This is Why I Hurt You
reviewed by Dan Magers
It has been correctly asserted that Kate Greenstreet’s first book is five separate chapbooks brought together. The thread stringing them together is the faith in articulating identity and emotion through art. In case sensitive, these themes are filtered through the concepts of criminal and scientific investigation—whether a mystery can be solved or not, a hypothesis proved true or untrue. The idea of art as (self) discovery is exemplified in how the desperation and malaise wrought in the poems comprising “Great Women of Science,” manifests into the familiar woman-on-the-run narrative (“I locked the door, both locks…And drank a glass of water from the tap, with my toast to escape”). The poems are at once of return and escape, a clinical sifting through family history, science and memoir, tinged with the sense of a criminal's shame. Five chapbooks notwithstanding, it speaks to their continuity that, This is Why I Hurt You, Greenstreet's newest chapbook, could never belong in case sensitive.
In This is Why I Hurt You, this sense of personal salvation through art immediately comes under scrutiny. What art does, among other things, is order, entertain, give meaning, comfort, purpose. But art also breaks apart; it scares people who know you; it alienates the ones you love most. Draws your most intimate fantasies, yearnings, interests, and frames them into something that you can never completely own. Here, the statement, “this is why I hurt you,” is rendered as a number of questions.
The poems are in the manner of interviews or accounts, explanations, but seemingly in private, to one other. Different interrelated queries regarding art are introduced and interspersed throughout. In the beginning, regarding poetry itself, an unnamed character relates:
“’It makes me feel that being human is a good thing. Being human—and even just being the way I am—I’m not completely alone…”
“’How does poetry cause that feeling?’”
“’I don’t know.’”
The improvable belief in the usefulness of art undergoes interrogation, not only from this “interviewing” character, but through Greenstreet herself, in an account that begins like a dream:
“I was outside and inside at the same time… and there was a dead deer in the street… He seemed to be talking to me in a language I couldn’t understand.”
Helpless, the narrator says “After awhile I realized he wasn’t really / talking—it was a machine, inside him.” Then, the deer was “evidence”, “was cut in half.” As if aesthetizing it is to debase and mutilate it. An exasperation creeps into her voice as she directs her attention to "you", saying:
“Tell me what you most want to tell me. You’re a twin, you have AIDS, your brother died. In midlife you discover you want sex with men.”
The exasperation reflects the frustration when an artist will sometimes mistake the creative process for therapy. This is so emotionally cutting because, as it continues, the voice here warms slightly, and seems to loop into the speaker’s own tale, and yet the indictment that she has introduced implicates her as well:
“You were so close to your little one but—because of the divorce—or, because of things you can’t explain, she won’t talk to you now.”
The interspersed questions and challenges ("Can you describe a color or a texture? Sunflowers / really?”) begin to play off of each other, but are not supposed to posit answers. The last line of the chapbook is, “These are all the questions I have.” They instead serve as both a challenge and justification, serving as a clearing of the mind during the difficult process of making. As if to contemplate them enough is to mitigate, or at least be mindful of, the mutilation and misunderstandings in rendering art from reality, being able to render poignancy more simply, to find in the most direct and simple statement, “Ten brothers sat for a portrait,” a marvel.