Star-Smoked Skies

Reviewed By

Kuipers is a “traditional poet” with respect to her unwavering focus on craft; the engine powering her verse is tight word choice that simultaneously conjures up tangible, living objects and powerful emotional resonance.

The other day I was on the bus after a long day at work and I found a seat near the front. I put my bag on the plastic scoop next to me and turned up the Weakling album playing through my huge headphones. The bus ran past my neighborhood and further south to where I was meeting some friends at a tiny bar. The night was freezing but I had my huge black hoodie on, and I felt ready to shake off the eight-hour fatigue, to walk on the empty streets from bar to bar mysteriously unaffected by the smoking ban and crammed with kids sitting on pool tables or smashed against the doors to bathrooms or cases of pinball machines or deep and springless couches covered in dog hair. My body felt ready, and as the drums pounded in time with my heart, a hundred bass beats for every shudder of it, and the deep guitars and howls of the singer of that band long gone from the Bay and their true testament howled to the night through my earphones, I felt the burning wires in my arms, the electricity of them, the grasping and hard readiness, and then I knew that Beautiful in the Mouth was not just a good poetry collection, but one that I would remember for a great many nights to come.

From “Santeria for the City: Blackout, Summer 2003”:

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.

Keetje Kuipers is a poet who uses “old-school” techniques and subject matter to create striking and viscerally contemporary poems. Although the poems in her new collection, Beautiful in the Mouth, are made up of typical literary building-blocks, they nonetheless left deep handprints in my ideas of themes like Aging, Nature VS The City, Death and Memory. Kuipers is also a “traditional poet” with respect to her unwavering focus on craft; the engine powering her verse is tight word choice that simultaneously conjures up tangible, living objects and powerful emotional resonance.

Nature is a big part of the Kuipers’ aesthetic, which is always somewhat dangerous. It is so “natural” for a poet to write about the beauty of the wilderness that it could be an obvious cliché, but Kuipers’ skillful writing renders her lines about nature original and intriguing. Any poet can rhapsodize about a salmon swimming upstream; Kuipers throws down a description so vivid that it gives you chills. From “River Sonnet”:

.. … the large head scarred,
flanks those of a barnacled ship: she rose
from shallow water, a calcified shard
bearing time’s white etchings, and one dark eye—

There many poems with lines like these in Beautiful in the Mouth, that is, 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. In other words, when I turned the page to the above poem, a voice in my head said “Okay, do I really need to read another poem with a title like “River Sonnet”’ ? And after reading this one for the fourth time, the same voice answered “Yes, apparently.”

Images like the “calcified shard” or “time’s white etchings” are also scattered throughout the collection’s more narrative poems, providing little bursts of light like bright strokes that lead a museum-goer’s eyes back and forth across a canvas. In “Memory, Eight Years Old,” for example, we read a simple story marked with a spoon that (who?) “bends at the neck,” and dead leaves that “fly like sparks under my heels.”

Lines like these also appear in the poems about less natural or spiritual subjects, like an argument with a lover. These didn’t grab me as quickly as the more traditional poems, at least thematically, but the metaphors woven into the narratives of “normal” life were just as beautiful and elegant as those in the traditional poems. In “To the Bear Who Ate a Ten-Pound Bag of Sunflower Seeds in My Front Yard This Morning,” a man stealing some groceries becomes an indelible image as the canned goods drop from his pockets into the snow, “making neat little shafts / where the light shone only dimly on their / aluminum tops–”.

The poet/speaker’s deep roots in the rural tradition are plain in “Between Dreams of My Country.” The two “dreams” of the U.S.A. are the opposite idealizations that she holds of America: in the first stanza, the somewhat simplistic and not-fully-formed idea of her “American city,” and in the second, the effortlessly complete and folkloricly beautiful idea of her American wilderness.

Kuipers populates New York with images like “tall buildings,” “rats behind / my walls” and “bright graffiti” – all somewhat surface-level and easily-recognizable aspects of the city. In other poems too, many of the images characterizing New York read like the poems were written not by a native or even a longtime resident, but rather by a visitor or an artist who read about NYC in books. Beautiful, but also exploring well-trodden neighborhoods of the poetry canon.

But then the reader is hit with the poet’s memories of “the prairie.” In contrast to the images in the first stanza, the images of the second smash into us with violent specificity and magic.

And what I’ve left behind: the star-smoked
skies, a pint of red beer floating
in my hand, and me wanting to shatter
something without the sound of breaking glass.

So the poet hasn’t “left behind” the prairie and the magical night of rural America behind at all. “When do I get to call you home?” she asks, referring to the streets of New York, knowing that the answer is certainly “Never.” After a couple reads of this poem, it becomes clear to the reader that the poet isn’t really “Between” dreams of her Country at all. Across the terrain of her imagination, the tenements and bustle of her imagined New York struggle only weakly against the real inspiration drawn from the night rivers and the midnight grasslands and the “golden boat” of the prairie.

The same contrast occurs in “I Arrive in Paris on the First Day of Montana’s Fishing Season.” The images of Paris are simple and surface-level: glassy streets and Dior coats. The images of Montana could not possibly be any more opposite in their specificity. Many artists could conceivably characterize Paris with coats from a house of high fashion; considerably fewer could characterize fly fishing in Montana with “caddis patterns” and “skwala nymphs.” Just as she does in “Between Dreams of My Country,” the poet uses these contrasting types of images to paint a picture of meaning through her own eyes and paradigm.

In a questionably related aside, if you Google Image Search “Dior Coats” you won’t get a great visual representation of Paris, but if you Google Image Search “skwala nymph” you do get kind of a good depiction of Montana river fishing.

But most important in establishing Kuipers as an important artist are her poems that grapple with huge themes through the concise natural images she knows so well. Her poems deal with rail yards, trailer parks, great bare ridgelines that hug green and empty valleys like the collarbones of a skeleton. Rivers quiet except for the chirping of birds, prairie skies empty except for the pinpricks of a million stars, crumbling houses and, over and over again, moths drawn into the fire of a lantern, bugs drawn towards some nightlight’s burning.

And the poet herself somewhere in the wilderness; somewhere in the city. Somewhere along the trajectory of her artistic dream: towards love? Towards solitude and quiet in the forests? Towards the clamor of the city, only to return to the country seeking out her memories? Or just towards that porch lantern, wings burning up in it, something set free in the flames.

Read “I Will Away,” a new poem from Keetje Kuipers, in Rumpus Original Poems.

Nate East writes poetry and fiction for Cowans Gap zine in San Francisco. His work has also appeared in The Rumpus, Monkeybicycle, SoandSo Magazine and elsewhere, and he can be found online at More from this author →