July 2006

Olivia Cronk


Learning the Language by Kate Greenstreet

“I’d say that making up a poem is a way to share a secret without telling it.”
                                                                                 -Kate Greenstreet
(from an online interview)

Learning the Language is Kate Greenstreet’s first collection of poetry. It’s a handmade book from Etherdome -- with images and a xeroxed DIY aesthetic. It’s part street-cred, part theory-troll, part lyric. Much in the same (theoretical) vein of Emily Dickinson’s overwhelmed musings, the brain is a big place. And in that place, odd things sprout up uncontrollably. These notions make their presence felt -- even fleetingly, even begrudgingly.

I impulse to describe this poetry as “thought poetry.” Greenstreet cashes in on the pleasantly puzzling sensation that emerges when thought and language cannot properly collide. Memory is a seeing of the self in language. Prayer is a tricky game of desire masked as internal language. Poems are documents, then, of time spent in the mind -- fiddling with its terrible, messy “language.” 

The poems have the quality of a matter overheard. The reason I want to call this stuff “thought poetry” is because it feels (sometimes in a creeping, voyeuristic sense) that the reader is eavesdropping on a brain. I think there are connections to be made with Joyce’s interior narration in Ulysses, with Joan Didion’s obsessive dovetailing of detail in her essays. There is attention paid here to the kind of intersection of catalog, coincidence, and perception that these writers leap from. Maybe a dash of Proust or Anatomy of Melancholy (a great listing text, barreling with oddity). I once saw an MFA student prepare her final installation: a giant library bureau, a card catalog -- of her whole life. There was event and timeline, emotion, characters, cross-referencing. And a plain white wall. Spectators did research, plucked through the charming little cards, lurked in her imaginative reconstruction of her life in language. This is not to say that Greenstreet’s language (or her curation of information) is exhaustive or dense. But there is a sort of thickness to thought.

                   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. The vestibules
                  were swimming with the poor—
                  bobbing, drowning, in our lake
                   of dreams and wishes.
                  Tell me everything
                  you want to do while there’s still time.
                  Keep in touch.
                  Think about the leaves, and the birds
                   in branches.
                  Think about the words
                   Big Picture.
                  The Big Picture.

And further down:

                  Fruit trees blooming in the blood drenched ground,
                   a ringing phone—
                   it’s what we’re in the middle of.

Further still:

                   My prayer is changing.

And like a nagging, half-remembered dream or ache, this line, six poems later, emerges: “Losing my mind (the habit).” It toys with the nun in a stroke of metonymy; it toys with the unsettling reality that a brain is a habit. “The habit is/ full of feelings.”  The poems constantly intertwine this way. There are multiple poems named “Yellow Book,” each with their own distinct idiosyncrasies. There is, in glimmering spots of clarity, a vague narrative of theme -- sickness, mourning as a mode of communication, learning, filing ideas into grooves of the brain, telling fortunes as a way of navigating the landscape of future time, and thinking, thinking, thinking.

As we can assume that Greenstreet embraces each mind’s language, we can assume that each reader will pick and choose where to pay the text attention. Moments will be lost. The reader will have a taste for one bit and negligence for another. This is the “formula” Greenstreet suggests through her scatter-catalog, her images (acting as a static-filled guide, further jumbling sense), and her insistence on line/stanza/poem as the unit(s) with which we might digest a bit of thought. “What’s missing in books of poetry?/ A regular greeting,/ a couple of maps,/ a good-looking equation.” Greenstreet is also a visual artist and that background informs her content and her arrangements. “Almost any smudge can be a face,” she says in one of the “Yellow Book” poems. That seems an apt model for finding coherence in her brain.

Learning the Language by Kate Greenstreet
44 Pages