Wednesday, September 25th, 2013
In lieu of blurbs, the back cover of Young Tambling simply reads Based on a true story. Thanks to the quality of the design, this humble claim is both comic and sort of sublime. It’s comic, of course, because being based on a true story isn’t the sort of criterion by which one represents poetry. One can scarcely imagine a browser picking up a book of poetry and choosing it for purchase because it was based on a true story. But why not? Because poetry isn’t as much of a story as a story is? If so, we could describe poetry as based on truth. And this would be accurate, but also weird, and in that weirdness we can find something essential about folk art, of which the ballad is a prime example, as is the ballad that gives Young Tambling its title.
Although folk art takes too many forms to lend itself to perfect categorization, one of the ways it is sometimes distinguished concerns the relative ease with which you can replace any one character on offer with an equivalent example of a type, including yourself. The sailor can become anyone who has departed, the bandit anyone who cannot fit in. Likewise, the roles of hero and villain can be filled variously, since sometimes we feel more the victim and sometimes we sympathize with the criminal. This flexibility has limits, however; were there not adequate consistency across tales, we couldn’t recognize them as types. And once we begin to see them as reassembling elements we can also see our preoccupations and, to an extent, our convictions.
It is therefore no shock to note that traditional ballads hardly present a happy picture of women in the world, though it can be hard to say whether they accurately report a standing cruelty or justify and perpetuate it, as well. In any case, when women do appear, they are rarely the agents of their fate, much less the essential author of anyone else’s. This is a hard lesson for any devotee of the form, though one may empathize with the instructional impulse behind any given example (the world is unkind to girls, who should beware) and bemoan the lost opportunity to explain or challenge or reverse that condition.
All of this makes the ballad Young Tambling remarkable in presenting us with a young woman who seems to inhabit a traditional ballad and its photonegative. As Greenstreet writes in the earliest section of Young Tambling, “This ballad is an exception”:
When they meet in the woods the second time, Young Tambling tells Margaret (in other versions Janet, or Jennet) that he has been kidnapped by the Queen of Elfland and he describes in detail how he can be rescued. There are rules, which mainly involve holding on to him tightly, fearlessly, while he is turned into a lion, then a snake, a red-hot coal or bar of iron, and finally into a naked man, whom she must hide with her mantle.
Greenstreet tells us how she encountered a version of this ballad as a recording sung by an artist in whom she has some prior interest, and concludes the introductory section by noting “She will sing it unaccompanied. I will listen unaccompanied.”
This comprises the earliest pages of Young Tambling’s first section (NARRATIVE) and is followed by five more (ACT, MEMORY, FORBIDDEN, SUNG and WE), none of which are easy to predict on the basis of what Greenstreet presents us at the start. Each begins with a page devoted to a partial erasure of a quote, fully revealed after the initial text of each respective section. Thus these initial presentations, between the quote obscured and the quote clarified, seem to offer a sort of airlock, a justification for the section’s title and a preparation for what will follow. Greenstreet writes each in prose, sometimes in the form of an interview or list but more often as simple past tense recollection.
For example, ACT’s lineated quote is from Walker Evans: “It’s logical to say that what I do / is an act of faith. / It came to me. And I worked it out.” The first appearance erases all but the word “act” and the second reveals the remainder. Between stands a prose passage that details domestic conditions from Greenstreet’s childhood and teenage years:
We didn’t have another world to go to, but we had books. We had the library downtown. I think my best friend and I must have read every book in the young adult section by the time we were ten (that word “adult” attracted us), at least all the ones about girl detectives and romance and careers. We liked to sing on the swings, dance to records in the basement, talk about boys, act out dramatic scenes (birth, death). But I also needed to be alone. To think. My mother gave me the tiny room off the kitchen, where I could read and arrange things and listen to music on the radio. My father and grandmother felt it was excessive for a child to have a room of her own (before this I was in the big room with my brothers), but my mother made it happen.
Greenstreet goes on to discuss her initial art-making, especially in terms of arrangement and her earliest literary tastes, but all of this is as prosaic as the details of the passage above: she works at a dry cleaner’s, she devotes herself to novels of the 19th century. What, if anything, does this have to do with the ballad that starts the book, and why am I so comfortable asserting that the speaker is Kate Greenstreet, and not some fictive being?
Some features prove consistent from the topic of Young Tambling the ballad and this part of Young Tambling the book. The girl distinguished from an excess of boys, the fact of her being unaccompanied or alone, the finding of drama and meaning in books and records: all this justifies the poet’s choice of “subjects” if we consider the title and the earliest material evidential of “subject” but my engagement with the writing doesn’t at all depend on an analogy between subject and speaker. I would be all in—even if Young Tambling the referent was a complete dead-end, so what I’m more interested in, then, is how Greenstreet manages to achieve such a perfectly lucid approachability as a narrator.
