LEARNING THE LANGUAGE by KATE GREENSTREETJULIE R. ENSZER reviews
Learning the Language by Kate Greenstreet
(Etherdome, Boulder & San Francisco, 2005)
Kate Greenstreet takes us on a well-crafted, topological journey in her chapbook, Learning the Language. Her spare poems weave together found material and thematic elements across four “movements” within the chapbook. Each “movement” is separated by a page with a statement and photograph. I think of them as guides or keys to the topological map that we are reading in Learning the Language. The four movements are:
“Learning a language is a form of travel”
“map of the world”
“How will we see where we are from where we are?
Each movement contains a poem titled “Yellow Book” and “Learning the Language” and each return of the poem while different provides thematic unity to the collection. Working thoughtfully with the issues of travel, family, love, and loss, Greenstreet creates intelligent and artful lyrics in each poem and wraps them together tightly in the whole that is the chapbook.
I think that Greenstreet is at her strongest when she writes finely observed lines like this in “Yellow House” in the third movement of the book,
“We’ll paint the bedroom yellow
Not like corn, you said, like wheat
I sleep outside and dream about my daughter.
The mountain wears a headdress
The wheat will be a mother”
Or this opening to the final poem of the book, “The Interpreter,” where Greenstreet writes, “See how the child begins humming to herself when she’s left alone?/How, after she’s alone for a while, she starts to sing, quietly,/and open her eyes.” The poem concludes with these lines: “This road./It’s hard./It’s mud./Rises/as dust. We walk on it.” Greenstreet has a powerful sense of lyric intensity, creative leaps, and thematic unity which is well realized in this chapbook.
I adore the world of chapbooks, but they have some limitations. Learning the Language suffers from a poor reproduction of the photographic images that I suspect are an important part of each of the book’s movements. They are rendered nearly unintelligible, however, by the reproduction of the book. I think it is a loss. Moreover, I wish that all chapbook publishers would follow some conventions of books, namely, provide a table of contents and page numbers. Too often I see chapbooks, like this one, without them. Certainly chapbooks are small and designed often to be read in one sitting. Still, I find these conventions of book publishing to be invaluable and miss them enormously when they are not present. In the case of Learning the Language, I also missed having a biography of the poet and some sort of explanation about the photographs included throughout. The chapbook devotes a full page to citations of various found sources of the poem; the blank page behind it could have provided information about the author and the photographs.
Despite these quibbles, Learning the Language is an excellent example of the chapbook form with a combination of visual and verbal art and craft wound tightly together. It is a strong debut for the poet Kate Greenstreet. Her full length book, case sensitive, will be published by Ahsahta Press in September 2006. Readers will want to see this next work from Greenstreet.
Julie R. Enszer is a writer and lesbian activist living in Maryland. She has previously been published in Iris: A Journal About Women, Room of One’s Own, Long Shot, the Web Del Sol Review, and the Jewish Women’s Literary Annual. You can learn more about her work at www.JulieRenszer.com.