There are gifts, and there are gifts. One of the best ones I received this year was a collection of poems by Keetje Kuipers, winner of the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize. On Christmas day, I tucked the book in my backpack and took it to the coast.
Lyle and I camped out in a yurt near Tillamook, where the campground hosts ate paper-plate turkey dinners, their motorhome windows strung with lights and tinsel. The ocean sounded like it wanted to come into our yurt for a bite of lasagne, but I curled up on the bottom bunk and read this collection cover to cover, something I rarely do with a volume of poems. I usually tend to sift through a collection at random, sampling a poem here or there, letting the book ride around with me for a while until I realize I’ve grown familiar with all of it.
Beautiful in the Mouth is as compulsively readable as a good novel. It compels you to listen, propelling you forward through intensely personal experiences you nonetheless feel as your own. Kuipers’s poems are prosey, direct. They do not confess or converse so much as reveal. It’s as though the self speaking in the poems has been saving up truths, polishing them in order to pour them out all at once, breaking them into lines only so you can better absorb them.
These poems are infused with awe at the body’s impermanence and power, its beauty and its strangeness. They explore how inseparable our experiences are from our interior worlds, how inextricable our bodies from the larger body of the universe. The lovely, terrible entrapment of the self within flesh, world, time.
And yet there’s no trace of the grandiose– far from it.
In “Memorial Day,” everything carries a whiff of the abject. Pieces of wind-born sawdust are compared to “star-shards blown out a comet’s ass.” How’s that for poetic language? Here we encounter the President (presumably Bush) in a radio broadcast, laughing so loudly at his own bad joke, he can’t hear the reporter’s question. The sun is “just-dead,” and in the speaker’s thoughts we see the image of her uterus, seen at a recent doctor’s visit, “black holes stretched on my flesh.”
This is her memorial day: a pause near a drainage ditch to reflect on her health, and feelings of regret, guilt, indifference, denial. If these aren’t emotions to mark the dawn of the 21st American century, I don’t know what are. “I’m always ready to deny exactly what I’m guilty of,” the poem admits to us, and the inclusion of our former president takes on more weight.
The courage to compare oneself to a much maligned President, the courage to compose a poem of ugly things, and to construct a world of breathtakingly unfeeling, yet human-like natural forces– all of this risk-taking is part of Kuipers’s enormous gift. “Intention doesn’t really matter once you’ve been charged with a crime,” this poem concludes. Such a pat statement would feel shallow in a less skillful poem. Here, it drops to the bottom of the stomach, a heavy and cold truth we can recognize as personal. For who among us hasn’t committed some kind of crime, whether against self or another, whether contained and defined by law or hidden inside?
The unprettiness of life lived within a body articulates itself within these poems. Cartilage grinds to fine dust in hip sockets during an act of love (“Finally”); a mother’s mouth becomes a “soldered pout” (“Why I Live West of the Rockies”); and the hips of adolescent boys are “narrow barbs” (“The Undeniable Desire for Physical Conduct Among Boys of a Certain Age”). These are poems of embodiment, filled with a precise understanding of what it means to live inside a human body.
The last lines of “Santeria for the City: Blackout, Summer 2003″ (what is for me the most luminous poem in this collection), nearly encapsulate the tension wire upon which the entire collection is strung:
As the body is a home
as the city is a body
as circuitry runs the lengths
of my arms, these streets– we are a flash
in the fuse box, a blown kiss
into blackness, the perfect
thrill of your last departure
orbiting its small plane inside you.
“You” is code for the self, Kuipers tells us in another poem, and in fact she seems to hold the hand of each former self as she witnesses again her passage through time and trial, relationships, mistakes, solitude, grief. How close are creation and dissolution, death and sex, chaos and absolute silence. How close, unto itself, is the body to an entire world.
This collection is truly a gift, each poem as beautiful in the mouth as it is on the page. Thank you, Keetje, for giving us what we need to hear.