The Ballad Form: Kate Greenstreet’s Young Tambling

Hilary Plum

Boise, ID: Ahsahta Press, 2013. 172 pages. $20.00.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

Kate Greenstreet’s third book brings a twenty-first-century sensibility to the traditional Scottish ballad of “Young Tambling.” While it would be no small feat if this was all the book did—the poet as folksinger, covering the canon in new arrangements, freshly voiced—Greenstreet achieves more. Through a profoundly affecting assemblage of poetry, prose, and visual art, Young Tambling expands beyond its rich source material and becomes a forceful meditation on selfhood, trauma, and memory.

Young Tambling is not the hero of his eponymous ballad—“for once,” as Greenstreet writes, “the hero is a girl,” his lover Margaret or Janet—but the one in need of rescue. He has fallen victim to the Queen of Elfland’s enchantments and Margaret must cling to him through many metamorphoses (into a lion, a red-hot coal, a naked man) until he is free and they may be wed. Greenstreet’s Young Tambling begins here and proceeds through the myriad incarnations to which memory condemns us, as she reveals but doesn’t quite tell a story of her own. (“This is almost my story,” she says once; the book’s back cover tells us it’s “Based on a true story.”)

“We call this pattern universal,” Greenstreet states in “Narrative,” the book’s first section; a few pages later, “We call this pattern unlived.” A ballad’s truth is universal, but unlived: the events it tells of might be “based on a true story,” but when story is reborn as song and passed on, it becomes legend; the specifics of time and place and person become less vital, and the song comes to belong to whoever sings it. As the song breaks free of the constraints of individual psychology or history, the emotion it makes manifest can seem more potent; the song may take the shape of anyone’s life. In one of Young Tambling’s epigraphs, Dan Beachy-Quick describes how song brings us to our own experience anew: “It sounds like a riddle, but it is no riddle. . . . Song gives us the experience we live only after having sung the song.”

As Greenstreet taps into the history of the ballad, her voice also reminds one of a contemporary folksinger’s: candid and casual, clear and bright. Its revelations feel intensely intimate, as though we are being confided in, and suffering is palpable throughout: “I knew he wasn’t chasing me around the basement because he loved me.” Yet the experiences to which the book refers remain elusive, narrated only via fragment and a recursion of pronoun and image that hint at character and event but do not establish them fully. Greenstreet resists the pull of narrative, the false clarity it might provide, and offers instead the protean pain of memory—as she says, “I don’t have to write it down. I remember.” At one point she tells us, “It’s a song about a girl who listens / I explained a part to you,” and so we’re gently reminded that our role and hers—to listen, to bear witness—may overlap, and only a part may ever be explained.

Young Tambling follows the ballad it’s named for both in making women its protagonists and also in never shrinking from the violence they live (was Margaret’s first encounter with Tambling a rape, after all?). “The desire to be a soldier,” Greenstreet writes, “it’s like the desire to be a mother. Some parts are weak.” Elsewhere the book escalates: “They beat her to death because she loved the wrong person.” Despite the trauma the book comes up against, the echo everywhere of real experience, Greenstreet maintains throughout her gracefully straightforward tone:

What that song means to me: I let him go into the field with the gun. I didn’t know what would happen and I didn’t try to stop him. Why did so many women sing this ballad, and why did the few men who sang it only sing part?

Throughout the book’s mix of memoir and meditation, black-and-white visual images appear singly or in grids like sheets of negatives. These images include or combine—to my inexpert eye—photograph, collage, painting, and handwriting, to portray enigmatic forms in texture and shadow. This approach to visual representation parallels the text’s approach to narrative: these forms appear as though glimpsed, indefinable parts of a whole that cannot be reconstructed.

While the book’s voice feels convincingly of a piece, at its end a few pages of notes remind us that what we’ve read collages elements from many sources. What we might have thought was one woman’s story, fractured, could also be called many people’s, dis- and re-assembled. Young Tambling challenges, and fiercely, the simple ideas of selfhood we cling to: that the self is a stable place to speak from, that you or I, he or she can be distinguished from one another, our stories disentangled and made our own. The pronouns we rely on slip away from us and into other hands; we make and unmake each other, much as Tambling metamorphoses. How gorgeous and damning Greenstreet’s proof of this, in lines like: “He should be able to save himself but the knife goes deep / into his left shoulder. I notice that I can feel it, though I’m / just watching.” Just watching! We may think we’re just watching, just “a girl who listens”—or a reader with a book, or whoever is gathered round as the song begins—but we find we cannot free ourselves.

Even on rereading this book, there is a point at which tears rise in the back of my throat, in response to precisely what I couldn’t say. Before the reader’s eyes Young Tambling unstitches the self and its agonized attempts to remember, to tell. Masterfully, Greenstreet draws on a range of forms—ballad, poem, fable, memoir, painting, photograph—to show what each may offer, may make manifest; but also what may not be made whole again.

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