“Go with great care”

Laura Carter


Young Tambling
Kate Greenstreet
Ahsahta Press
176 pp


Kate Greenstreet’s Young Tambling is divided into six sections, all of which are united by common themes. The sections are: “Narrative,” “Act,” “Memory,” “Forbidden,” “Sung,” and “We.” In the preface, before “Narrative,” Greenstreet addresses someone, and we’re not sure who she is addressing. This is a person, someone who runs into the woods “and pull[s] a double rose,” which would later be thought “symbolic.” There are characters, and the book takes its name from a hero for whom the ballad is named: “Tam Lin, Tom Line, Tamlane, Young Tambling,” the hero of the narrative, though the narrative is based, largely, on a song. Greenstreet sets the story up for us by describing the hero and heroine, and then moves forward to tell us that she was, at the time of thinking about writing, listening to a track called “Young Tambling.” She then moves into “Narrative” proper, to tell us a story, that “inhabits its proper dark,” according to Frank Kermode. She meets a deer, and she doesn’t know whether or not this deer is wounded and might hurt her. Greenstreet moves through the section to discuss the possibilities of art-making, through the lens of this deer, who is “machine-like.” Her poems are prose-like, inquisitive, and meditative, and she does indeed suggest that the reader “go with great care,” as she meanders, thoughtfully, poignantly, down a road that she walks with us, her readers:

There’s a place where we’re walking down the road together. A moment that can only be returned in one way. Go with great care.

The book moves into “Act,” and Greenstreet writes about her love affair with books, which began young. It’s interesting that this section, “Act,” is where the narrative occurs. She talks about the lives of the people she knew, and also about the lives of fellow artists: “Barbara Guest was alive, Joan Mitchell was alive, Agnes Martin was alive.” This is a revealing section, one in which Greenstreet writes about early jobs, her experiences as an employee compared to that of being a student, and, also, her interest in reading, a love affair that continues. She writes:

I read to encounter characters I could love deeply. In Russian novels and plays, people jumped up from the table and said things. And they weren’t shocked if other people did—it was expected! I believed life took place in conversation. Or that it could. I wanted to somehow slip “through the barriers into the company of the Real Ones.” I was just starting to paint, and I hoped to be an artist someday.

Greenstreet takes art seriously, and she sees it as a way of being fully real, that these artists she knows and refers to are both friends and also strangers, which works for her to provide a way of making the world more fully habitable. Her writing goes on to describe plates, about an other world, about items that stand for hope. She describes, in a beautiful plain style, people and situations, though with voicings that make one think of the ability to listen. Then, after “Act,” the book moves into “Memory,” where she discusses her earliest feelings about going to the Catholic Church, with thoughts that she might have been “called” to the religious life. Greenstreet’s ability to write in detail of her experiences of small things is admirable, and she writes about how she sees the events that she has experienced as shaping the writer and artist she is today.

She continues to weave voicings, overhead bits, in a sense that implies to me, something like what Rae Armantrout is doing, only plainer, with more spacings between the sentences. We make the likely inferences in the spaces between her sentences and phrases; there is no need to hear everything spelled out. The book winds through this way, and its meanderings are clear but also open, with just enough of a Byzantine cast to make the book seem slightly elusive. In “Sung,” Greenstreet writes of the ballad telling a story. She peppers her book with wisdom, and in this it is plainly spoken:

The only man who thought no evil didn’t live to write his introduction, so we can’t know why he made certain choices. The request was incomplete. Incorrect, or impossible. Saying that you’re friends, even feeling that you’re friends, but not really being friends won’t work out.

Her wisdom is part of what makes the book work so well. Here is another excerpt:

Similarities: both are suffering, both are unreliable. Both are magical beings, hybrids. Each becomes immediately and inappropriately intimate. They are both in danger, and dangerous, in the wrong place. Try being me. Seems like every other day, somebody asks me what I am.  

The book continues with this wisdom. This book, Young Tambling, is a catalogue of inner experience, though there are moments of peopled landscape that appear. Greenstreet makes sense of what is a story, but it’s not a traditional one, it’s one that is told obliquely, and by this oblique telling (with moments of direct address), it is able to reach a space in the heart that few books can. She is plain in her language, but all the better for it, and her Oppen-esque, delightfully insightful writing makes room for the reader to inhabit this space with her.


Young Tambling is available through Ahsahta Press.