Young Tambling by Kate Greenstreet

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A casual flip through Kate Greenstreet’s work of art—it is an artwork, even more so than being a book—Young Tambling shows you that you don’t know how to read this text. There are blocks of prose. There are lines of verse, sometimes dense, sometimes thin, sometimes one line at the bottom of a page. The poems don’t have titles, except that there are “chapter” titles, if they can be called such. There are paintings which, though printed in black-and-white, hint at colors and textures the paper cannot convey. Some of the images have captions, but the captions do not directly reference the text or the art, are just one-line poems themselves. You get blank pages. Handwritten notes. Large, graphic quotes with all but one word erased, then, pages and pages later, the whole quote. The “about the author” only tells you something about the author in the fact that it tells you very little about the author but shows her laughing while playing a guitar. There is a photograph of the book, pre-constructed, pinned as individual pages to a wall, and the caption says “Although I was thinking in two-page spreads, at some point I realized that I wasn’t actually (physically) making a book. I was making a big rectangular piece of temporary art)” (166). This is the most direct language in the whole piece. You do not know how to read this text.

Like the title character, the shape and form of Greenstreet’s “experimental memoir” (described thus on the author’s website) is constantly changing, but contained in a specific, repeating form: erased quote, block of prose, verse, full quote, more verse. Though that form can’t be counted on either: the book’s last section leaves off from the pattern. Nothing is certain.

Because it is a “memoir,” you might assume you can read the shifting narrator as Greenstreet herself, but there are too many bodies, too many women, too many voices for this to be one speaker. It is only a she and the I of the she. And though the back of the book proclaims this “Based on a true story,” you get the sense that the story—which is variable, sometimes of Margaret and Tambling, sometimes of a woman called to God, sometimes two brothers, sometimes lovers on a boat, sometimes an artist, sometimes a driver on a highway—is not a single person’s story. You learn early in the book, after a macabre dream sequence involving a road-kill dear with a radio in its gut, that “This story takes place everywhere” (22), and later, the narrator says, “People devote their lives—they start on a course…/ Now that I’m here, I could be anyone” (53). Even the name of Tambling’s love—and the protagonist of the ballad the themes are based around—is unclear: She is called “Margaret (in other versions, Janet, or Jennet)” (4). She, like everything, is shifting.

And this character, uncertain though she is, must literally grapple with the changing, variable forms. Margaret/Janet/Jennet and the reader both have to hold on while the text and Tambling are “turned into a lion, then a snake, a red-hot coal or bar of iron, and finally into a naked man” (5). With so many twists and turns in style it is easy to get lost in the fractured story, just as Margaret gets lost in the woods of the ballad. But ultimately, it is that wandering, that lostness, and that fracture which is the art and recompense of the book. Although the reader can never be sure just where she is in the layers and layers of stories and verse woven here, she can know that something larger is building, and that there is always something coming around the corner. This is the art, this is what makes the piece “not autobiography, but about biography” (159). The artful auto– is in the authors selections, the juxtapositions of voices and stories.

In the prose that starts the “act” chapter, Greenstreet tells us that she made her first art through sticks and rocks she found in the street. “This was almost an impulse towards sculpture, but I thought of my structures as altars, or shrines. I always had an urge to put things together that didn’t belong with each other until they were arranged, by me, in just the right way” (34). And you can be assured that the arrangement is perfect. Although that photograph of the pre-constructed book comes only after you’ve read with a reckless pace you didn’t know belonged to the realm of poetry, when you are still in a dizzy revelry coming off the last line about her having a “sisterly” relationship with despair, you do see the book in its entirety, guts splayed like the dead deer at the opening of the book, and you realize that every line on each page and each page next to the other, and each section stitched just so has been carefully placed, an altar or a shrine. To what, though? The answer to that is hinted at earlier in the text:

The dream of art.
The dream of the body.

Is there any other dream? (62)

If I have made the text seem huge and unwieldy, then I have adequately described the feel of the words, though the book itself is thin and the lines sparse on the page. While the themes are also weighty—womanhood, voice, memory, death, body, holy callings, rape (or is it love, or is it “just a sex thing?”)—you are guided through them deftly and with a masterful hand. You will be left wondering, you will have to stop and think. But you can be assured of two things: First, as Greenstreet’s quote from Amiri Baraka states, “Everything we dont [sic] understand/is explained/in Art” (157). Second, grappling with that uncertainty will leave you charged and seeking. For, while this book was certainly the most perplexing one I have read all year, it is also the only one I immediately started rereading as soon as I had finished, and the only one that stuck in my thoughts for days afterwards.

Young Tambling is available from Ahasahta Press

Scott Russell Morris lives in Lubbock, TX, where he is an English PhD student at Texas Tech University. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from Brigham Young University. His essays have appeared in BrevityProximityBlue Lyra Review, andStone Voices. He is mildly obsessed with squirrels and even just today bought another squirrel ornament for the squirrel-ornament tree he will decorate with at Christmas.

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