Review of Kate Greenstreet’s The End of Something — February 4, 2018
by Christopher Nelson
The End of Something is Kate Greenstreet’s fourth book of poems, all published by Ahsahta Press. Of course, reviewers always talk about the poems, and I will, but I want to first acknowledge and applaud the artful collaboration between Greenstreet and Janet Holmes of Ahsahta Press. Several pages at the beginning and several at the end are comprised of black-and-white photos or video stills that, in addition to being aesthetically gorgeous, establish the atmosphere of the book: doll hair in sunlight, cows in a field, tree shadow on a barn face, an empty chair. The book is unusually shaped; with more pages than most poetry collections, it is short but wide to accommodate both the brevity of the poems and the wide margins of the occasional prose poem. It is evident that great care went into its design.
Not only is Greenstreet a poet, she is a videographer as well, and The End of Something is accompanied by a series of video poems. “Accompanied” is probably the wrong word, for these are parallel texts—as during the golden days of MTV when a music video wasn’t just an entertaining adjunct to the song but a distinct work of art. Masterfully employing voiceover, Greenstreet’s performance of the poems is coupled with slow, moody images to create an enigmatic atmosphere. In “Cardboard Star,” night snow blows in a streetlamp’s cone of light, then a close-up of cobwebbed statuettes on a windowsill as her intimate voice says, “Look at yourself and realize who you are.” The videos make us feel closer to the speaker we’ve experienced on the page—a speaker her readers will recognize from her previous books, a speaker we have come to love. The allure of Greenstreet’s work from book to book and video to video is her uncanny power to bring the mystery of the everyday into clear focus, even if fleetingly—as in daily life, the mystery is all-pervasive, but our realization of it is touch and go. In “Have You Ever Been Faithful to Someone” she writes,
Here it is: preternatural. Beyond what is normal or natural.
So, yeah, that is the word. Autumn had arrived with preter-
natural speed. Near the end, she kept asking, “When can we
go home?” “We are home,” I’d say, sometimes. Sometimes I’d
In addition to being attuned to mystery, the poems of The End of Something are woven tightly together, the way we are sometimes reminded of an interconnectedness between people, events, and objects in our lives. In one poem a tiny ladder moves by itself, carried by a girl ghost, “Which,” Greenstreet writes, “was spooky at first. But now I can see her, and she is so tiny and quiet and sweet—I really like her now.” Much later in the book is the poem “Tiny Ladder,” in which “The waves have travelled from the fault / to where you are,” and, later, “Everybody wakes up together.” But don’t come to these poems expecting answers or a sense of belonging; for each time that might happen, twice or more you will have felt surprise or bewilderment, as in “The Lives of Saints,” which is a poem about cows.
One of the frequent pleasures of these poems is Greenstreet’s artful compression of language. Micro-narratives and poems that rarely extend beyond one page present delightful ambiguities that make the book richly re-readable. She writes, for example, “Years pass, you find another truth.” This apparently simple sentence simultaneously implies that truth is scarce and we rarely come across it, and our personal truths shift with time—truth being not so bedrock after all but somehow necessarily mercurial. Related to the doubling of meaning through compression is Greenstreet’s deftness with brevity in general, a feature in all of her books. Consider the ripples of meaning and feeling in this one-line poem titled “One Black Leaf”: “What was your mother’s name?” The authorial restraint required to allow one interrogative metaphor to arrow into the reader, to trust the triggering of personal association, is admirable.
These poems’ themes come from an inquiry into identity under the influence of time, haunting (in the sense that it shares etymological roots with home), dreams (in their lucid yet confused relationship to the true), and the past—not sentimental nostalgia but nostalgia out of necessity to understand the self. Toward the end of the book she writes, “That’s my other life following me.” Greenstreet shows us how that which was and that which was not can both flourish inside, becoming phantom lives, or they can very slowly fade, making us fade along with them. That’s what I mean by haunting, and these poems haunt beautifully.