Keetje Kuipers, Beautiful in the Mouth, BOA Editions Ltd., 2010, 96
Keetje Kuipers’ debut book of poetry, Beautiful in the Mouth, begins in the body. From there, it reaches out to investigate the world and its environment, death, life, memory, the future, and other bodies: other places. It does so in a remarkable cascade of poignantly tactile and emotionally expressive language that subsumes abstraction, brings it to a personal level that sings with intimacy. The result is a superb collection of poetry that unites the body with its surroundings at a physical and emotional level. It explores how a person “has.” It connects loss, what one has only as memories, and inevitability, what one has in anticipation, with the present and current living being. All of this is accomplished in meaningful and musical verse with imagery and descriptions that range from the erotic to the visceral and span the globe, traveling from New York to Paris to Japan to Minnesota. Yet, in the end, everything comes back to the person, the body, which is inextricably linked to the world.
The first poem of the collection, "The Light Behind Her Head, the Bright Honeycomb of the Sky," is a scene of copulation depicted in a geographic artistry that paints the intimacy of the moment with and across the entire world. “…then the summer / evenings on the Hudson, a New York / he’s making in my legs now…” the poem reads, joining lovers with landscape. Its beauty transforms into something reminiscent of the Japanese wabi by the time the poem reaches its vivid twist, however: “There are the deaths that terrify me still / because they have not happened yet.” Suddenly these places, along with time, are unified in the emotions and perceptions of the present. The poem speaks of a fear of the future that has riddled the past and maintains its presence in the present but does so in beautiful imagery that makes it all feel real, at hand, and urgent. It concludes in Japan in a picture of dawn, “Like the flowering corset that is the world / doing up her stays each morning, shaping / herself again to hold us all in semiprecious light.” The ending is full of touch, in the complicated dancework of fingers “doing up her stays,” in the day’s light “holding us all,” and it is an exemplary ending to introduce the rest of the book: the days continue, the present self must continue to confront the future and reflect on the past.
One particularly distinct and stirring arc running through a number of poems in the book, which continues to contend with all aspects of time in terms of an individual’s distinct experience, follows a pregnancy. It begins with the bluntly titled "Finding Out I’m Pregnant," which, with New York and Russia, with plumeria and mouths, limns its moment gorgeously. Its descriptions remain physical and full of movement; they bind the world to the body and finally the body to the body of the unborn child: “Watch me drop / from the dock, become the slip—soundless— / of a body swimming inside a body.” Time progresses between the poems, however, and it is another, much different moment being described in the later "Waltz of the Midnight Miscarriage."
“My little empire goes to sleep around me,” the poem begins, illustrating “A small death” in a sequence of images and reflection. They’re phrased in the present tense, weaving into the imagery a strong sense of the immediate presence of the travesty, as well as its effects on the person, both on emotional and physical levels once again. Still, time is not far: “The clock waltzes toward one and I tick / in my bed, an untethered cable, a live wire.” It refuses to wait for the narrator by its very nature, forcing her to simply “tick” along.
The arc continues once more as time progresses, appearing again in the poem "Making Love After the Death". “The baby had been dead a week,” the poem asserts amidst its descriptions of the narrator’s lover and “night / when the weight of the moon is absent.” It looks to the past. If in the first poem the speaker had her baby and in the second poem she had the loss and devastation of the baby’s passing, in the third poem she has the memory of her loss. The poem shows that in the present she must still deal with the past: even that which is lost is still something that is had. This sense of loss and memory, especially in a sense that evokes itself almost physically in the feelings of the person and body, permeate Kuipers’ poems, frequently driving their variegated images and moments. Thus, the memories and emotions encountered within Beautiful in the Mouth cover a truly wide range as well, but it is the unity of these seemingly disparate emotions, the combination that forms the speaker herself, that brings the greatest force to the poems.
"Making Love After the Death" also continues the pattern of feeling that is seen throughout the book with passages such as “Grasses hugged your long thighs…I remember your smooth hands.” It is this type of tactile focus that anchors many of the book’s poems, along with their scenes and descriptions, squarely in the body and makes them so potent. They not only reflect the impressions of the speaker, but reflect her connection to them and the world: how she experiences the moment of her life and who she becomes as a result. The poem "On Sunday" has the speaker of the poem reflecting on “An invisible man in the sky” while swimming at the river. “I told myself / it was his hands untying the knot / like apron strings at my back,” she says, feeling the water creep up her body, and finally concludes in the needs of the body, “You put it in the body / and the body makes use of it.” Another poem that contains wonderful examples of this type of physical feeling of the world is "Ikebana for the Dead." Again the poet experiences the world by caressing each moment, probing with her fingers: “my fingertips rummage their petals / until I’m dirty with scent and they carry my dust. / I prop the green stalks against each other, / the fever of my fingers torturing their leaves.” These descriptions create a keen sense of reality in each poem and a particular intensity to the scenes and images therein. “I speak of the bodies / that have come to do their work in the daylight,” explains the speaker.
Kuipers crafts poems that contain engaging subjects, riveting depictions, and creative and artful images that can speak even in the sense of touch while simultaneously creating a wonderful lyricism through her expert use of language and form. Her poems are full of assonance and internal rhyme that evidences the attention paid to the sounds of each poem, the result of which is a rich musicality that matches the evocativeness of her poetry’s imagery. Kuipers’ poems appeal to the body in all of its senses.
In addition to the attention to sound in her poetry, Kuipers puts considerable work into artfully crafting the form of her poems. She consistently varies between longer poems and shorter poems, ones with long lines and ones with short, striking enjambments, and poems that are a single, sprawling stanza and poems that have numerous, even stanzas. She also employs the sonnet numerous times throughout the book, but does so in such creative and articulate language that a reader might not even immediately notice the form. Kuipers’ poetry does not attempt to draw attention to its form, but rather utilizes varied forms to emphasize and enhance the poems’ content as well as to generate a flowing yet unpredictable rhythm in her language: each poem readily hands the reader to the next.
Beautiful in the Mouth is an imaginative and skillfully crafted cavalcade of verse that explores intense passion and loss, memory, and the body’s perception of the world around it. Its imagery is full of sexual expression, but also often visceral details of the speaker’s body as well as those surrounding her. The book is suffused with human emotion in the form of the speaker’s intense and passionate experiencing of the world. It is engaging and insightful, beautiful and mournful. Beautiful in the Mouth is an excellent collection of poetry and a spectacular debut book that, with any luck for the readers, predicts a long and equally successful career for Kuipers in the future.
Shawn Bodden is from St. Louis, Missouri and is currently studying English, Linguistics, and Russian as an undergraduate at Truman State University. This is his second review for GHLL.