The decision to have a child is fraught at the best of times. These days it is clouded by the knowledge that it might be a mistake to bring a human being into a world where extinction is nearby. For some women, a decision to become pregnant may involve them to shelter themselves from present realities. For others—and Keetje Kuipers is one of these—decisions to create family are made with a socially conscious and unsentimental eye. For such poets, every decision faced is a conundrum—not to be solved but often to find its place in poetry.
In All Its Charms, Keetje Kuipers reveals an intimate tale of family with potent imagery and heft—somewhat like the way an anchor marks a place while it pulls you down into murky waters. From the beginning there is a clear warning to proceed with a sense of awe, which at times is equivalent to a sense of horror. The first poem in the volume, “Becoming” is a prophetic metaphor in which the speaker notes,
there were ten
thousand ditches where I could have lain my
body down. When I saw that early spring
meadowlark—one winged, flapping in the road—
I pressed my heel to its chest, to the earth.
It took me a number of readings to accept this fierce willingness to smash what could no longer thrive, but it prepared me to continue to find clues ahead that display the courage to change in order to survive. Each of these poems flips notions of what is with what could be. In “The House on Fish Hatchery Road,” when the speaker sees “the neighbor’s kids playing kick-the-can,” she says,
it isn’t a can. Instead, some slim gift of faulty flesh
floats at the tips of their sneakers—squirrel? Robin?”
Later in this poem, she reveals what’s at stake:
Unmade child, I dream you despite everything—the beakers
filled with blood, the sudden taste of metal—whatever
we’re meant for when it comes for us ready or not.
Cycles flourish in these poems—seasons, trimesters, abandoned cars overgrown with kudzu. The death of a dog is chronicled in “Landscape with Ocean and Nearly Dead Dog” where the speaker asks, “Should I lay him on the slab as the vet’s?” and concludes with this musing,
I’ll hold the dog’s head
in my lap, let him smell on my salted hands
every little thing we’re willing to give up.
In “Outside the New Body” the pregnant speaker reflects, “One day I woke up / in a new body / one that contained another” and brings the story forward from yearning, questioning, and bidding to gestating and mothering. “Still Life with Nursing Bra,” is an ode to an item that constricts “like the copper bracelets of women who’ve / never worn bras, never held back / their multitudes.” The poems shows the enormous changes wrought upon the bodies of birth-mothers who have “struggled” and “fumbled” with the accoutrements of mothering:
…the leaking through, a sticky flower
blooming down my chest, until I wrenched
you free, flapping and fearless,
There is, of course, tedium “where I’m always somebody’s mother // turning the pages of some forgettable picture book,” but there is also the fullness of intimacy and surprise. In “The Great Lakes,” the speaker’s voice is incredulous, framing a thought that is both familiar and surprising:
My wife, the one I thought I’d never have—
because does any of us believe we deserve
to be happy in this life?
The brilliant lightness-in-shadow elements of these poems are found in the finely etched details of a fully lived life—one that pays deep and unsentimental attention to place. A number of the poems’ titles begin with “Landscape with” and another set begin with “Still Life with.” In “Landscape with Sage and the Names of My Children,” we find the line that is pulled out for the book’s title:
I dropped the nameless insects onto my tongue
and felt their black wings unfurl. I held the dead
buck by his antlers and dragged him through the sage,
brought my teeth to the tender bridge of ribs and fed
until the glossy maggots overtook me.
I climbed the red rocks robed in their red dust.
I put the earth—all its charms—within me,
into each waiting pocket. Lip and ear.
These are sinewy poems, tough to chew, yet there is a great deal of compassion and tenderness here as well. In “After My Shower, A Bee at the Window,” the bee is cupped in hand and released, as the speaker muses,
…without the wink and nod of glass, I
know my body is close to learning some
new thing about itself. This was to be
my poem for transformation, for which I
find I can’t now see beyond my toes.
Speaking about her second book, The Keys to the Jail (BOA Editions, 2014), in an interview with Cate Lycurgus, for 32 Poems, Kuipers talks about the metamorphosis of her person and her work. “The speaker in my second book,” she says, “was someone whose sadness and heartsick weakness I scorned. I was hard on that person, and nearly refused to forgive her for not being able to buck up and take her losses like a man. That book is hard for me to read now, not because it is full of loss—which it is—but because I had no compassion for the grief I was trying to express.”
In All Its Charms, Kuipers redeems both grace and gratefulness, with enough compassion to spare for herself. The final poem in the volume, “Still Life with Beauty Berries and Two Theories of Time,” the words speak to a softening growth within a chosen family: wife, child, home. The poem ends with these words,
I say poison, my breath sweet
with the burnt sugar smell
of everything that’s past.