity, self-consciousness, and the devaluation of content, while performing various interventions on these tropes through sound experiments, experimental art books, and film, entering boldly the revolving door of history wherein contemporary poets are tasked with finding forms adequate to the post-modern triumvirate of violence, contingency, natural disaster, and loss. Again, from “The Last 4 Things”: “If we haven’t beauty/ or wealth/ or even goodness to save us…// Be brave but—/ say there was a fire.”
As photography and painting continue the race for survival as mediums, Greenstreet’s work asks what the figurative or filmic image is attempting to impart to us in a late capitalist age. With painterly attention to sensory minutiae, Greenstreet proves that images and texts are still capable of being “read” (slowly or otherwise), signaling an implicit rebellion against the kinetic pace of technology, logocentrism, and the culture machine’s ready production and dissemination of images as objects rather than nodes of cultural meaning and repose.
Greenstreet’s chapbook “but even now I am perhaps not speaking” cuts deeper to the epistemic dilemma of la langue versus parole (speaking versus discourse) for the contemporary female poet, whose “voice” has, throughout history, often been a mimicry of phallogocentric discourse: what Xavière Gauthei, in an interview with Marguerite Duras, describes as a “subterranean potential.”1 The male, in Greenstreet’s poem “the world reflected in the place you are,” is given the powers of self-representation in speech as well as contemplation of means and ends (“Think about how you want to live”). The (ostensibly female) speaker’s domain, conversely, is that of the image, not the word: “talking about all those pictures.// Every wheel,/ every mill.// Describes a different kind of work.” Deftly, these poems overwrite an industrialized model of production and a poetic self re-privatized by the state, wherein speech echoes in the isolated chamber of one’s own mind, not the public sphere. The Sisyphean and non-remunerative struggle for recognition and the right to be a signifier continues, in these poems, without end: “I’m…writing my poem/ about the city. Talking to the drapes./ 100 bricks a day.”
Artist-inventor muses such as Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Louise Bourgeois, and Agnes Martin, inform Greenstreet’s interest in poetry as a “different kind of work”: each of the five sections of case sensitive (“Great Women of Science”; “[SALT]”; “Book of Love”; “Where’s the Body?”; and “Diplomacy”) come bearing their own appendixes, and also reference writers such as Lorine Niedecker, voices that “call to one another./ Maybe communicate with flashlights.” “Their example…provides me with the equivalent of my character’s inherited house …the menial/manual labor, the caring for the parents, and…a persistent ‘outsider’-ness,” Greenstreet explains in an interview. One grasps the connection with Niedecker, whose laconic poems (exercising ironic restraint amid the maximalist aesthetic of modernism and its epic stagings of history, from The Cantos to Williams’ Paterson) took place at the intersections of the folk, surrealist, and objectivist traditions, an ouvre marked, according to Rachel Blau DuPlessis, by “self-miniaturization” and anonymity.2
Niedecker’s poems, like Greenstreet’s, traverse a variety of subject matters, but are everywhere marked by a leftist critique of modernism before it became cultural hegemony. Niedecker’s class critique arose from her own class position, whether proofreading for Hoard’s Dairyman or working as a cleaning woman at Fort Atkinson Memorial Hospital: demotic diction and recurrent metaphors of economy (money, language) populate both poets’ work, as well, yet Greenstreet’s embedding of quotations renders her work dialogic rather than monadic (as Greenstreet says about case sensitive: “reading is part of the subject matter.”)
In Greenstreet’s multimedia and cross-genre work, one finds more questions than answers, despite her relatively stable group of themes (including death’s permanence, and cultural and personal forms of memory).3 Whether a form of “literary decoupage” (in the words of Jessica Piazza), or, after Wittgenstein, “lyrical investigations,” the theme of criminal justice in Greenstreet’s work would be incomplete without a consideration of how she uses investigatory tactics as an epistemological position for a speaker not acting as the sujet en procès herself, but as her interlocutor. From The Last 4 Things:
—And no one knew you?
—I was hard to know. I lied. I had to.
—They say you’re always sad.
—There are a few things I’m afraid of. Quite a few, actually. I’d like to sleep. But if I have to do this the whole time I sleep . . .
Then suddenly resistance in the middle of a turn.
Someone was there to take a picture.”
Other post-avant poets (e.g. Brenda Hillman, C.D. Wright) also question the duplicities of autobiography, marshaling what Reginald Shepherd calls the incorporation of fracture and disjunction without enthroning it as a ruling principle: “They are interested in exploring, interrogating, and sometimes exploding language, identity, and society, without giving up on the pleasures, challenges, and resources of the traditional lyric.”4
Greenstreet’s poem “Clearing,” is the kind of “letter from another world” (Dickinson) Greenstreet described wanting the collection The Last 4 Things to be, as well as a denial of utopic futures, to embrace, within the dilated lyric moment, “things as they are” without the synergistic potentialities of the present (the time of reading) for self- and world-amelioration.
He loses ground building cabins.
The air reminds her of before.
People keep arriving (you, like all others).
We want to show you who we were.
Start by sitting in a comfortable position.
Notice it’s powerful, yet pleasant.
One small room, wooden floor, favorite window.
The leaves are burning. Why should it be better.
“Things as they are,” including our selves in process, are not always what we want them to be, or what we want to see: hence a restless unfolding of what has been referred to as the “speaker’s relationship to her conjured self.” The dream logic of an unsolved mystery is where the genre distinctions between poetry and narrative and detective fiction begin to dehisce in the “real world”: the fourth section of case sensitive, “Where’s the Body?” contextualized by the book’s opening salvo (“Someone is looking for something, actively”).
