The Last 4 Things
Monday, September 27th, 2010
A few years ago, I had the pleasure of hearing Kate Greenstreet read from her first book, Case Sensitive (Ahsahta 2006). It struck me, at the time, how much her reading style conveyed the sense of thought in real time, as opposed to language that has been permanently crystallized and is now being rehearsed. The poems, in her mouth, carried a certain elusive feeling of spontaneity. I wondered if the poems on the page felt quite so alive, and was forced to admit, upon reading them, that while they did feel alive in a way, it seemed an inescapable quandary that once locked into the page, a poem felt, well, fixed.
Kate Greenstreet’s second book, The Last 4 Things (Ahsahta 2009), finds a loophole in this quandary by including an accompanying film, inserted into the back flap of the cover, over which Greenstreet reads poems from the book. What impresses me about the film is that it does not act as simply a vehicle for the poems (i.e., poems read against a backdrop of images), but feels very much organic to the text, as if they were created in tandem, the images growing out of text and text growing from images (to see a short excerpt from the gorgeously composed film, click here.
As so many of the images are black and white (many in negative), I found myself wondering if they mean to visually correspond to type set (word as image, image as word). The images themselves are often composed in locked-off shots, a still frame with a moving image inside of it (Greenstreet writes, “all these images are locked down,” language that suggests the frame as a kind of prison). That images of train tracks and trains recur suggests to me an explicit narrative of journey, time and place rushing by, even as the eye remains fixed; the word, the camera, become attempts at preserving that which is always already slipping away.
Greenstreet’s voice in the film, rendered largely in voice over, is barely more than a whisper, reserved and slightly nasal, like a librarian speaking into the spine of her favorite book, unsure if she even wants to be speaking. The voice(s) of the poem accomplishes a similar effect, as one of the tricks of this book/film is to construct language that feels terribly private inarguably public, and one of the questions Greenstreet’s project proposes is how the word and image differ with regard to this endeavor. If it’s true what Pound says, that “it is better to produce one image in a lifetime than voluminous works,” what is the work of the poem if the text is not the primary vehicle of the image’s presentation? *
The first part of the book, a long poem for which the book is named, feels as if it were composed from pieces of language snatched from a restless mind, a mind turning itself over and into moments of poetry. It is written in fragments, but fragments issued with a consistent feeling of voice that acts as a current under them—almost as if someone spied on a brain speciously convinced of its own privacy, and then grabbed patches of thought from different moments through out the day and wrote them down.
If we haven’t beauty
or even goodness to save us…
Be brave but—
say there was a fire
We should not shamelessly trample
upon one another.
I said, “He’s my brother”?
I don’t know why I would have said that.
It is in part by virtue of the inwardness of this expression that these lines do not grate on the reader as oppressive moralizing, so much as an introspective meditation on the obligations of human beings toward one another (“He’s my brother”?), even as the question mark and the poem’s final off-hand caveat suggests we’re not sure why we feel as bound to our fellow humans as we sometimes do.
In the film, these lines are spoken over close up shots of abstract paintings, a close up of the outline of an eye, a close up of red, yellow, and orange paint brushed into fire. The frame of the camera re-situates the frame of the painting, redirects our attention to one piece of it. In the film, as well as in the poems, one gets the feeling that the speaker is trying to digest portions of experience. Our lives, the lives of others, the vastness of our impressions otherwise feeling so unmanageable.
The second part of the book, a long poem called 56 Days, plays with this public/private boundary with prose poems written as if extracted from a diary. As the poems accrue, so does the speaker flesh out as a character, a woman in a war against forgetting; Greenstreet uses the diary construct as a way of foregrounding the attempt to record the impressions of our days; it also performs the convention of privateness (a child’s diary often comes with a lock, etc.) even as a) it is offered as literature to the public and b) it is then used as script for a film. One even feels, from the speaking personae, an occasional embarrassment arising from the presumption of an audience for these thoughts:
I was enthralled with my black room, and the equipment and the chemicals. Even the names: the Fixer, the Stop Bath, the Orbit. Shaking the tray in the safe red dark, I was happy— watching the image come up— gray shapes collecting into streets or faces—
I’m not sure I can give you these sentences.
As this passage suggests, these poems are infused with the language of camera and frame (as is appropriate to a book-cum-film). The camera operates consistently as a metaphor for memory, our attempts at preservation; at times, Greenstreet suggests the camera as an apparatus for illumination:
—The camera has two purposes: one is to help the person holding it to see. The other, simply to draw light to itself.
This poem plays with the knowledge that without a frame, the world would simply be too much to take in; the camera helps us not only apprehend something otherwise sublime, but also “draw[s] light” (a language of transcendent understanding), as it preserves the impression of time.
To speak of method. Empathy. Our times, time.
Disappears with me. Sleeps a minute.
What Greenstreet posits here is the idea that time “disappears” with us when our consciousness disappears; time is therefore not something we share, it’s something we absorb. And when we lose a person (“Sometimes he is the camera”), we lose the time that person has absorbed.
The Last 4 Things reads very much like a love letter to the lost—a lost brother, a lost world (as some poems project apocalypse), a lost time. The speaker confesses, “We don’t know what it means but we know that the person disappears.’ If not elegaically commenting on loss, these poems seem constantly aware of the immanent possibility thereof:
Let’s decide where we’ll go I the house catches fire.
What we carry? Big shadow of a fly, years of pining.
At twilight, haunting the old homes.
Looking for the lamps once lit in rooms.
To bring to a stop and keep standing on the edge, when death won’t take you. Hundreds of children.
The camera turns the corner. We’re never any closer.
Sometimes he is the camera.
In the film of 56 Days, Greenstreet uses a series of images of a house obscured, or else revealed (if you’re a glass half full kind of audience), by large, wintery branches; the branches themselves visually render the bind spots of memory, the way our memory never preserves something in its entirety in our consciousness, but instead offers us digestible pieces of our experience. As Greenstreet writes, “Everything is slightly hidden from me, all the time.” And from us, as readers, as the audience that only sees in the frame of someone else’s eye.
It is now a well-worn convention to offer the caveat that the eye (“I”) itself, in a poem, is a construct—and fair enough. But what does this mean when we pull that eye into film? It would seem that, at least in a practical way, the “eye” corresponds to the body behind the camera (though in this film, as in most, there are multiple camera-persons shooting footage), even as the frame is consciously constructed. But then, in film, there’s never been any question but that the image is a construction (often, though not always, built around a pre-existing script). To call it a fiction would be, even in the case of documentaries, like calling wine “grapey.”
Greenstreet’s project is interesting for the integration of mediums, the layering of fictions on top of fictions, non-fictions on top of non-fictions. The text/poems may have been constructed from an idea of a fictional personae, working out ideas that the less-fictional Greenstreet finds compelling. But is the eye behind the camera also intended to be a character, or is there some conflation of fiction and truth that is more subtle, more complex, than is comfortable to admit? Because it seems too easy to say everything is a construction or nothing is. And if we find ourselves in a gray area, then we know we must be looking at something made by humans.
* If this book acts as a proof against Pound’s dictum (which I’m fairly certain hasn’t been treated as proof for well over half a century), that is in itself a reason to recommend it, to my mind, as it’s always interesting to find proof against dogma in action. And anyway, poems do lots more than make images, even spectacular ones, and there are too many worthwhile poems doing other things to make an especially solid case to the contrary.