Young TamblingBy Kate Greenstreet Ahsahta Press
Review by Benjamin Landry
And what if the alternatives life presents seem inadequate? Kate Greenstreet’s Young Tambling suggests all is not lost: there is always art. This expansive assemblage of five previous chapbooks, plus new material, includes photocopied lists and journal entries, photographs, painting details and prints, and bristles with dozens of allusions. Its wry back cover assurance that the contents are “Based on a true story” is designed to provoke us into admitting to a narrative bias, just as the object contained within the covers is intended to call into question prior notions of poetry and art.
Greenstreet’s project is not entirely without precursors. Lyn Hejinian’s My Life includes some of the same obsessive returns of imagery, and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Storyteller set the bar for multi-genre work. Indeed, Silko’s inclusion of cultural and personal mythos seems to have deeply informed Greenstreet’s approach, as the latter weaves the thread of Young Tambling throughout the collection, allowing it in some respects to have the last word on the artist’s own life story and artwork. Young Tambling is a borrowed figure of folktale and song, a youthful antihero conjured from ghostly existence in a forest by a young maiden who “saves” him from a purgatorial existence through acts of brave kindness but who is also seduced and impregnated by Tambling. Tambling’s positions of victim and victimizer, and the maiden’s corresponding positions of hero and victim, preside as an ambiguous shadow over Greenstreet’s ensuing work. In a later passage, the poetic speaker recalls a dreamlike sensation of being “inside and outside at the same time” (12-):
"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 […] I didn’t know if, because he was wounded, he might harm me—out of desperation."
Will the speaker’s compassion make her a victim? In any case, this figure of—let’s call him a siren—recurs throughout the work in such guises as the deer/Tambling, a suicide victim, an unwanted psychoanalyst and a quarrelsome lover. Each of them might take their toll on the speaker, except that she cuts, intersperses and repurposes their words to her creative advantage.
Greenstreet’s concern with heroes and victims has an analog in the function of art. She asks, “Who can be represented by art? // Who can be involved / in the making / of art?” (14). The artist is simultaneously creator and subject, since even the most outwardly art is filtered through the artist. Young Tambling is replete with textural close-ups of painted canvases and print-granular images, and Greenstreet’s obsession with texture makes sense when we consider that by art she means the material belongings of the artist. Passages contain directions, even, for the experiencing of art (“The picture should be looked at with its case not fully / opened, preferably in private and by lamplight” ), a paramount concern of performance art. But one has to wonder how much of the experience can or should be controlled. How much of the viewer-reader’s agency must be ceded to the artist, particularly when the art aspires to genuine moments of encounter? All this is to say that Young Tambling reads the way I wish more museum placards and catalogs might read, conveying the intricacies of experiencing a work of art in a way that honors both the art and the viewer.
Greenstreet positions herself as a general creative type: artist, musician, writer. What begins as a childhood predilection for gathering bits of material and making “shrines” (33) seems to blossom into a matrix-like graphomania. Returning to the vision of the dying/lingering deer, the speaker recalls, “He had these big sharp claws on his hooves, and sometimes he’d put them up on me. I understood it as the part of our minds where art comes from. And I hoped he wouldn’t scratch me with them, because that would really hurt” (29). The sources of art are cryptic, threatening, familiar, symbolic, shared, cultural, mythic and personal. Young Tambling, like those early shrines, is an object of complex origin.
The grown artist as a version of the tinkering, fully-absorbed child is one of many instances of doubleness that haunt Young Tambling, the eponymous subject of which is both alive and dead. The epigraph of a missing/imagined artwork, “PLATE I: STANDS AT HER HALF-DOOR,” for instance, is “’Even the truth…sometimes I confuse this world with the other’” (44). The subject of this line could as plausibly be the poetic speaker, Tambling, or any of the other speakers who encounter one another in Greenstreet’s imagined dialogues. This represents a degree of interchangeability that is occasionally thrilling but also threatens to dilute the work, since it posits a thoroughly unbounded subjectivity. The doubleness is also a sort of continual—and problematic—haunting, and the speaker admits, “I cannot move the phantom” (87).
Nostalgia is also a variety of haunting, with the absence of things taking on a palpable presence. This applies equally to the suicides one cannot bring oneself to mention except by initial (“No G, no H, no N, no L” ) and to the childhood homestead, altered by years (“Each tree I loved / felled, / uprooted, long since” ). Greenstreet’s confrontations with memory are most affecting when arrived at organically, as digressions in a conversation. Here, the past, because seen obliquely, reveals itself as “something you need to see that you cannot see directly” (88). By contrast, the chapter devoted specifically to memory is less convincing, since the focus on autobiography leaves less room for creative interpretation, or catching meaning unaware.
The section “Memory” is also the location of a significant stretch of Greenstreet’s traditionally recognizable verse, which is the least convincing of her work in Young Tambling. Presumably, since the writing here is lineated, Greenstreet expects it to be received—and, yes, judged—as poetry. The tone, here, is highly conversational and the imagery less vivid (compare imagery like “The stream erupts into a wide and endless river”  in this verse section, for instance, with the much more striking dead/alive deer dream imagery of the aforementioned prose section). Line breaks occur almost invariably at the ends of clauses, lending a predictability and sluggishness to the verse. In the prose sections, Greenstreet digs into moments of recognition and puzzlement; in verse sections, she is more impatient and tends to remain at the surface.
But the quality of the verse is simply one among many factors in this varied and compelling collection. Indeed, Greenstreet’s ideas—particularly those about art’s position in the individual- and collective consciousness—are a consistent source of excitement and were clearly crafted with bemused joy on the part of the artist. She convinces us that the material stuff of life—which one might be tempted to discard, renounce or merely preserve—can be reconstituted into fantastical, new forms that may provide additional meanings beyond our initial experience. Greenstreet is a creator in love with process, and Young Tambling reads like a formidable salvo in a career that promises many additional installments.
Kate Greenstreet's latest book, Young Tambling, was published by Ahsahta Press in 2013. Her previous books are The Last 4 Things and case sensitive, also with Ahsahta. Her new work can be found in Waxwing, Denver Quarterly, Everyday Genius, Sugar House Review, and other journals.
Benjamin Landry is the author of Particle and Wave. His reviews are forthcoming or have appeared in Agni, Boston Review, Coldfront, Lemon Hound and Pleiades, and his poetry has appeared in American Letters & Commentary, Crazyhorse, Denver Quarterly, The Kenyon Review Online and elsewhere. He blogs about poetry and reviews at www.benjaminlandry.wordpress.com, and he lives in Ann Arbor with his wife and daughter.