The language of case sensitive “mimics the mind’s act of recall”: the poetic act of recollection is what radicalizes this space. Through ghost-ciphers, the speaker and the reader travel together through time through a landscape that, like Anna Akhmatova’s Requiem cycle, or Carolyn Forché’s The Angel of History, documents how memory survives the unimaginable. This is not to say that Greenstreet is invested in “alternative universes,” but, rather, a search for the corpus, or incorporated text: “I’m interested in building an all-times-present moment. The search for the body is the search for the present. I’m more aware of the desire to destabilize narrative than to destabilize language.” This metaphysical uncertainty occasionally produces a rudderless quality in Greenstreet’s poems, but more often, this shifting foundation of personhood generates a confrontation not with the mind, but the facticity of the body, and suffering, evoking a resistance to what Vanessa Place calls the mistake of a “moral calculus of violence,” dangerous not because violence is immoral but because violence (punished or not) is incalculable.5
Kate: “The trouble I have with a murder mystery or crime drama is the revealed motive. It’s always disappointing! That the mystery gets solved should be satisfaction enough, or even that justice is served (though that’s a more complicated matter). But I always hunger for a motive or motives—a reason—that’s as compelling as the search for it… The crime? That we’re here as we are and no one knows why.” The coincidence of medium (language) and meaning in poetry differentiates it from visual art forms, as words “think” beyond the iconic representation of the mirror and the mirror’s seemingly indexical relationship to “reality.” Laboring, again, not to distort one’s subject, but rather co-invent her, the perspectival “gaze” in Greenstreet’s ars poetica, “future in the past,” connects the labors of the hand and eye to conjure the face of the beloved, making the crime of “breaking things” (and inherited forms, cinematic and literary), necessary.
Fidelity to a fractured image of history and self fuels Greenstreet’s cinematic innovation of the lyric, rather than fidelity to an a priori, totalizing directorial vision that overrides the ethics of co-constituency, in art, politics, and life. The enigmatic discoveries in her work yield answers (form enables, yet is not equivalent to, meaning) that feel revelatory, and deeply humane, as a result, for the poet and her reader. “Greenstreet affirms that we are likelier to be changed than saved,” as critic Maggie Schwed put it. “And either way, we’ll need our best equipment.”6
The final questions, then, are as humane as they are formal: what medium is the most “faithful” to life? How does a poet “represent” a cinematic image, or life, perceived in 3-D, and rendered on a page, in the prison of sequential—i.e. narratological, rather than lyric—time? The answers, luckily for her readers, are formal as well as personal, which is to say, Greenstreet’s work and life are connected, and her poems, extensive of her lived labors. Young Tambling, speaks to the ghosted hope of an afterlife, to the work of witness, and the prismatic illusion of the image, before it becomes a speaking subject, in a film, a book, or (the telos of all art), the world.
“People often ask me why my photographs are torn.
The purpose would be
to learn. To represent a life.”
1. Marguerite Duras and Xavière Gautheir, Woman to Woman, trans. Katharine A. Jensen, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987, p. 22.
2. Rachel Blau DuPlessis, “Lorine Niedecker, Anonymous: Gender, Class, Genre, and Resistance” (Kenyon Review, March, 1992), p. 2.
3. In the two short films that accompany her book The Last Four Things (a Biblical reference to The Final Judgment, Death, Hell, and Heaven) and in the various videos Greenstreet has produced or coproduced, there is an opportunity to “see” (or not see: the short video “Trailer,” closes with the quote “The narrative inhabits its proper dark”) Greenstreet’s relationship to the image beyond the 2-D optic grid of the page. “There’s no place to live anymore,” a disembodied voice on the video “goodbye” says—this inverted image (of placelessness) is another sleight-of-hand for Greenstreet, making her a kind of demagogue of history’s most haunted places (both psychic and physical) and subjects. To remove the most basic spatio-temporal frame, that of cause and effect, is, for Greenstreet, the foundation of a poem.
4. Reginald Shepherd, “Who You Callin’ Post-Avant?” (Nothing to Say & Saying It, April 5, 2010).
5. Vanessa Place, The Guilt Project: Rape, Morality, and the Law (New York: Other Press, 2010), p. 26.
6. Maggie Schwed, “Review: The Last Four Things, by Kate Greenstreet,” Blackbird, Spring 2010, Vol. 9. No.1
Blau DuPlessis, Rachel. “Lorine Niedecker, Anonymous: Gender, Class, Genre, and Resistance” (Kenyon Review, March, 1992).
Duras, Marguerite and Xavière Gautheir, Woman to Woman, trans. Katharine A. Jensen (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987).
Greenstreet, Kate. Young Tambling (Boise: Ahsahta Press, 2013).
“but even now I am perhaps not speaking” (Imprint Press, 2010).
The Last Four Things (Boise: Ahsahta Press, 2009).
This is why I hurt you (Brooklyn: Lame House, 2007).
case sensitive (Boise: Ahsahta Press, 2006).
Shepherd, Reginald. “Who You Callin’ Post-Avant?” (Nothing to Say & Saying It, April 5, 2010).
Place, Vanessa. The Guilt Project: Rape, Morality, and the Law (New York: Other Press, 2010).
In case sensitive, a female character, driving across the U.S. and writing in a journal, channels and intertwines her impressions of numerous other voices, including the work of other writers (Lorine Niedecker), of artists (Agnes Martin and Louise Bourgeois), a biography of Marie Curie, and a mystery story.
Virginia Konchan is the author of two poetry collections, Any God Will Do (Carnegie Mellon, 2020) and The End of Spectacle (Carnegie Mellon, 2018), a collection of short stories, Anatomical Gift (Noctuary Press, 2017), and three chapbooks, including Empire of Dirt (above/ground press, 2019), Virginia Konchan's poetry and criticism has appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic, Boston Review, and elsewhere.