August 17, 2018KR Reviews

On The End of Something by Kate Greenstreet

Boise, ID: Ahsahta Press, 2017. 176 pages. $20.00.

In 2017, Kaveh Akbar published a crowdsourced list of writers’ “signature words” (Maya Angelou: “phenomenal,” Margaret Atwood: “handmaid”). It’s a fun list—of indexical epithets, search terms, tags—but, to a stuffy reader, it could suggest that the “utmost ambition” for poets isn’t, as Robert Frost (“snowy”) claimed, “to lodge a few poems where they will be hard to get rid of” but to caption a flash card, make a canon of memes. If we were going to split the difference and list signature statements that won’t reduce literary nucleuses to their most transmissible uses, I’d nominate this one for poet Kate Greenstreet, from an interview she gave years ago: “I’d say that making up a poem is a way to share a secret without telling it.” The statement’s provenance is critically rich: in 2006, it served as an epigraph to a review of Greenstreet’s work by Olivia Cronk; in 2017, it framed the end of a review by Eileen Tabios (“The review, you see, aspires to be somewhat like Greenstreet’s poetry”). Greenstreet repeated it in the author’s statement for her new book, The End of Something.

It’s significant, especially, because it offers an explanation, and Greenstreet’s poetry can favor seeming over explaining. “The speaker seems to lament something,” writes Laura Carter of the new collection. And: “She seems to want to say something to the addressee.” The poems’ attention to semblance feels more intricate than vague, I think, because of Greenstreet’s alluringly reticulated minimalism. In the title of the new collection, “end” is terminus and purpose; “something” is underlined (as in, “that was really something”) and undefined. The poems also invite intimacy by questioning themselves; a statement might be ambiguous, but it invites you to lean closer, unambiguously. The passage below shares its curiosity about space and diction. Its wondering conveys a sense of calm wonder:

What moves below the ground
What stirs
under the ground
Guessing about weather
Imagining the rooms

This wondering about the present suggests that what we share most, when we share a secret, may be our time together. There’s a similar curiosity about how we experience time—and the language we have for it—in many lines that look back at themselves (“There’s always that moment with people, / right? You look back . . . you can’t believe”) and in statements at once ponderous and emphatic (“How we came to exist. / How we came to be here, everywhere at once”). It’s common to say that “difficult” poetry asks a reader to participate in how a poem critiques and constructs the meaning of meaning; in Greenstreet’s work, it doesn’t feel like we need to sign up for a heady seminar but like we’re already together, traveling through a landscape (“There’s Franny’s house again,” reads one page in its entirety), stopping by places that matter:

We visited a house I used to live in.
Bright grass was growing in the rooms.
Early morning, summer.

Why have we come?

The secrets hovering in The End of Something can be stated, perhaps, because their impressions are already so particular that they feel specifically mysterious, much as “when you’re fishing and you bring up an old boot, you think: haven’t I brought this boot up before? Haven’t I gotten rid of it before?” That boot, that house, are distinct enough that you can question them. Such specifically mysterious speech has “a quality of matter overheard,” Cronk writes. This emphasis on “matter” differs, I think, from talk of the “materiality” of language; the latter places a reader in relationship to a text, with reference to its referentiality, while the former puts us in earshot of the things of the world, with reference to where we stand. As Kylan Rice writes, Greenstreet’s poems read “as if overheard in snatches through a sheet of drywall”; that means we’re close. But is close close, or just a manner of speaking? (“It isn’t clear what ‘nearby’ means,” Greenstreet observes.) Whatever its distance, in The End of Something the aural landscape keeps coming at us (“Can someone shut that dog up?”). Greenstreet records the conversant gaps that both break through static and preserve its buzz:

I remember,
of course.
He was

as he was.
And myself,

The picture
is imperfect,

As when it’s said:
“I am partial

I think of Frost, again: he suggested that “the best place to get the abstract sound of sense is from voices behind a door that cuts off the words.” He called this “the most important thing I know,” saying that “the sentence sound often says more than the words”; a melody’s meaning lies more in its warble than in its words, in other words. He gave some examples (“Ask yourself how these sentences would sound without the words in which they are embodied”) that, taken together, have a lot in common with Greenstreet’s approach:

You mean to tell me you can’t read.
I said no such thing.
Well, read then.
You’re not my teacher.

