The Last 4 Things by Kate Greenstreet
(Ahsahta Press, Boise, Idaho, 2009. Includes DVD)
What happens when you place things side by side, when even ideas become objects to put next to windows? Kate Greenstreet's The Last 4 Things connects the dots and accepts the multiplicity, the many other ways the dots could have been connected. As readers, we are pursued by the work—by the collection of inner voices, which may or may not be a singular voice; by the exterior world with familiar and somehow unfamiliar doors, dust, and teeth; and by the sense of perpetual activity, a poem that is always holding a thought, many objects, and many ways to understand the connections between thought and thought, thought and object, object and object.
Before we're haunted by the movement towards happening and away from clear and linear sense, we are invited into the most intimate landscape—the mind—and we are tempted to think through the poems instead of about the poems. Greenstreet entices us into the home, memory, cameras, and a series of collected dreams and wishes. It's almost as if these places are one in the same place; at least, distinction matters less so we are enabled to disappear. We start to think things without concern for truth value, to drop our rationality and follow the language, and to resist conclusions.
In the way Greenstreet pulls the reader, The Last 4 Things is honest. It is all honest. It is all a type of portraiture that resists setting the gaze in one place or limiting the perspective to one frame. Instead, it is writing towards truly seeing what is already seen. This honesty is, like all thoughts contained in the text, completely and incompletely like in “4 December,”
I found a small dark rug on top of a junk pile on the curb and dragged it upstairs. Scrubbed it with a stiff brush and water. “Things are right in front of us,” he says. “Why make them up?” (60)
It's easy to see this kind of honesty, this kind of portraiture. It's harder to see that “up” is down. Harder to see that this is Greenstreet tilting her head, closing and opening her eyes, or standing upside down to see and interpret what is seen and how what is seen is seen. “Gloves, hands, the representation of hands—these are the spaces / I have in mind” (66). Readers too, desire to move into the spaces that are both real and unreal, familiar and unfamiliar. It's more than vision—it's language, memory, and thoughts considered for their multiplicity, for the way they unfold.
When I sit at the table with a friend to describe the book, its ideas, I am unsure what to say. I say, “It's about ideas.” And my friend bites into her burrito and asks what kind of ideas. And I remember the line, “Things that aren't possible come to pass.” I say that. She says nothing.
Then, I sit with my students and we watch the DVD included in the book. They discuss the “film” like it is high art—like it is the combination of all ideas happening at once. And one student says, “That isn't so new.” We all ask what he means. He clarifies, “Of course it is everything at once. That's all it ever can be.” I think he is saying something here and I know I should push him to be explicit, but maybe that is what works about Greenstreet's poetics—there is something there and, in its “somethingness” it is more clear than if we said it concretely. I don't ask the student to clarify, but I ask him to “press harder” (67). He knows I mean just as much and as little as what he meant before.
As readers of Greenstreet's work, we are faced with the pleasurable task of having everything at once: memory and happening, things and ideas, poetry and stories, diaries and fantasies. And because it is always this way, there are always so many turns and directions, nothing feels completely strange. We are with the poet in understanding and wanting; we are with her when she says, “I wanted words, the look, // but everything they meant / seemed wrong” (6). Because we are with her in this investigation of putting words to ideas, we will follow her through “page after page of places” (33), things, people, and thoughts. We follow her and let the sense of the work gather.
It would be easy and clear to say, “Greenstreet explores the possibility of narrative.” It is a narrative that is after in all sense of the word. It is after meaning—both in being post-meaning and in actively seeking meaning. It is after childhood, both in remembering “Once we went under a tree...(55) and in reclaiming an integration of imagination with the admittance of difference, “'This is what I look like now'” (62). And it is after forgetting and remembering.
There is an insistence to record with dates; specifically, to record the memory of thoughts that refuse to unravel or complete their thinking. Like in “6 January”:
And then you have the little being. The little being in the world. Everybody loves their little baby. It's a lot of work, yes, but you're in a trance—you're in a trance of love. You get sick of it, sure—but you're still in the trance. Unless you hate the baby for some reason. But that didn't happen to me.
--Would you call these nightmares?
--No, they're just regular dreams. Afterwards, you forget. (80)
As a reader, we can't help but wonder what happened? Did she not hate her baby or did she not have the baby to begin with? And the refusal to give us more than what is given is part of the game of the book: we are watching a mind indulge and resist itself at the same time. We are watching everything at once: additions, omissions, perspective, forgetting, etc. Sure, we could read “6 January” and a lot of the poems as poems about poems— where the “baby” is the poem and the writer is coping with the complicated relationship of authoring something, but I think that would that would limit the work and would ignore the ghost inferred by Greenstreet's repetition of invisible, disappear, and lost. Clearly, something has happened.
If the sense of ghosting is considered, then we are returning to the poems being after something. There is grieving and sobering up, there is defeat too. “She stays behind and gathers meaning” (66) because there is nothing else to do when something has happened. There is nothing else to do “[b]ut remember when I asked if you were carrying an umbrella / and I asked you what you felt and I think there was a blind / person sitting near you” (52).
I am in the same position I was in when I was sharing burritos with my friend. I am in the position Greenstreet's entire book documents: I want to interpret the text, but I am too busy celebrating the simultaneity of all of these threads Greenstreet is pulling. Thankfully, she is here with me, in the enclosed DVD and I've come to depend on her inchworm reading. Matching the reading voice in our head and Greenstreet's candid voice on the DVD, “[We] come such a long way to think” (5) and the fragility of thinking is revered in this collection. “We're never any closer” (5) but we are clutching the stream of images in the DVD and the struggle to give language to what is unsayable in the poems.
I am worried that I am making this sound more abstract than it is. Really, it is the most forthright book I've read in a long time. Greenstreet admits to the terrible profundity of her own subject, of her own textual desires. She asks, “are we traveling?” (43) and we know we are traveling through the mind, through the attempt to give language and shape to the mind, but Greenstreet admits “[a] stair is missing” (43). This is nothing new. Like my student said, “Of course it is everything at once” and it's no surprise to be missing a stair to understanding everything at once.
Still, Greenstreet is after it all. “Let us know our end. Let us know our end and the number of our days” (43). Could it be easier than this? Could Greenstreet have written about a more human subject? She is writing about desire and any reader can appreciate the complexity of such a basic thing like wanting something.
Kristen Orser is the author of Folded into Your Midwestern Thunderstorm (Greying Ghost Press); Winter, Another Wall (blossombones); Fall Awake (Taiga Press); Squint (Dancing Girl Press); and E AT I, illustrated by James Thomas Stevens (Wyrd Tree Press). She is certain about being uncertain and she might forget to return your phone calls.