The Last 4 Things
by Kate Greenstreet
Ahsahta Press 2009
Reviewed by DJ Dolack
“…Because the transmission was impaired.”
At first, you might want to think Kate Greenstreet’s new collection holds you at arm’s length, refusing to fully engage. The book is split into two long poems that twist and pause suddenly, changing form, speaker and context without warning. Even the cover itself is a blurred and abstract image of light from a video screen, barely showcasing a title or author. Of the finished product, Greenstreet herself said she “wanted it to have a feeling it could have come from anywhere, and [that] it was unclaimed,” and she’s succeeded. The Last 4 Things is a beautifully slow, metered trek through shape-shifting characters and belief systems, encounters with family and strangers, and the weight of passing comments they leave behind. A few pages in, you might find yourself, as I did, unable to turn away from the blitz of images, light and splotches of language butting up against each other in terribly uncomfortable but somehow familiar ways. Soon you might realize that the obfuscation is a looking glass, and what ties the collection together is a deeply-rooted uncertainty — one we can neither faithfully describe, nor escape. And when our narrator is as good as Kate Greenstreet, we want to devote ourselves to the exploration.
There is supposedly a main protagonist among the verse, but she is sometimes either hidden or hides herself, and our cameras pan in and out of focus and point of view so that we become detectives in constant motion. She does, however, cling on to bits of information, dialogue and intrigue that are both fascinating and telling. Throughout the long poem, we see this character colored in page by page, observation by observation, as her choices of focus slowly subject her to definition:
In heavy coats, men mass
on the sidewalk.
Ponies who could speak
choose not to. A watch
with water in the face.
Thank you for the pears. Burned
in her presence.
Luckily, our souls don’t need protection.
The main thing is, to keep them interested.
Try to keep them near the body.
— What’s that? Is he taking pictures?
— No. Lightning. This is real.
The idea here is not that the poem is about one thing, or even a set of things, but about how all the themes are connected and how they affect one another. Each sentiment leads to the next, or could speak for the group. There is somehow a strong coherence without a narrative, and it serves us well to employ significant space both physically on the page and in our minds as we read. Near the beginning of the first poem, after a full page of white space Grenstreet writes,
One begins with so little — collecting, sweeping.
Or seeing it, just seeing.
Months of dust. I’d have thought
we all would have been there.
Before his death, you know.
Or maybe nearby.
How will he find me?
Floating in blackness,
we took shelter. “I’ve seen him.”
“Have you seen the end?”
If you’ve never experienced a Greenstreet reading, you’re probably missing out on a lot here. Although the poems themselves can surely stand alone on the page, understanding even a little about her tonality and delivery adds to the gravity of the line. What’s great is that the narration over short films featured on the book’s accompanying DVD gives the uninformed reader a sense of her cunning tone, her wry, close-jawed croak and warmly self-aware delivery. These lines are as much driven by that intonation as they are by the sense of constant movement, splicing and white space. Greenstreet has become a master at tying seemingly disconnected fragments together with a congruent tone and scope, so closely that disparity often becomes an induced empathy, and we use one moment to describe another in a string of influence. This is a book of such strong energy and space we want to be immediately consumed, but that’s just impossible. It takes time and patience to fully enter, and when you aren’t paying attention it fully engrosses you, and you have nothing left to say about it. Even after writing this I find that I’ve barely explained myself, or why this poetry works so well for me, and it’s probably best to let Greenstreet’s own verse do it for me:
A spell, a round, a turn,
Is it fog?
Something between us and the world.