The Last 4 Things
The Last 4 Things comes with a DVD of two movies created by the author.
What happens when a person loses hope and yet still has the urge to make a photograph or draw with a stick in the dirt? Kate Greenstreet would like you to read this book as if you had found it left behind on the empty bus seat next to you—a document not directly addressing the question “Why do we make art,” but one that notices that one does make art, despite conditions, and that one would regardless.
“This is all strangely familiar. To use one of its own images, reading this book is like opening a folding table after closing a door. There are two kinds of hinge, we might say. You feel the grammar in your hands and your shoulders. You begin to see how the table gets you from the eggs to the window. It just stands there. Perhaps this is, as Greenstreet suggests, like a dream you sometimes have. But (and this is the thing) it is also like going for a walk or building some intricate part of a boat. It is not the place of the poet to decide.
“A poem is not a place where a decision is made and this is certainly no time to explain yourself. ‘This is what went on here,’ Wittgenstein taught us, ‘Laugh if you can.’ Greenstreet understands this, and her lines do sometimes make you laugh. But not always. She says, ‘Do a dangerous thing and you’re in danger. That’s how it works.’ She doesn’t tell you to live dangerously; she just tells you how it works. Or let me put it another way: she understands why you want to go to the sea but she does not know whether you will go.
“The whole issue in these pages is one of arrangement. It is about the idea that things have places, ‘pages and pages of places,’ in fact. Greenstreet puts words in these places sometimes. Sometimes not. Is a blank page also an arrangement of words? In what way is a blank page with no marks on it like a human body? Or is it like water? Suppose we had to choose: like a body or like water? Don’t just sit there, this book seems to say, let’s have a look at where things go.
“A poem is made by composition, by putting things together, and when you read this book your hands tingle. The Last 4 Things brings craftsmanship to reverie; it turns dreaming into meaningful work. It is a serious approach to the grammar of our emotions and you do well to read it with your hands.” —Thomas Basbøll
from ‘The Last 4 Things’
To leave home without making the bed,
it’s like building a house of cards.
You have to know what you’re doing.
Or be lucky. Or just very quiet.
I have had a Letter from another World . . .
To speak of method. Empathy. Our times, time.
Disappears with me. Sleep a minute.
Empathy is marked with
incomprehensible corrections. The camera must be open.
I know what I tell myself. Sometimes he seems to be the camera
(who we will be later).
Do you like boats? I see you around boats.
Built around an unseen principle: to float.
He’s come such a long way to think.
To bring to a stop and keep standing at 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.
Copyright © 2009 by Kate Greenstreet.
Nominated for Best Book and Best Second Book of 2009 by Coldfront magazine.
“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.)” —from the review by Christina Mengert at The Constant Critic
“Kate Greenstreet is not afraid to tell us what she sees. Her 2006 debut, case sensitive, seemed, at that moment, among the most assured and uncompromising books in recent memory, but her new work The Last 4 Things is a superlative re-examination and transcension of her own narrative preoccupations, proving that a second book can illuminate the first. For her fine, homemade metaphysics, smartly deadpan cosmology, and redemptive, lyrical humanity, Greenstreet is strictly essential reading.” —from the review by Scott Wilkerson in Word For/Word.
“Kate Greenstreet's The Last 4 Things is staggeringly good. It even comes with a DVD of Greenstreet mostly reading over films. Since I've never heard her read live, the DVD was tremendously helpful. It sets the pace of her voice for the reading experience. Even without it, though, this collection plays with framing, with how much we see events. It explores memory and the borders of knowing (like the border between death and life).” —from the review by Bill Allegrezza at p-ramblings
“Kate Greenstreet’s The Last 4 Things is an insight into things near and far, with a camera serving in place of the narrative arc, the means by which the range of vision is captured. ‘Every contact leaves a trace’ and Greenstreet’s apprehension of the nature of seeing extols us to find fruitful recognition in the bridge between object and distance.” —from the review by Sophie Sills in Area Sneaks
“Of the finished product, Greenstreet herself said she ‘wanted it to have a feeling it could have come from anywhere, and [that] it was unclaimed,’ and she’s succeeded. The Last 4 Things is a beautifully slow, metered trek through shape-shifting characters and belief systems, encounters with family and strangers, and the weight of passing comments they leave behind. . . . Greenstreet has become a master at tying seemingly disconnected fragments together with a congruent tone and scope, so closely that disparity often becomes an induced empathy, and we use one moment to describe another in a string of influence. This is a book of such strong energy and space we want to be immediately consumed, but that’s just impossible. It takes time and patience to fully enter, and when you aren’t paying attention it fully engrosses you, and you have nothing left to say about it.” —from DJ Dolack's review in Coldfront
Can you talk about the idea of ‘fire’ as a character and a personality in the book?
I think fire predates character or personality. What’s it doing in the book? Heating things up, being set, being feared, making noise and smells–signaling violence, mortality, urgency, and maybe a level of frustration that makes a body feel like bursting into flames, destroying the container. —from DJ Dolack's interview with Kate Greenstreet in Coldfront
“On the first page, a single line, in italics, set apart from the other fonts and stanzas gives a sense of the spiritual, the other-worldly which poetry, at its best, and Greenstreet, at her best, is able to do:
I have had a Letter from another World...
