Beautiful in the Mouth by Keetje Juipers
BOA Editions, Ltd. 2009; 94 pp
Reviewed by Dana D. Livermore
“There is only so much goodness one body can hold.”
Keetje Kuipers’ Beautiful in the Mouth, winner of the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize in 2009, is a body of work bursting with “much goodness” and many truths, some hard to read, yet impossible to forget. From bondage to prayer, “salt shaker heart[s]” to sugar packets, a trailer park in Reno to an apartment on 175th St. in New York City, Dior coats in Paris to “epaulets of freckles,” gynecologists to presidents, and Charlotte’s Web to Freud everything and anything is material for Kuipers to shape into poems that strive to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange.
While her poems have a slightly traditional bent—the collection contains a handful of sonnets—she utilizes classic poetic tools (simile, metaphor, rhyme, syntax, form, etc.) in ways that revitalize language, thereby creating a style and voice unique to her own experiences of womanhood (Note: I deduced that the speaker in her poems is merely a multifaceted representation of herself, not necessarily Kuipers “the writer”). Take this simile in an excerpt from the poem “Fourth of July”, for example:
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. [emphasis mine]
Uncommon imagery prevails in this collection. However, what struck me most is the amount of angst and passion Kuipers can pack into a single phrase or line, which often lands like a sucker punch to the stomach; you feel it in your gut.
Possessed with a dancer’s history, I admit my aesthetics and critical expatiations are often influenced by how my body feels or reacts to what I read. And my body reacts to Kuipers’ poetry in ways I personally find quite profound and exciting. Moreover, she seems to have also fostered an awareness of how important the body is to relating individual life experiences—does she practice yoga, take dance classes, or run? I like to think she does, because she certainly seems to think the body is essential to the embodiment of her poetics. As a person who has spent much of my life “in my body” I can’t stress how refreshing it is to see a poet acknowledge the presence of the body in the written word. Numerous allusions to the many minute physical aspects of the body throughout this collection create powerful meaning time and time again. Lines like “My lover’s armpits/were whittled ampersand hollows”, “…try to tell the tongue/to correct the eye, the hand to speak for the nose”, or this excerpt from “Dear Sarah”:
…I understood then
that the thin mandolin of your shadow
cutting across the ice all afternoon
wasn’t independent of its owner, that your body’s
echo didn’t mean you wouldn’t leave me. [emphasis mine]
directs our attention to body-centered landscapes, and how, in the right hands these images can be used to outwardly express our internal psyche and desires, those parts of ourselves that beg to be exposed to the world and to the people we love.
Never before have I read a collection of poetry in which nearly every poem echoes my own thoughts and misgivings on what it means to be a woman, to be in or out of love, to grapple with mortality, to finally embrace the volatile nature of the self, or to deal with “the consequences/of happiness.” This is an intriguing collection that deserves your hearts’ attention. I fell in love. I hope you do too.