by KYLAN RICE
The End of Something
by Kate Greenstreet. Ahsahta Press, 2017. pp. 176.
When she reads out loud, Kate Greenstreet’s poems sound like they’re being spoken during a smoke break outside a bar. Her hands are in her pockets, her hood is up, it’s snowing a little. There’s a freight train coming on tracks laid straight through the middle of town. You can only half hear her over the horn and wind. Telling a story. Something about someone she used to live with. Her brother, or a lover maybe. Regardless, the details are lost in the snow. Tomorrow there will be a slurry of tracks on the sidewalks and in the driveways—proof that people came and went, hands in pockets.
It’s important to hear Greenstreet reading her work like this—readings that can be streamed online, often accompanied by video or music. She sounds matter-of-fact. Reflective and blunt, like a shard of mirror. She’s telling you something personal, though she’s not trying to make a big deal about it or anything. Shit happened, and she thought about it for a while after. Maybe even for a long time after. At some point, the exact details—whatever happened—were lost in the snow. People are always leaving tracks. The train blows by. It’s deafening, but she doesn’t stop telling you what her story is about:
There’s always that moment with people,
right? You look back…you can’t believe
how they just don’t love you.
And how, in the minute before that,
you didn’t know.
There was a place, near water.
The people had come from somewhere else
and settled. How we came to exist.
How we came to be here, everywhere at once.
How could I say nothing?
On the page, too, Greenstreet’s poems have their hands in their pockets. You can’t tell if they’re clutching something—a memento, or car keys, a cigarette—or if they’re just trying to keep warm. Something is being held back, but you’re not sure what. Frankly, the poems aren’t sure either. Too much time has passed, and they have tried too hard to forget. Receipts, small change. Maybe that’s a definition for repression. After a while there is dust everywhere. Greenstreet described her most recent book, The End of Something, the final installment in a quartet, as “a fourth corner defines a formerly open-ended space.” Taken together, her books comprise a space, a lived-in place, made strange by the palimpsest of memories and selves and unspeakable forgotten traumas that flare across it like overhead transparencies across a projector. It’s still a place you live in, but everything is the same.
So many miniature David Lynch films (or maybe late Jean-Luc Godard is the better comparison), each poem by Greenstreet is a shard of a story, a noir reflection on narration, populated with “the silhouetted shapes of people / and animals.” There is a TV on somewhere. There are “people who are Mike, people who know Mike, and people who just met Mike.” These people come home, feel the desire to go out and walk. Half-dreamt, half-remembered, the series of vignettes and internal dialogues that make up Greenstreet’s new book reproduce the half-perceived uncanny moments that lace the commonplace:
I was drinking my milk
and there was a little tooth
in it and I thought: What’s that?
Is that a little tooth?
I felt around in my mouth, but it wasn’t mine. It was
tiny. And I thought: he’s murdering the innocents.
The innocence? It’s a dream I’m having.
Shh…I can help you. If you’ve done wrong.
My bed is right here. Let’s lie down.
The End of Something is, like the books that came before it in her quartet (including Case Sensitive, The Last Four Things, and Young Tambling), a detective novel. Something important has been stolen, or lost, or maybe just misplaced. Something bad has happened, but the private eye—the lyric “I,” the shifty, shifting speaker of these poems—isn’t sure exactly what. What is left is an impression, an outline. A dark skyline at night. The shape of an event. The generic Event.
Here, though, the private eye is also the client. And the client is also the missing person. The perspective shifts from first to third person in the middle of a single action, then poses a question of the reader, slips into second-person, or maybe self-interrogation:
The shutter opens. She decides to walk.
I was on my way to spend the weekend
with friends. I decided to walk.
What can you tell us about the town?
The shutters opened. What I’m saying is
I came down the stairs.
He was sitting at the kitchen table.
What happened next she’s always trying to tell you. She’s trying to tell you how hard it is to tell you (for a long time it was so hard to talk about it that now it’s hard to even remember…). This kind of language—the language of difficulty applied to the difficulty of language—repeats throughout the book:
I want to speak plainly, not un-include.
I have missed our conversation.
A few years ago something happened.
I spent a whole day writing you a letter.
Then elsewhere, too, with more urgency:
You were there, we were all there, at the table. The light! I suddenly recognized the past. I wanted so much to explain.
Remember—? I was trying to say.
You didn’t know what I was talking about. It was all from the future. The room started filling up with strangers.