This Letter, this World, the sparks of disconnected thoughts depicted through the poet’s phrasing, the flashes of wisdom and the structure of this first section, with its blank pages and spaces is symbolic of her trust in silence and space as a poetic device.” —from the review by Bobbie Lurie in Jacket
“Greenstreet is nothing if not challenging, electric and crisp.” —from the review in Publishers Weekly
I’ve been an artist my whole life, by which I mean I’ve had different jobs but I’ve always been engaged in making things as my main pursuit. I am largely self-taught. I come from a working-class background. My grandparents were all Irish immigrants. My father didn’t finish high school but he was adept at earning money. As a kid he wouldn’t eat in the school cafeteria, preferring the Strand Café’s “businessman’s lunch,” paid for with paper route earnings. After the army, he was hired as an engineer (not the train kind), and surreptitiously took blueprints home every night to figure out how to read them (he’d never seen a blueprint before that). This job was in Chicago (how I happened to be born there). When our family returned to the East Coast, my father became a salesman for a company that built air brakes. He left that to start his own company, called Computer Floors (back when all computers were huge, with huge cables), designing and manufacturing flooring that allowed the cables to run just below walking level. The business went under several years later, squeezed out by a giant competitor. When my father went bankrupt (I was 14), he saw it as a good moment to hire a draftsman to work with him on an idea for making modular kitchen cabinets out of Styrofoam. While he looked for a job in management, he sold encyclopedias door to door. Before long, he found work in a neighboring state, running a tool-making plant. Somehow, in a few years, he bought out his boss, and sold the factory after that, moving on. I remember he could drive across the country in three days. He was on the road a lot.
It’s a wet June morning. I’m in the studio, at the computer. When The Last 4 Things comes out in September, Max and I will hit the road with a box of books and a laptop. I’ve spent a little time today filling in some holes in the tour. We plan to be out for nearly three months, driving from Vermont across to Washington state, down the West Coast, through the Southwest and over to Georgia, then curving up, back to New Jersey, hitting Massachusetts and Rhode Island after the Thanksgiving pause. Looking out the window, it occurs to me that while I’m away, people who watch the DVD that comes with The Last 4 Things will get acquainted with what I see from here (the house in “56 Days”). The full tour schedule will be online at kickingwind.com. If we make it to your town, I hope you’ll come out and say hello.
Back in the spring of 2004, while I was wrestling with the last prose sections of case sensitive, some new writing began to come. Not poems exactly, but stretches of poetry. I thought maybe it could become one long poem. Maybe a book-length poem. I liked that idea, partly because it was something I had never tried.
So this long poem (“The Last 4 Things”) was underway before case sensitive was picked up, before anyone had shown much interest in anything I’d written. A few of my poems had been published, three or four, but I was accumulating rejections as though that were the goal.
I worked on “The Last 4 Things” for several years. While case sensitive had been rooted in narrative—it started as an attempt to write a novel—this time I didn’t have characters or any kind of story. I didn’t have a theme in mind. I just followed it. At various points, the poem seemed to be about marriage, faithfulness, exile from home, the loss of faith, the loss of God, living with danger (the effects of that), disappearance (including death), the urge to make art (and why), specifically picture making (photography in particular), war and the aftermath of war, the desire/need to communicate (truth, lies), and possible meanings of the number four.
I wrote and wrote the poem until it finally felt finished, “like itself”—which is to say, almost invisible to me. As when cleaning house, what is noticeably out of place disappears. Or when you succeed at remodeling a room and you know that the job is done because everything feels like it was always there. Call this “natural.”
The poem was finished in autumn 2008, but the book wasn’t. This past winter, I wrote a second section: “56 Days.” What a diary might be like if one weren’t attempting to explain a day’s meaning or describe events. Just noting—something seen, heard, remembered. I had the idea that this second section could even serve as ‘notes’ to the first part. Which was a pretty great idea I think, although it didn’t work out. (My ideas never work, but they do get me started.) Lines from Proverbs 31 kept coming to mind and I threaded them—straight, remade, and sampled—through the days.
I began to imagine a character, a woman who’s been traveling for a long time and who, for some reason, stays in one place for 56 days. Not a writer. She writes just to keep her internal chemicals moving, like someone working in a darkroom would lightly agitate the corner of a tray of developer, waiting for an image to appear.
Photography can be an art, also a form of record keeping. It’s a way to see and a way to relate to other people (while standing apart). It can be a job or what you do when you aren’t working. In “The Last 4 Things,” there were references to taking pictures, and at some point I began thinking of the person writing notes in “56 Days” as a photographer. That led to the kind of familiar idea of shooting one view every day, imagining she did that. I thought I’d do it for 56 days. It almost worked. I basically stuck to the view out my studio window, sometimes using a still camera, sometimes video. But a few times I went into the yard to get closer to my subject, that house across the way with the double flue chimney.
The accumulating results of this daily shooting suggested a basis for a short film. The shots got attached to something I’d seen a few years earlier. I do enjoy saying that the video was inspired by a Julia Roberts movie. Actually the spark came from a pirated DVD one of my brothers picked up on the streets of Beijing, a movie starring Julia Roberts, featuring English dialogue accompanied by subtitles also in English that had no obvious relationship to what was being said. I loved the effect. As I watched, I didn’t realize for a while that this was simply a mistake. It made the movie a lot more interesting! For the “56 Days” video, I decided to pair two bits of text from each page of my protagonist’s diary, one spoken, the other used as a subtitle.
My protagonist. Now she exists. There is a pilgrim’s dust around her: basic phrases in many other languages, things like “do you want a cup of tea?” and “will you take our picture?” Not hard philosophical questions but small expressions of courtesy and the request that is put to her by strangers everywhere, a question she can say yes to without thinking.
For the movie “The Last 4 Things,” I took a different approach: I made 18 separate video experiments, each representing a page or two from the title poem, then strung those together. I mixed up the pages I’d selected, as I would for a reading.
In a video interview at maxgreenstreet.com, I talk more about making the book and the films. You can also see what the poet eats for lunch.