Becca Klaver on
Kate Greenstreet's case sensitive

Like the mysteries her central speaker reads or listens to on tape, Kate Greenstreet’s case
sensitive (Ahsahta Press, 2006) is a haunted book. Footnotes litter the pages, directing us
to the sources (Louise Bourgeois, Salt: A World History, and the Gospel of Thomas, to
name a few) of the voices that speak to and interrupt the speaker, infusing the poems with
a dialogic dynamism. “I always wished I had a different voice” (3), the first poem
announces, a sort of disclaimer for the multivocal pages to come. Literal ghosts—or the
fact of their existence—appear almost immediately (“When a ghost is seen” (4)), and the
speaker’s parents and other lost ones appear in poems and in dreams retold as poems.

case sensitive also seeks out poetic haunts, the psychic and physical spaces that make
room for language and ideas, whether they be the space of a poem or a house left to you
in someone’s will. The poems that are not linear enough to be overtly “about” something
(“9 [when used, loses itself],” “due process”) seem house-like, too, groupings of rooms/
lines under one roof/title. This is not to say these groupings of lines are arbitrary.
Instead, there is a sense that the structure known as a poem serves to contain bits of
language that might otherwise bound off in different directions, and that the energy of
many of case sensitive’s poems stems from this enclosure.

The dream world is a favorite haunt of Greenstreet and her speakers; as I read, it quickly
became one of mine, too. Once it became clear that certain poems related dreams, it was
easy to see how many of the other poems were ruled by an implied dream logic. In
“being followed,” Greenstreet writes: “There were all these choices, these different kinds
of people. / Who to kill, and / who not to kill.” This isn’t an everyday dilemma, of
course, and we recognize it easily as a dream-choice, one that functions and holds
meaning on a symbolic level, however unreal the choice may be. It wouldn’t be accurate
in general to fuse the functions of symbols in dreams and in poems, but Greenstreet’s
speakers seem to demand that symbols operate in both worlds simultaneously, and that
there is a richness to this straddle. The poem should haunt the dream and the dream, the
poem; they each have clues to offer. But psychoanalysis, interpretation, or conclusion
aren’t necessary here: the clues themselves, in their deep mystery, are central. Greenstreet
interrogates this idea of the “clue” throughout, and structures the fourth of the five
sections (“Where’s the Body?”) in a way that mirrors the process of a criminal

Although many of the sections of the book seem capable of existing on their own, one of
the binding threads of case sensitive is this idea of mystery: mystery novels; You Can
Write a Mystery
, a book cited in a footnote; but also the fundamental mysteries of
existence. In the first section, the speaker asks and answers her own question, in typical
axiomatic manner: “What’s the appeal of a mystery? Someone is looking for something,
actively” (8). The poet-speaker makes her reading list transparent to us, and her readings
—from Heidegger to Fanny Howe to the Gospel of Thomas to a history of bridges—tells
us that she is ensconced in, and a disciple of, that mystery. case sensitive is a book you
can trust not only because it has the weight of the history of existential inquiry behind it,
but because we know the poet is taking off from where they left off, and “looking for
something, actively.” Appealing indeed.

Although I’ve chosen to write of “speakers” instead of a sole “speaker,” and in spite of all
this haunting by other people, texts, axioms, dreams, and spaces, the self is present and
central to case sensitive. It is revealed as a product of all these hauntings. To continue
the metaphor, perhaps it would be accurate to say that the speaker is “possessed.” But if
this suggests that Greenstreet’s self is one of postmodern collage or fragment, that is not
quite right, either. In fact, the whispering, mysterious, wisecracking, and weird self that
emerges from the pages of case sensitive is whole and beguiling. And here I should admit
a haunting of my own: although I’d read poems from the book online, I didn’t read it in
its entirety until after I saw Greenstreet read. The reading took place in another poet’s
living room, and I was close enough to see all her facial expressions clearly. What struck
me most—beyond her gravelly, guttural voice tinged with Jersey, or perhaps in part
because of what was being said with that voice—was the joy and humor she read into her
work. Lines like these took on the force of stand-up comedy:

        Then aliens come

        and take our planet
        and eat our food
        and talk the whole time about the better food they had on other planets.

The humor partially came from context, no doubt (for better or worse, you don’t usually
expect a poetry reading to be funny), and it certainly came from the tone and subject
matter, but those lines were funny because Greenstreet’s whole being—eyes, voice, body,
spirit—seemed to be vibrating with laughter as she read them. This wasn’t the smug
writer’s self-satisfied laugh, or the skittish poet’s nervous laugh—it was a laugh of
wisdom. It was the way you’d expect a monk to laugh, the uncanny laugh of a voice who
probably had the choice to value many concrete things of the world—money, status,
knowledge—but instead made it her work to push on into mystery.

For anyone reading this who hasn’t yet read case sensitive but plans to, I would suggest
reading it from front to back. I don’t necessarily read books of poetry this way,
preferring the element of surprise, the sliding, hopscotching reading experience that
poetry allows as a nonlinear form. Although many of the poems in case sensitive are
nonlinear, it is still a book deeply concerned with narrative, perhaps as haunted by
narrative—mystery stories, road trips—as anything else. (The very first line: “Many
things about the story are puzzling” (3).) In her author statement on the Ahsahta Press
website, Greenstreet writes that there is “a minimum of plot” in the book; this may be
true in a strict sense, but case sensitive is also one of the only books of poetry I can think
of with a surprise ending. The final and third-to-last poems, longer prose passages that
are heavy on plot, will disrupt the structure of the book unless they are read at the very
end. “I have no idea who I could be,” the speaker writes in one of them (112), and we
had no idea who she was until that point either—at least not in reality. I read those
poems, so heavy on plot, so conclusive, as Greenstreet’s final clue, the “real-life”
explanation of some of the central speaker’s hopes (the wish for “another life,” for
example (103)). In the same author statement, Greenstreet relates how readers who don’t
know the poet very well express envy at the speaker’s unexpected windfall:

        I was pleased when two new friends read the manuscript and each expressed envy
        at my luck, as if the character’s good fortune had been mine. “It’s fiction,” I said.
        And they seemed unconvinced.

I think they seem righteously unconvinced: not because I’m conflating the speaker with
Greenstreet, but because there is something in the finality of her author statement that
does the book an injustice. It seems a shame that a book so well-crafted, and one that so
elegantly lays out a philosophy of narrative, should be reduced to the plot summary she
offers in this statement. For that reason, I also recommend avoiding the statement until
after you’ve read the book, as this extratextual material is Greenstreet’s only misstep, the
only thing she writes that I take issue with. The plot summary might be useful to a reader
who is otherwise put off by fragment and fissure and indeterminacy, but the neat box it
provides is not true to the spirit of the book.