A version of the following review will appear in the next issue of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics.
Often with a collection of poems these days, especially those that win a contest, the collection is filled with the best poems the author wrote in the last year or two or three or five. This is fine. But give me a themed book, oh, now there’s joy. Or give me Keetje Kuipers’ newest collection Beautiful in the Mouth (BOA, 2010), winner of the A. Poulin Jr. Poulin Prize. This book has three main self-contained themes, love, sex, and death, and they all intertwine.
That finally coming to love you
has been a hard-earned pleasure,
so that every time you enter me
I want to cry out, Bury me,
bury me. Put me in the ground.
Further, what this book does within its three intertwining themes is to create associations within itself.
Sure any collection of poems has associations, but they are just happenstance, an accident, which is fine if you can see the largeness of the author’s synchronicities. But usually what happens is similar to what I. A. Richards says in Science and Poetry, “over whole tracts of natural emotional response we are to-day like a bed of dahlias whose sticks have been removed,” where sticks are beliefs or connections to something other or that move “towards something other than ourselves” (“Driving Back into the City”), and without the sticks, they don’t extend. So the associations don’t attach to anything bigger. With Kuipers, however, these associations are immediate, mental, psychological, emotional, unique, and everyday for her and at the same time connecting to something larger – love:
you’ve become the man I build
every poem from
(“My First Love Returns from Iraq”)
Plus, her poems are dictated by the needs of her associations.
What am I talking about?
Let’s look at one example, “boats.” What are your associations? Okay. Now, let’s look at what Beautiful in the Mouth does.
I’m not asking for love anymore.
I don’t care if I never see a sailboat again.
These are the last lines from “Fourth of July,” and after you read these lines, you feel she’s sick of love, or she doesn’t want to go on any more journeys of love. Something like the those two insights or both are the initial feelings. And there’s an association between love and sailboats, which is unique to her. But then you recall the first use of “boat” in the earlier poem, “Driving Back to the City”:
And our thighs rocking together like two moored boats in the night, all those tender lights held
tight in their hulls.
Now that’s sex. (A brief aside – there are a lot of sexy and erotic poems in this collection, and some are quite arousing.) Shortly after you finish the “Fourth of July,” the mind yokes together the two boat associations – boat, love, ooh, sex, yes. The associations that were unique to the poet are now becoming the readers.
In another sex poem that’s about love, “You Loved a Woman Once,” another “boat” appears, and it associates with tenderness. The boat associations are filling up with passengers of love, sex, and tenderness. She’s creating the boat’s associations through accretion. It’s not just the typical one-to-one association arising from a happenstance of synchronicity. The “boat” also incorporates despair:
academe gone down
like a fast ship on fire
(“Why I Live West of the Rockies”)
Then you encounter the sadness of the associative boat:
I think I’ve been sad for a long time now –
crying in my coffee near the Place des Vosges,
taking pictures of toy sailboats at the Jardin
(“Ne Me Quitte Pas”)
This boat is getting heavy with love, sex, tenderness, despair, and sadness. The boat appears to be love and everything that comes with it.
In fact, the further I get into the book, especially the last death-filled section, the more I hope for the boat to appear. The more I expect the boat to appear. The more I need the boat to appear. Finally, it does. After 13 pages without seeing the boat, when I need it most amid all the death, the boat appears twice in the penultimate poem, “What Afterlife.” In the first occurrence, it’s a metaphor for death and dying.
I think of my fifth summer
the day I lost one shoe
over the side of a sailboat,
it’s sinking away from me
into the untreadable dark.
When you get to the poem’s second occurrence of “sailboat,” you understand what she meant when she said, “I don’t care if I never see a sailboat again.” So much of the book and its self-created, ever-expanding associations come to conclusion in “What Afterlife,” especially the last few stanzas.
Kuipers’ boat is loaded with the intertwining associations of love, sex, tenderness, despair, sadness, and death. After successive reads, you see, hear, and feel how they are all one. You get to ride on Kuipers’ boat and feel it rock and sway.
In fact, you could argue that the boat is the metaphor for Beautiful in the Mouth. In fact:
You said the boat was her shoulder in your mouth, even when
you couldn’t bear her epaulets of freckles, even when nothing
but a body would do and there was no body but her own.
(“You Loved a Woman Once”)
The more I read Beautiful in the Mouth the more I notice how complicated it is. It’s as complicated as it is to be alive and just as beautiful.
This is a good year for poetry, so far, and it’s building up to be like 2005, and Keetje Kuipers’ Beautiful in the Mind is a reason why.//