Also in this issue, Juliet's poems

case sensitive

by Kate Greenstreet

Ahsahta Press
ISBN: 0916272893

Reviewed by Juliet Patterson

Kate Greenstreet's debut volume of poetry, case sensitive, is a study of invention, not in the conventional sense, in which something new is created out of nothing, but in the way a frugal person might make sheer curtains out of a wedding dress. The underlying materials remain constant, but find new shape and expression through carefully chosen additions, shifts and alterations. The result is a book full of luminous footnotes, details, attentive readings and hypnotic listening; a narrative experiment that seems to move easily between the associative connections of poetry and the recursive thinking of the essay.

Constructed of five sequences, case sensitive centers on one central character, though with a minimum of plot. The whole book can be seen to trace the event of a woman driving cross-country to an unexplained house that awaits her on the opposite coast. En route, she is listening to a novel—a mystery—over her car's CD player; her traveling companions include a variety of texts; the letters and writing of Lorine Niedecker, Agnes Martin, Paula Modersohn-Becker and Marie Curie. What unites the book as a whole is the formal structure of the sequences—five chapbooks created by Greenstreet's character that give hints about her life. As they are imagined, the chapbooks are stitched together by Greenstreet's driver-reader, forming an immediate vehicle for the book to ultimately address its own creation.

It's the structure and order of these chapbooks that pushes the project toward extended narrative and essayistic thinking. Taken as a whole, the poems create a fragmented and journalistic portrait of Greenstreet's character, a mysterious and mythic 'everywoman' for the reader, an ordinary person on a kind of hero's journey. Each of the chapbooks changes in tone and strategy, stringing together a “story” as a collage of forms— part poem, part gossip, and part documentary.

In one of the more emblematic sequences in the book, “Great Woman of Science,” we're given small clues about the speaker's life (details about a childhood home, snippets of her experiences on the road, and memories of her brief encounters with ghosts) but are never told exactly where she's headed or why. With the book's opening lines, we're immediately warned of the mystery that lies ahead:

Many things about the story are puzzling.
The women cooking, the men

Swimming in the sea.
I believe we need light

inside the body.
Her necklace is

Sparkling, see?
See the sparkle lines?

Wood into gold, “this diamond, this
poetry I speak of”—

The second sequence of the book, “Salt,” uses a recursive form to create an enigmatic narrative of the character's childhood. Each poem is titled with a phrase that relates to the uses and properties of salt. Although at times it's difficult to draw connections between the content of these titles and the meanings of the poems (especially in light of the character's journey), the combinations make for immensely intelligent readings that operate beautifully in the context of the book.

In contrast, “Book of Love,” operates largely as an interior dialogue that allows the reader a deeper look into our character's mind. Here, Greenstreet relies on a collage of voices—Lorine Niedecker, Agnes Martin, Paula Modersohn-Becker and others—to explore the relationship of doubt to love and loss. The spare, lyrical quality of these poems and their attentiveness to detail is reminiscent of Neidecker or even to some degree, Robert Creeley, with their querulous investigation into the speaker's consciousness.

In the other two sequences of the book, Greenstreet continues to merge and sample voices. While “Where's the Body” samples from a mystery novel that the character is listening to on her car's tape player, “Diplomacy” is written as a long prose-like sequence that borrows from sources as variant as Heidegger, the bible and linguistic texts.

Because one can never entirely pin down or locate the “speaker” of Greenstreet's poems, they seem to exist in constant motion. Likewise, exterior location is only hinted at or revealed in fragmented moments. What propels these poems is a fluid mixture of language experiment with the more lyric emotion of the first-person voice. Ultimately, Greenstreet's work spirals into the landscape of sound and the argument and randomness of thought, creating a narrative that could be any of the past lives, dreams, or present circumstances they represent. Most of the writing itself is simple, with little decoration or rhetoric. This is essential; a surface simplicity draws the reader all the more into moments when language moves and creates a new reality.

Here's another passage from Greenstreet's “Book of Love,” one of the many poems in which the speaker hears her own randomness speak:
Leave openings

for entrance from the street.
“That's why they have conductors”

(those big tubes running underneath the floor).

In art, like sex, the unbidden
and the willingness.

(the melting point the boiling point the melting point)

It's difficult not to come away pleased with the rhythmic pleasures of these poems, to admire Greenstreet's dexterity with pacing and narrative. However, what makes them most remarkable is the sensation that the reader is not only overhearing these words, but is also herself in the midst of the work, encountering the same voices, the same questions. The effect is at once personal and casual, as if, she should continue reading, without too much effort. “The words just came,” Greenstreet writes in another poem, and that's just how the reader feels—these poems simply arrived.