CASE SENSITIVE by KATE GREENSTREETPAMELA HART Reviews
case sensitive by Kate Greenstreet
(Ahsahta Press, Boise State University, 2006)
From Ulysses to mystical poet Mirabai, who traversed the Indian countryside to honor Lord Krishna in the 16th century, the road trip narrative is an ancient device used by authors who seek to explore the seeker lurking in all of us. Characters head out on the road or ocean or city street when their lives reach an impasse or a turning point. They need to clear their psyches or they need to get home. They are looking for something they lost or something they want to possess. They set off on a quest to bring back boons, as mythologist Joseph Campbell explained. Or maybe they’re using the road as way to start over.
Some or all of these motivations are at the core of Kate Greenstreet’s enigmatic book, case sensitive, published last year by Ahsahta Press of Boise State University. I say enigmatic with much admiration because Greenstreet has written a beautiful book of poetry that is mysterious and compelling, that contains a story but doesn’t tell one, that has prophetic moments and lines that in their associative qualities leave the reader feeling off course. This is good. Underlying this book is the idea that poetry needn’t organize experience and language into neat packages
In case sensitive, we’re told from the start to expect perplexity. “Many things about the story are puzzling. /The women cooking, the men/swimming in the sea. / I believe we need light/inside the body.” These opening lines from the first section titled “Great Women of Science”, demonstrate that this book won’t follow the usual story-telling route. This declaration is upheld in the structure of the book as well. Greenstreet has explained it contains five chapbooks made by a character that, together, “can tell a kind of story.” The book includes references to emblematic items the character has brought with her on her cross-country drive. In quoted text and footnotes, the reader encounters the letters of Lorine Niedecker, writings from artists such as Agnes Martin and German artist Paula Modersohn-Becker, as well as Marie Curie and Heidegger. The interspersing of these figures serves to illuminate the narrator. And it adds to the fun of reading the book. I liked the footnotes, a recent trend in fiction as well.
Language is everywhere as she makes her way cross country. It’s the landscape seen from the car, more than mountains or waves of corn fields. And just as the landscape changes so does the language-scape. Some of the writing reads like prose, other times it declaims like poetry. I love how the writing can shift gears. A poem in the chapbook [SALT] opens with mysteriously opaque lines. These accumulate in their odd and beautiful imagery and then give way to stanzas that read like memoir or personal narrative.
My favorite chapbooks are [SALT] and the Book of Love, both of which look at how mothers and daughters work or don’t work things out. The sections in [SALT] are headed by titles that relate characteristics of the chemical compound, a metaphor for this complicated relationship. The dilemma of salt (“has been used to seed clouds” vs. “raises the boiling point”) comes to a kind of resolution in the next section, the Book of Love.. What’s lovely about this section is the way Greenstreet weaves thought, quoted text, and narrative play to make a kind of patchwork of associations that illustrate how we come to forgive and finally love difficult people, while also coming to understand what it means, as she notes, to be “inside the world.” The last poem in this chapbook seems representative of the overall aesthetic at work in case sensitive.
Fragment. No Suggestions.
Did she say who sought refuge
in unhappy love
Day by day, we’re moving into night
Slight accent, and the falling
“Leave a window open”
“Which of these is life? the true life?”
It’s meant to be sad and bright, lit up
like the boat of the dead
I thought 2 hands would be 2 people.
The next section, Where’s the Body, is lighter, almost humorous. Check out the headings--seemingly taken from a how-to book on mystery writing. The final section, Diplomacy, while not really tying things up (an aesthetic not at all part of this journey) does connect some loose threads, though others remain wonderfully unraveled. But there’s a completion. The road ends. Along the way what’s been broken has been re-made into something, stronger perhaps. At least re-knit, as the last lovely poem reminds us, “You know, sometimes a message from me may seem mixed. But do try to recall the idea that messages join, somewhere.” Read this book, puzzle over it. Greenstreet’s language is worth the journey.
Pamela Hart, a former journalist, is a poet and teaching artist. She leads workshops at the Katonah Museum of Art and collaborates with the museum in its visual literacy program. Her chapbook, The End of the Body, was published recently by Toadlily Press as part of its Quartet Series, entitled The Fifth Voice. Her poems have been published in journals like Kalliope, Rattapallax and Lumina and can be found on the web at toadlilypress.com.