He says it’s too late.
Oh, say!
Damn an Ingersoll watch anyway.

No good! Come back—come back.
Haslam go down there and make those kids get out of the track.

Phrases like these, Frost said, strike “posture proper.” He didn’t mean a propriety of proper conduct but of prodigious conducting—the conduct of sentences that might lodge in us, with the vernacular familiarity of secrets we didn’t know we had. It’s how voice seems true, you could say. In The End of Something, tone holds meaning through similar gestures, though Greenstreet’s phrases—inquisitive, ruminative—don’t lodge as much as loosen; the “posture proper” is open-handed, purposefully “imperfect, / partial”:

Actually, she didn’t have
She didn’t go
We took her down

Have you ever
been held down?
I really don’t know.

I’ve seen a dog swim out there half a mile.
Sayin’ the dog’s smarter than you?

As readers, what does The End of Something conduct us to? There are characters, though they can blend (“And of course they’re often named Mike”). There are situations (“He’d brought a pizza, he was letting the dog eat it with him”), some of which become refrain. There’s dialogue that suggests scene, at times tinged with drug use or other frayed states (“at first, splitting a quarter was something you could do”). There are dreams (“Then I remembered the two plastic bags I had with me, full of bloody rags”), ghosts, mysteries which include the question of why certain moments feel mysterious. There could be any number of speakers. To consider the effect of it all, of what comes into focus in The End of Something, let’s look at the sections that Greenstreet has described as “notes” for the book’s fourteen main sequences. As reflections on composition, their modes include annotation, instruction, citation, credo, commentary, and what seem like cuttings from the text:

I want to speak plainly, not un-include

I have missed our conversation.

A few years ago something happened.

I spent a whole day writing you a letter.

I thought I’d made the most beautiful thing I ever made.

“Hermes is the god of the roads. He rules the ways in between, the linking routes between different domains and levels of the psyche. He presides over the wanderer and the merchant,

for he belongs nowhere and travels everywhere, speaking every language and dealing in every currency.” (Liz Greene, in The Luminaries)

As a poetics, these notes marry creation and criticism. Their language usually doesn’t differ much from the language in the poems, which can also feel notational. They’re distinct, instead, because they appear in response, in another architecture within the book. If, as Stevens says, a modern poem shows “the mind in the act of finding / What will suffice,” these notes, especially, emphasize the act, not the finding—the tone that holds the sound of sense, not always the sense that lodges; not the secret, but the feeling of one who writes, “I thought she said, ‘You’ll need a secret.’” Need it for what? What’s most clear in The End of Something may be the need to set off “in the end,” despite both loss and not yet having lost enough to really understand what’s left:

Learn the lesson of the pioneer.
Learn by losing.

Everybody’s trying to get home.

We waited for the optimum conditions
but in the end set off in a storm.

In Greenstreet’s work, you’re right to hear “set off” with a hint of “to emphasize, to make pop,” just as you’re right to hear “making up”—in “I’d say that making up a poem is a way to share a secret without telling it”—with tinges of both “invention” and “reconciliation, reconvening.” That making up happens at the speed of speech that keeps coming back, like “the urge / to keep a fire going. // Even when you’re not cold anymore.” Through its intent articulation of such urges, The End of Something makes up an atmospheric account of “another story / about how life could be” and shares it like a secret we find ourselves inside.

And in this way, The End of Something may be less about structures of the memorable—the proverb, the signature word—than in those of forgetting, or of half-forgetting and what that brings to mind most vividly, the “unspeakable forgotten traumas that flare across [the book] like overhead transparencies,” as Rice writes. This highlights the “uncanny moments that lace the commonplace,” he says. According to Christopher Nelson, Greenstreet has the “uncanny power to bring the mystery of the everyday into clear focus, even if fleetingly.” Is there a secret in here? The secret may be that the secret passes, and we find ourselves somewhere anew: “When I told her, she said: ‘You can’t tell me this.’ / I say okay. // The table had been laid.”

Zach Savich
Zach Savich's most recent books are the poetry collection Daybed (Black Ocean, 2018) and the memoir Diving Makes the Water Deep (Rescue Press, 2018). He teaches at the University of the Arts, in Philadelphia.