I got up finally, somebody was calling my name. The hallway was stinking with dead fish. I thought of all the times I didn’t die.
Greenstreet’s focus on perspective, language, narrative, event, and witness coalesces as a lo-fi mystery, a bare-bones who-done-it. The solving of any mystery—following a trace, unknotting a thread—is an experiment in epistemology, the limits of knowledge. The poet is the forensic scientist that comes in after—after what she has done, and also what was done to her—and tries to reconstruct the scene in memory, the scene of the self:
I keep trying to get to the sink to wash my face,
but something prevents me.
I can’t remember.
I can’t remember who they used to be.
I’m the same person. It’s the same day.
Or the next day. What day were you looking for?
As a follow-up to the question, “is ‘yourself’ within you / or something that moves through you / or the way you act?,” Greenstreet writes, “Or is it more like / something you collect.” The speaking self—the lyric poet—is always a forensic scientist. The collecting of evidence—of having been, of what was done—is the self itself. The commission of an act is only half of what makes up the commission of selfhood. The other half is the elusive, endless work of trying to make sense of act and self in language—language that is inherently leaky, inherently private-then-public, secret-then-not (“Public, private—it’s just how things are”):
There’s a crime in everybody’s past.
Black snow filling up the page.
There’s always been a leak.
What makes The End of Something different from other mysteries is that it as much a who-done-it as a who-am-I. Who am I, who done it—these are the same question to Greenstreet. I am not only what I have done, but also what other people have done to me.
Last Halloween, I learned by watching The Innkeepers (2011) that the story that you don’t know is the story that kills you. On a lark, without thinking twice, you try to hunt down a ghost, to try to figure out what happened, and then the ghost comes and destroys you in your ignorance. Likewise, you are done for, by others. Your story intersects with another that chooses your ending for you:
You can be anywhere and you start bleeding
Or the sky
The day I met him
I never thought twice
I never had a chance.
As Greenstreet writes elsewhere, “real endings aren’t something you choose.” In reality, your story isn’t yours. And when you open your mouth to try to explain yourself, to try and tell your side of the story, it all comes out wrong, or else it comes out in other people’s voices. Indeed, Greenstreet’s poetry, written as if recorded, as if overheard in snatches through a sheet of drywall, represents this on the page. Much of her new book (much like her preceding books) appears as though “within quotation marks.” Whether told in your own words, or someone else’s, “the escaped convict’s story is a traveling story. / The language is full of gaps and problems of tense.” Either way, “we learn to speak by hearing sounds / and deciding what they mean.” What you say, you have overheard. And what you overheard were sounds, not words. You’re not sure what you heard, but all the same you can’t keep quiet about it. You witness, because that’s just what you do. You can’t help it—not only is it how you learn to speak, it’s who you are:
We carry it around.
The reason we’re here.
“There is a secret place. A radiant sanctuary. As real as your own kitchen.” (Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle)
You don’t have to know anything
to talk about something you see.
“Consequently, what haunts are not the dead,
but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others.” (Nicholas Abraham, “Notes on the Phantom)
In the end, the work of self-interrogation that splits the self from itself, so many glimpses in a fractured mirror, provides the speaker of these poems with an opportunity for—if not redemption, at least the possibilities of a reconciliation. The possibilities of moving on:
There’s my other life following me. Woman driving a pale green pickup, hood secured with a length of chain. Two little kids sitting with her. No front plates, mirrors built out from the sides. Her elbows resting in the open window, beaded necklace swinging from the rearview—two strands, pink and blue. I think she’s singing. Can’t tell if she wants to pass. This is her chance.
Greenstreet acknowledges the fractured, fracturing nature of the speaking self, the difficulties of remembering and also the difficulties of moving beyond whatever we do remember, what we have stitched together of the scraps of the past, the rags of what was done and said. The End of Something does not, in the end, offer any particular answers or solutions, or even any particular problems (drugs? abuse?)—yet it does resolve, or at least assumes the shape of resolution. It obeys the formal dynamic of a noir movie—that is, the formal dynamic of a wisp of smoke, rising up from a cigarette, constantly tangling, then untangling, unknotting itself in midair, dispersing into the night, into the snowfall. Tomorrow morning, you’ll wake to a million footprints—for now, though, the surface is clean. Like a blank page. From here you could go anywhere, if you wanted. This is your chance.