Friday, November 17, 2006

Review of case sensitive by Kate Greenstreet

A fine definition for Kate Greenstreets first collection, case sensitive, can be found within the text:

What is the appeal of a mystery? Someone is looking for something,/actively.

case sensitive uncovers the mystery of the ordinariness of life unfolding. In most parts of the book, Greenstreet shows a talent at balancing the best type of poetry -- just enough narrative to ground the reader, just enough strong, lyrical language to make the reader want to know this narrative.

Although I may be mistranslating, I feel as if I know exactly what Greenstreet means when she writes:

I believe we need light

inside the body:

And,

Taking turns
as the groaning, screaming woman.

And as the nurse
who brought the doll. It gets more like this.

What child has not played at the adult world? Then, grows up to find that the
complexities of this world are, as my father likes to say, endless. While Greenstreet probably doesn't mean these lines to refer to childrearing, they certainly could. I have not read such an accurate description of motherhood since Woolf's frustrated mother in To the Lighthouse. Interestingly, neither women have children. How can they be so right on the money?

case sensitive's testament to the magic of ordinariness is carried further in the second section of the book [Salt]. Greenstreet writes around a most common, boring household item. And one we couldn't live without! Each opening quote is taken from Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky.

I love the odd vastness of Greenstreet's influences. In other parts, Greenstreet quotes or mentions my three favorite artists: Basquiat, Lorine Niedecker and Agnes Martin: the latter two of which were/are two grossly underrated geniuses. Be honest, how many people do you know who've read Corman and Niedecker's letters? On can see traces of these womens work in Greenstreet's. Work that relies heavily, if not exclusively, on subtly.

I am largely disinterested in humor in poetry. Humor in poetry is often displaced. As trite as it might sound, I want poetry to tell the human condition, and/or to stretch the language to its full potential. Ironically, that is why I think the moments of humor in Greenstreets book work. Andrea Baker once said something to the effect that Frank O'Hara makes humor an element of his poetry, but it doesn't mess with integity of the poem. I think this applies to Greenstreet who uses humor in spots, but never slips into the easiness of making the poem a joke.

From Book of Love:

Then the aliens come

and take our planet
and eat our food
and talk the world time about the better food they had on other planets.

Barely two pages later, she flows easily back:

what connects us
to the Saints;
Desire.


The only issue I have about case sensitive is that it could be edited down a bit, and/or perhaps transformed into two books. Greenstreet has said that the book is comprised of five chapbooks. At 117 pages, case sensitive is quite a bit longer than the average introductory poetry book.

There seems to be a dichotomy in style here. Most of the poems rely on the strength of Greenstreet's talent for mixing lyricism and narrative. Greenstreet said she wanted to create the story of a woman's life, and she does this famously. However, some poems, particularly those in Book of Love and Diplomacy slip into a modern obliqueness than I can not connect with. The poem "informant" begins:

"If x = x,
y =x,
abc = x, etc."

Lines like these leave me empty-handed and wanting more. I confess to being alone in this opinion. Currently, many small journals are having a backlash against lyricism and narrative. Obliqueness is perferred. I do think that, in poetry, beauty has to be number one. And, for the most part, Greenstreet gives it.

In Great Women of Science and Salt the reader meets interesting characters.

I want to know more about the lover who sits around wondering

"when the Bronze Age was."

The person who drives away from their lover to stay under
"half a neon cowboy"

and

"ripped out everything: shelves, cabinets, wallboard."

Most of all, I'm smitten with the strange mother who, at turns, cries, sleeps, and
needs constant attention from her daughter - who gives it to her.

"I was icing this cake for her,
but it was crumbling
underneath.
(It wasn't a very good-looking cake.)"

While the last two "chapters" are not as interesting as the first two, Greenstreet does return to the characters a bit. She also ends with some moments of (as Nan Goldin mind say) "High Art." The one political poem in the book "If water covers the road" is sensitive and poinent. The final prose poems are lovely and engaging. Best of all are philosophical thoughts about memory on the last page (which you will have to buy the book to read).

Finally, if you have never heard Greenstreet read, I highly recommend it. Matthew Hendrickson wrote (on his blog) of her reading,

"Kate is about the best damn reader of poems I've heard......Greenstreets voice, like this poetry is steadfast and dead pane. It is, at turns, like case sensitive, lyrical, narrative, mysterious, and full of wit."

That about says it.

1 comment:

Janet Holmes said...

Hi--just a comment on the length of the book. The 6" x 8" format, as well as the decision to begin separate sections of a poem on new pages, accounts for its seeming length. The manuscript itself is no longer than most, but was designed to be comfortably readable.

Thanks for the review!