The End of Something, Kate Greenstreet’s most recent book, takes a circuitous route through the terrain of experience. In the sequences that make up the text, Greenstreet partakes of narrative, but feels no necessary loyalty to it. An image or idea surfaces, recedes, then returns later—except when it doesn’t. Describing Greenstreet’s work to poets in a workshop, I tell them that it’s like listening to one end of a telephone conversation when the voice that you can hear is that of a ghost.
Greenstreet’s poetry is, for me, a peculiarly sharp and beguiling experience of the uncanny. Reading her work forces me, in fact, to ask what constitutes the uncanny. My general definition would be that the uncanny is something vaguely familiar, yet which resists stability or certainty. The uncanny is suffused with presence and doubt at the same time. Finally, the uncanny, at least as manifested in Greenstreet’s poetry, arises through what I’ll call “recognition problems.”
Isn’t pattern recognition a principal attribute of art? As a reader, I often find myself in the shock of epiphany when I recognize a pattern that the author has enacted, no matter how eccentric or transitory. To glimpse a conjured world, even as it dispels itself, is one of the greatest pleasures I know. Greenstreet’s poetry is extremely deft at such conjurations, and her skill lies in her ability to work with a wide range of linguistic processes that the reader tracks through extended formal terrain. Banalities, apparent non sequitors, miniaturized narratives, references to specific individuals (“Franny,” “Mike” whom the reader does not know), moments of unattributed dialogue, and sudden aphoristic summations all populate this book. Not inconsequentially, The End of Something is unpaginated: the usual markers for order have been effaced.
“You’ve forgotten, I think, but I was guided by your dream,” Greenstreet writes. Thus we find our way at the intersection of memory and dream. Navigating by such wavering routes requires trust on the part of the reader. What does the poet know of our dream that we don’t? How did she gain access to a thing so intimately “ours” when we have lost possession of it? Greenstreet continues:
It has something to do with my father, sure. I understand
the desire. The wavy glass in the door—it all started so long
The wavy glass in the door and the assertion that “it all started so long ago” are reminiscent of the passage in Corinthians that promises, “Now we see through a glass, but soon we shall see face to face.” The passage thus intimates that the warp and blur of our vision endures though we may be assured that, by our desire, we see something there.
I’d argue, however, that the truly informing moments in this passage come with the colloquial “I think” and “sure.” Such interpolations are common in Greenstreet’s work and their casual, familiar quality are as decentering as having the speaker enter a dream that you, the addressee, have forgotten. We are drawn in by the familiar tone, but have no access to the implied narrative. We feel we ought to understand, though the book gives no sign that we are held liable for our failure to do so. It’s as though we’ve fallen through indeterminate space into a conversation in medias res. Are we overhearing or truly participating? Readers must effect constant adjustments—not to track the work, but to continue to situate ourselves within its mobile boundaries:
This was someone’s home. What happened
to these people?
It would be valuable to know.
Rather than evoking a merely spooky sensibility, Greenstreet stretches the uncanny quality of this poetry with humor. Early in the book, she writes, “A psychic told me once I had the mind of a nun. As if there would be only one kind, for nuns. The offices of seers we consulted in the South sometimes had chickens.” This poetry exploits humor as absurdity. In this passage, we experience the goofiness of a seer, ostensibly a person with enhanced insight, resorting to stereotype. And then we are asked to consider a psychic’s chambers as inhabited by chickens. The incongruity throws the reader off-balance, but it also opens the universe a bit wider into the unforeseen.
One moment in this book has lingered with particular force in my memory:
If you’re a child when you see a calf born, you always know
there’s a place as big as you inside a cow.
Throughout The End of Something I would connect with a passage, tempted to identify it as a clue or a key to the larger meaning of the book. Each instance was inevitably true and accurate in that regard. Each recognition as plausible as it is deniable. Even so, it’s this quote that that stayed with me: uncanny, gestational, hollow. Despite the titular emphasis on ending, the effect of this poetry is to suggest a new originary site. Greenstreet passes back and forth through the holes in experience with a quiet, preternatural assurance, leading the reader until disorientation becomes illuminated with pleasure. Digression suffices as a form of wisdom. For Greenstreet creates destination not as a foregone conclusion but as an artifact of indirection. This book, seeking to define where we are going, looks to where we have been, and dizziness ensues. It’s the best kind of dizziness: gravity upended, gaps filled with wryness and wonder.
Elizabeth Robinson is the author of several collections of poetry, most recently Rumor, from Free Verse Editions. Robinson has been a winner of the National Poetry Series for Pure Descent and the Fence Modern Poets Prize for Apprehend. She has also been the recipient of grants from the Fund for Poetry, the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, and the Brown Foundation/Museum of Fine Arts Houston for a residency at the Maison Dora Maar. Later this year, the University of Akron Press will be publishing Quo Anima: innovation and spirituality in contemporary women’s poetry, a collection of essays and interviews that Robinson co-edited with Jennifer Phelps. She works as the homeless navigator for Boulder Municipal Court.