Beautiful in the Mouth, Keetje Kuipers

Rochester, NY: BOA Editions

April, 2010

reviewed by Mike Walker

Keetje Kuipers, the winner of the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize in 2009, has published here the work that brought her to the attention of BOA Editions and garnered the prize named after that publisher’s founder. Kuipers, a native of the American Northwest and now a fellow at Stanford University in California, has always used her geographic identity as a powerful internal compass for her life and writing. In fact, this book was completed while she was the Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Writing Resident, another nod towards Kuipers’ ties to the land. While not all of Kuipers poems presented here are directly concerning the wilderness, she is never far from the landscape at all nor is she only interested in the metaphoric value of such: Kuipers is very much a poet of the American West. Her best poems in this collection to me are those where she directly connects with the land of the brutal Northwest and human interaction with the same, as in ”After the Ruins of an Oregon Homestead”:

we are, none of us, native to the earth, not born in the dirt of her cupped palm, though yes, we go back to it

Words such as these could be dismal, to say nothing of trite, in less-skilled hands, but for Kuipers they are adeptly applied to their task as she describes in a sense the very meaning of ruins. In our modern times we do forget, it seems, the gravitas of life for pioneers, the fact that before the housewife could even boil the beans, the cornmeal for making muffins might be eaten up by the mice. Kuipers however, remembers. Her poem ”Memory, Eight Years Old” is a perfect example of this:

the neighborhood boys are smiling,

when they say they’re going to get knives

and come after me

How can you turn away from such a start? How can you not want to turn away, though? By the time you encounter this poem in the book, unless struck with the notion to skip around its pages an awful lot, you’ve read enough of her apt words describing the natural landscape and a sometimes harrowing sense of travel that you feel the real power this situation intones. Whether the boys were all that serious in their threat (by the end of the poem, we still don’t know), we are allowed a glimpse at the mind of a very intelligent eight year-old in the wake of such terror. Even at this tender age, life was assumed to be hard and anything, it seems, was assumed possible. That, in stiff words bookended by hard facts, could sum up the whole of the American pioneers’ spirit, really. In the course of this poem, Kuipers asks her mother for ”her sharpest knife” to combat the evil boys and is only given a plastic spoon. The pluck and pragmatism of the child versus the very different place where the mother’s mind resides is also telling here, and yet Kuipers does all this in a short poem, with no pushy emotion or showmanship of words. I think it was this poem that convinced me beyond any possible doubt of the wisdom of BOA in awarding her the Poulin Prize.

Even in a poem with as tame a title as ”Oregon Spring” Kuipers opens up her intentions with these dour words:

in the gully where last winter

the tourist died

and how do you respond to that in a poem? It’s just as lurid as the boys’ knives. The near-gothic deadpan here would be comic in other surroundings or would be found too quick in setting up pity, but Kuipers makes it work, coming full circle when she mentions the renewal in spring, the rise of the pines and other botanicals around this location, then stating ”I’m glad at least one man didn’t die in an uglier place”. Many, of course, do: those in hospitals, those on battlefields. At least one man, had his time come, died in this place of beauty which, Kuipers predicts, his daughters one day may visit.

In ”The Lake Oswego Girls’ Soccer Team at the Hilton Pool” we see Kuipers move away from the dark corners she’s gone over to in many of the poems of ”Beautiful in the Mouth”, but not by much. She delights in the youthful, fluid, robust, playful, nature of these girls in the water, yet still she compares them to herself, their innocence to her experience (and I don’t know her age, but must say that I don’t believe Kuipers to be all that old, either: the emotions she betrays are from in fact experience, not simply the passing of decades). Kuipers here and elsewhere reminds me a lot of my friend Allen, whom, in nearly every conversation we’ve had will somehow carry a coffin through the feast, no matter how happy he is overall, some shadow will still be cast. Allen, like Kuiper I suspect, is not trying to depress the lot of us, but simply to open up a vastness of not always pleasing experience.

Another poem, ”To the Bear Who Ate a Ten-Pound Bag of Sunflower Seeds in My Front Yard This Morning” makes Kuiper’s trajectory even more clear: from the title, a funny take on an unfortunate event might be expected (unfortunate, at least, to whomever purchased the sunflower seed), however Kuipers draws a working allusion between the bear’s actions and her own hand-to-mouth life while living in New York City. Taking a chance, certainly, in such a far-fetched premise, Kuipers tells the Bear that once, she lived in New York, and that while he cannot know what that means, it was the New York, the city, not some remote part of the rest of the state. She and her boyfriend there were not wealthy, in fact, they hardly had a dime. She understood a hardscramble life, she’d seen a shoplifter dodge out of a grocer’s doorway and drop some cans of tuna and soup from his coat into the snow, losing even his ill-gotten prize. Humans, too, have the ability and desire to meet unmet needs, by hook or crook.

