Devil’s Lake

Book Reviews

Keetje Kuipers: Beautiful in the Mouth

Keetje Kuipers’ Beautiful in the Mouth is at once lovely, frank, and haunting. The poems move easily between landscapes, inhabiting the American west, Paris, and New York City with equal ease and yet, they never exploit sympathies of locale for their power. Instead, they rely on nothing but the speaker’s own candor, who is able to speak through such disparate poems as "Bondage Play as Substitute for Prayer" alongside "Waltz of the Midnight Miscarriage," "Reading Sappho in a Wine Bar," and "Barn Elegy" with a good spattering of honest-to-god sonnets.

As Lux blurbs, this book is, in fact, full of its own "wild music." Little else could describe how these poems can dart between lyricism ("Bobby pins / scattered, their numbered litmus, / across the wooden field of the bureau") and declaration ("I’m not asking for love anymore. / I don’t care if I never see a sailboat again.").

In lesser books, it’s easy to get the impression that we’re being lied to. In Beautiful in the Mouth, that’s never the case. We’re permitted to follow this speaker into the gynecologist’s office, into a wilting hotel room for a sweaty hour’s rental, and to "the dashboard of your Subaru / beside this container of gas station / potato salad." This speaker can drink beer beside a red pickup, and yet, doesn’t keep her vulnerability from us either: "I’ll be the small girl standing tiptoe on a stool / at the firecracker stand. I’ll wear that dirty dress over / mosquito-bitten calves…"

Kuipers is also not a poet who wields her honesty in place of craft; she really does have it all. Her images are fresh and startling, from the "leggy haloes" of bug-swarmed streetlights to "the beaten mares on 59th" who "stomp slowly at the snowy curb, take great / pitchers of air into their distended lungs / and bloom from between yellowed teeth / white peonies against the trees of Central Park." And as a testament to her brazen mastery of sound (first, do take another moment to appreciate the quiet loveliness of "yellowed teeth / white peonies"), take the opening stanza of "Memorial Day": "Plant dander spins the air, wind spitting sawdust curls across my windshield like star-shards blown out a comet’s ass." Or just a stanza later, the "mud-rutted pig farms and hills studded with tree stumps.

I’m not saying there’s not a line or two in this book I wouldn’t change (these two, for example: "We pray and are comforted / by the sound of our own voices, // satisfied with echoes," or, "Today I promised you a poem entitled…"), but this is the most unique and startling book I’ve read in a long time, and I think we can expect more pigeonhole-busting eloquence from Keetje Kuipers in the years to come.

Keetje Kuipers
Beautiful in the Mouth
BOA Editions, 2010