This attribute isn’t unique to Young Tambling. It’s been apparent since case sensitive, Greenstreet’s first full collection. For lack of a better way to put it, Greenstreet simply sounds more like a person than any other American poet I can think of. In one sense, of course, this is ridiculous: all poets are equally persons (one guesses), therefore, no one poet can sound more like a person than any other. Maybe it’s that Greenstreet sounds more like a person who is not also a poet than any other poet I can think of. Regardless, it’s an effect—or, more to the point, not an effect at all—she puts to good use: for someone whose style of presentation is neither theatrical nor ostentatiously unaffected (the cure for theatricality that often proves even more lethally dramatic than the performance style it wants to remedy), she can captivate a room full of readers like no one I’ve ever seen. And I think it has more to do with her use of language than it does with some essential Kate-ness, though that is of course the impression she leaves.
The prose samples aren’t the best evidence of this effect, simply because Greenstreet can rely on the reader’s default familiarity with prose as a workmanlike form of language. However, the effect remains in her verse, an achievement made all the more remarkable by the fact that she often writes in extraordinarily elliptic fragments. For example, from the remainder of ACT:
We know a little bit about the driver.
The red kimono is wrong.
He had a brother, who died when they were young.
Who was older, and handsome.
I think everybody wants to hear
why it happened – what’s on the other side
of that wall.
Animal to person, person to plant.
Who’s not going to accept a call?
Mostly, we kind of liked each other.
I could remember the life
in the chair, the mirrors hung to misdirect misfortune.
The little one with the little flowers—
something something May…
Now they say Beethoven’s hair was full of lead.
You can relax, enough
to see black. What you’ve lost? I believe
it has frozen the soap to the glass.
What is going on here, and why does it work so well?
Some of the mystery of this passage can be resolved by reference to the immediately preceding pages, but not much. There’s mention of a photographic plate, but no reason to believe that the slivers of narrative we can pluck from the fragments refer to the image on that plate. This proves especially challenging because Young Tambling (thanks to a really handsome and adept design by Ahsahta Press) also contains multiple reproductions of Greenstreet’s own visual art, itself sometimes placed in a fragmentary or capsulated way. All of this taken together should confuse, but the book never loses its tone of calm familiarity.
If there’s a reason for this, it rests entirely on Greenstreet’s deployment of idiomatic, discursive English. Unlike some of her peers, who string together clauses of such extravagant length and variety that they could never be found in nature even if their components declare their colloquial origins. Greenstreet uses the fragment form to balance moments of lyric (could be deliberate lyric, could be accidental—that’s part of the charm) with the more mundane expressions and catch-alls that characterize speech: for example, “the mirrors hung to misdirect misfortune” as followed by “the little one with the little flowers— / something something May”.
She strikes the balance equally well in forms that lend themselves to the technique less readily than do the fragments. Consider this exchange from the dialogue between unidentified interlocutors that begins MEMORY:
The Eucharist. The Host. We never called it “the wafer,” that’s for sure. I think Protestants might call it that. I mean, it is a tiny thin wafer made out of bread. But for Catholics, it’s not a symbol. For Catholics, that item is the body of Christ, no two ways about it.
—And you liked taking the body of Christ right into your mouth.
Within me! Within me, yes. I could go back to my seat and feel Jesus within me. And I would get really, really happy. Sometimes I would imagine dancing over the tops of the pews in my happiness. I remember that. Well, you know, it was a powerful idea.
This is exquisite. The choice of “that” to modify “item,” the blunt emphasis of “really, really happy.” You have to have listened to a lot of people to reproduce the cadence and diction of actual speech as well as Greenstreet does, but she never uses her apprehension of that speech to reduce or telegraph the person speaking. She does the very opposite in that she reminds us of how cryptic, associative and random speech, memory and even personhood can be.
Young Tambling is not a slight book—it’s 155 cut-size pages—but it wouldn’t be easy to summarize were it half that. Like a collection of ballads or folk tales, it tells of many events; characters wander in and out, some named, most not, some real, some conjured. The landscapes are alternately perfect in the pedestrian quality and eerie in their almost-abstract beauty or menace. What puts the book squarely in the tradition of the art that inspires it is an understanding of those forms, particularly in narrative but also in the smaller, slipperier tendrils of language, that shift between specificity and universality, the inimitable and the instantly recognizable. The characters of Young Tambling the ballad are types—the maid, the seducer—even if the focus is contrary to the norm. But the inheritors of that ballad are also types: listeners, readers, the introverted and the curious, the bookish and the in-between. These types cannot be recognized without elision between the individual properties of those who fulfill them, but they also can’t exist without those individuals, specific and peculiar as they are. There’s a music for this paradox, a music that both performs and records, and Greenstreet is its master—though I doubt she would ever put it in such gilded terms. Her closest explanation sounds like this:
Rocks, dollhouse furniture, stuff I’d find on the sidewalk—or make, out of sticks and tin foil. This was almost an impulse toward sculpture, but I thought of my structures as altars, or shrines. I always had an urge to put things together that didn’t belong with each other until they were arranged, by me, in just the right way.
A just right altar: the most common things, special. It could be anyone’s, but it is always someone’s.