I bought a copy of Kate Greenstreet’s latest, Young Tambling, after hearing her read at the excellent Paging Columbus series run by Hannah Stephenson. On the recto side of the title page is a tracing of Greenstreet’s left hand (I’m assuming). In lieu of signing the book, she traced my hand on the facing title page. The gesture is mimetic of what I see as the Greenstreet’s primary concerns in the text repetition/ doubling, tracing, and the ability/ inability of reifying events as memory.
Young Tambling is comprised of six long poems, each starting with a short prose section. The preoccupation with doubling is established in the first poem, “Narrative.” Early in the poem we get the hint of story that Greenstreet will spend the rest of the poem deconstructing. She writes:
I was outside and inside at the same time. We were all sitting at a table, in a way, but we were also out on the street and there was a dead deer in the street. I went over to it and sat down on the curb. The deer lifted himself then, his bloody head and all, into my lap. I didn’t know what to do. He seemed to be talking to me, in a language I couldn’t understand. (12)
In this short space, there exists a kind fractal where what is conveyed in the poem echoes itself. Here there is event doubled with imagination, event doubled with the potentialities of that event, event doubled as memory, event doubled as language, etc… My use of words like “doubling” and “repetition” are a bit ham-fisted however. While Greenstreet is interested in the way experience can multiply seemingly indefinitely, she is also interested in how these doubles are never identical to the original. There is always a kind of parallax shift in repetition. This malignancy, however, continues without our volition until any notion of the original event becomes indistinguishable from its distorted echoes. Later in the same poem she writes:
The picture should be looked at. In the dream it’s you and me and a lot of other people. We’re performing a long and complicated vocal piece and I love you in the dream.
I think it lasts about…twenty minutes. Then they have to use the hack saws. to get it off. Can we recognize a pattern?
You seemed to need me but—when you put those big hooves in my lap? How can I recognize the real thing? Sometimes the tiniest breeze will set it off. People don’t get over it. Women, never. This is the devil’s work, this mirror. (26)
In “Narrative” we see the speaker’s growing inability to distinguish between memory and dream and between both of them and language.
Another theme of Young Tambling is traces or impressions. We see this most explicitly in the second poem, “Act.” “Act,” is divided into seven “Plates” as Greenstreet calls them. The trope works well for the section. Plate signifies something which will transfer via contact, leaving a trace. We see this well in “Plate 3: Clumps of Earth, Like Starfish on a Beach” (n.b.—for the sake of brevity I’ve altered some of Greenstreet’s original spacing):
No ties, no great need.
But, as a life can be shaped by rumor, often there’s a brother.
Who went away, who is told now: stay out of it.
This was the case that night. I knew the door he meant.
Help me get out of here. And we’ll go back to being ourselves.
He turns off the music.
As if it were music
in the room.
I don’t remember.
Who I was waiting for.
I think my parents should’ve spoken to each other more
openly, but it’s hard to do.
People devote their lives—the start on a course…
Now that I’m here, I could be anyone.
I don’t remember what I was wearing.
I was always driving someone somewhere. (52-53)
As we can see, this transfer is imperfect. Something transferred via impression, like experience is transferred into memory, will never be perfect. It will always be characterized by its anomalies and omissions. Later, in “Memory,” Greenstreet writes:
I shook hands with the men.
So. Is that a yes?
Some of us have taken off our wigs.
The immense, the colossal weight
of our hope […] (79)
Perhaps what is most important characteristic about memory is not what it retains, but rather what has been lost in transfer. Perhaps the creation of self isn’t an inscription, but rather an erasure.
Like Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, Young Tambling is less an autobiography of the author and more an ontological exploration of biography (this is not much of an insight on my part—Greenstreet closes the text with a handwritten note that ends with the phrase “not biography but ABOUT biography.”) A good way to think of the text comes in a stanza from “Forbidden”: “A piece of thinking.//And this is where she hears herself” (119). Greenstreet is interested in the act of memory, in memory as a process of making significance, a process of interpretation.
Interspersed throughout Young Tambling are a series of black and white paintings by Greenstreet (or at least they are reproduced in the book as black and white). They look slurred, not blurry, but asymmetrical, perhaps decayed—like old film left too long in a basement. The paintings are often composed of amorphous shapes, almost like a Rorschach blot, but sharper edged. If I had to distill Young Tambling down to one statement it would be this—memory is not a photograph, but rather a Rorschach test.