Kate Greenstreet is not afraid to tell us what she sees. Her 2006 debut, case sensitive seemed, at that moment, among the most assured and uncompromising books in recent memory, but her new work The Last 4 Things is a superlative reëxamination and transcension of her own narrative preoccupations, proving that a second book can illuminate the first. For her fine, homemade metaphysics, smartly deadpan cosmology, and redemptive, lyrical humanity, Greenstreet is strictly essential reading.
That the Greenstreet idiom is held together with odd materials moving about an uncertain axis is not only a signature of her inimitable style but central to understanding her unfailingly penetrating perceptions as they resonate through the poems in a kind of lyrical flowchart, mapping frequencies of dazzlement and delight. Truly, these are lovely poetic objects, but it is impossible to appreciate them fully without some sense of their intellectual achievement. Consider this remarkable moment:
Background? The liquid form
we call water. The blue is in the world.
Something is wrong with the women and the men.
Stone is stronger. “My body is on fire”
That ‘existence’ was ‘pain,’ another list of fors.
The first divided by the second is equal to the third,
divided by the fourth.
the four corners
fire air earth
north south west
like a moat
a weakness for blue
light blown thin
and blurry, like the picture of the glass and the book
Greenstreet’s willingness to follow a thread all the way to its terminus and calculate its causal nature is both harrowing and ennobling. We feel protected in her embrace even as she places us, herself, and the poem squarely in the trajectory of unknown forces. This kind of fearless élan is, of course, foundational to her view of the artist’s responsibility and of the reader’s engagement with the poetry. Thus, the characteristic Greenstreet poem is both an object of self-conscious post-modernity and a metaleptic artifact of old-fashioned craft. Indeed, reading carefully through her longer poems or through the epistolary narratives in the book’s second half, one discovers a cleverly methodological, yet deeply intuitive style of investigating each object, every word as though it were new in the taxonomy of language:
Consider the conditions of happiness. How much money would be
enough? Most believe that men are compelled by two impulses.
It’s a convention, like closing the eyes of the dead to let them
rest. Who buries a treasure. Photographs can survive water, for
instance. If you were to submerge a box.
Here we find Greenstreet demonstrating many of the book’s thematic gestures: the problem of the “observed” as distinguished from the “observer” held in flux by the question(s) of the “observable.” A DVD included with the book investigates these trajectories as film experiments. And as we drift on the margins of these perplexed lives, we are the privileged witnesses to a poetic philosopher framing her system, and anticipating all the objections, which she then dismisses with her disarmingly comic frisson.
The Last 4 Things is a book of extraordinary resources of art, of time, of patience, of generosity, and of poetic imagination. In a book about seeing, there are many passages in which you will want to close your eyes and think hard about what you have just read and see yourself in the fractured light of its brilliant revelation.