A poem that preceeds the poem about the soccer girls by a mere page, ”The Undeniable Desire for Physical Contact Among Boys of a Certain Age” allows the nearest swell of pure happiness unmitigated by experience and hard-earned cynicism that Kuipers provides in the span of the entire book. Unlike the soccer girls, these boys, probably somewhat the girls’ juniors, are allowed their youth in full, without pity, without caution. Reading this poem I couldn’t help but think of young pop star Justin Beiber’s recent music video for his song ”One Time” and the opening scene of him sitting next to his friend Brian playing video games; the awkwardness of the tween and early teen years seems more apparent for boys than girls, yet in other ways it actually appears a more gentle process. Beiber’s video, for a work of the pop mainstream is outstanding (in the most literal sense that it stands out) for its honesty in showing the awkwardness of that age whereas Kuipers’ poem in short lines captures the same emotional state yet also further defines it in a way only good poetry can. In fact, much of what I found most impressive of Kuipers’ entire book was her ability to place poetry to task in ways that poetry serves better than most any other art.

In Kuiper’s poem ”Fourth of July” she uses her simple yet very real, very nuanced, language that she elsewhere applies to such great effect in service of the natural world, but focuses it on relationships and thus draws us into how the mundane is also the truly romantic:

If I have any romantic notions left,

please let me abandon them here

on the dashboard of your Subaru

beside this container of gas station

potato salad and bottle of sunscreen.

Otherwise, my heart is a sugar packet

waiting to be shaken open by some

other man’s hand.

Of course she has ”romantic notions left”—her book is an entire collection of these, even if they are cynical ones in places. She’s just adroitly concerned, a bit like she was at age eight with those boys, of what happens when you let your guard down, but she’s also able to realize and delight in how romance works. Her heart could be frail, but it’s protected. Experience, once again, rears its ugly yet sage head.

So what do we learn of the poet herself via this collection, aside of her early encounters with boys carrying knives and her empathy for a bear that ate all her birdseed? She travels a lot, for one: if you’re a rural person in the American South, see, you’re kind of expected to stay put, at least for literary purposes. But if you’re of the pioneering spirit of the dank and dark of the Northwest, travel must in so many ways be in your bones. Kuipers says as much in her poem ”I Arrive in Paris on the First Day of Montana’s Fishing Season”. No jours de l'an for the likes of her. She compares, in a manner more haunting than one would imagine, her explorations around the arrondissements municipaux to a friend’s foray into spring fishing back home in Montana. She has lived, and aside from her work at Stanford it seems lives still, in Montana . . . yet another locus on the vast map of the West Kuipers has claimed. So she has landed in Paris, such a grand destination for poets, you know, and here she is, a lady who we could even say has a touch of Rimbaud in her, and yet she is missing Montana’s chilly streams already. She’s a country girl, alright, she’s lived in New York City, visited Paris and a host of other locales, but she knows where her home is, and despite her fine ability to write about probably any location with the verve of Lorca or Rimbaud, she’s certain about the primary places she wishes us to visit with her first.

I have no reservations at all with Beautiful in the Mouth or the poet behind it: if my praise seems even too encouraging for an unbiased review, just know that this is possibly the best book of original poetry that I’ve encountered since I first began reviewing books in 1998. Perhaps it is because Kuipers as a poet is much like myself in her foci of intimate affairs and broad natural landscapes, or perhaps it is because she is so skillful in crafting poems that tell stories or minister to our emotions honestly and she can do so with an impressive economy of words. She simply has impressed me, she has reached what I desire in poetry. How she did this exactly, I cannot quite place into words. In any case, she’s certainly one to watch.

--- Keetje Kuipers was born in Pullman, WA to a fishing guide and a sociologist. Since then, she's lived in Idaho, Montana, Minnesota, California, Pennsylvania, New York, and Oregon. Though she's pursued all manner of careers--from midnight baker to Google desk jockey, publisher's assistant to Off-Off-Broadway actress--poetry has been her passion for many years. Writing directly to the themes of loneliness, longing, and loss, Kuipers' first collection, Beautiful in the Mouth, contains, as The Rumpus put it, "pitch-perfect poems about topics that are expected in a poetry collection, but that are crafted so well that they transcend cliché to flower into these plainly beautiful chunks of text." Still obsessed with restlessness and isolation, Kuipers is currently at work on a manuscript entitled "The Keys to the Jail" which contains poems that examine the crimes we commit against ourselves--our acts of faithlessness, and the redemption of returning home to the self we left behind. As Kuipers herself has said, "[Poems] are beautiful, necessary attempts, the same way that standing on top of a mountain and shouting your name into the uninhabited air is an attempt—we must declare ourselves over and over again, and still never really find a way to understand how we exist."

--- Mike Walker is a writer, journalist, and poet. His original research and other academic work has been published in: AirMed, Goldenseal, EcoFlorida, BrightLights Quarterly, the ATA Chronicle, Translation Journal, Multilingual Computing and Technology and other journals. His journalism in: The Florida Times-Union, The North Florida News Daily, Satellite Magazine, Twisted Ear, and other publications. His poetry in: Meanie, the Church Wellesley Review, Tipton Poetry Journal, and other publications. He lives in Gainesville, Florida.