Poetry is the most visual-based of literature, not just in the pictures it paints with words, but also in how those words appear on the page. Poets play with formatting of lines, arrangements of breaks and punctuation, all of it. A book of poems, then, may be evaluated in multiple dimensions. Meanwhile, the old saw urges us not to “judge a book by its cover.” I am suspending that rule when it comes to poetry. Then again, I may only be saying that as an excuse to comment on the cover of former Missoulian Keetje Kuipers’ latest from BOA Editions, her third, called “All Its Charms.” It is gorgeous. A lovely tomato-red background with an image called "Calla Lily 'Sunshine' " (by Willam Rugen) urges the reader to pick the slender book up and take a peek. I think I actually gasped when I first saw it. The physical book must be experienced. I pause in writing this, just to gaze at how it looks against the woodgrain of my desk. Even so, the collection’s true beauty is found in the poems themselves, as it should be.
I read Kuipers’ previous work, 2014’s “The Keys to the Jail,” in preparation for reading “Charms.” I wanted to see if there is a difference, an evolution, and there certainly is. Kuipers has never published a poem that wasn’t beautiful, in one way or another, but she also leans a little dark. But it’s a gorgeous dark. A maturing dark, which all of us getting slower and grayer hope to attain. It’s the dark of the deep color of raspberries under storm clouds. Or roses in the same wet conditions, untended, growing feral against an old barn. The smell is as sweet, but it has also just rained, so there is the rich scent of muddy earth, and a little rot, to go with it. You still want to hold it to your nose, but a thorn may prick you if you aren’t mindful. Even then, the slow unfurling of blood from a pierced thumb is a gorgeous fascination if you can keep from immediately putting it to your lips, keep from turning away.
As an example, this poem. An outing to pick summer berries, during fire season, which we know all too well here in the West, with some references to themes that are visited more than once in this wonderful book:
"Picking Huckleberries as the World Ends"
Our family ranged across the tinder-dry hillside,
baby safe for now within some beetle-pocked
ponderosa's shadow, knapweed flocking her cheeks,
the fires all around us, everything burning as we
move from bush to bush, soft-filtered shadows of birds
crossing our backs, a dusting of ash on the still leaves,
and the berries we pluck tart, parched, smaller
than ever and tarnished by heat. It's not the end,
love, though when it comes, I hope we'll shelter in
the consolation of touch, that human habit you and I
have fallen out of. If there's another way to live
on this earth, let us be brave and find it together.
First, the baby. Kuipers’ child, both her carrying of it before birth and then her new role as a mother, is a common thread to Kuipers’ new poems. This little girl is only part of the large changes that have occurred in the poet’s life since “The Keys to the Jail.” She is also married now, and the complications of sharing a life and family with her wife is another element she draws from in her deeply personal work, as in the line where she references the “consolation of touch,” the human habit “you and I have fallen out of.” Such relatable emotions, so beautifully rendered in an otherwise almost pastoral image. I love this poem and the images, the smells of smoke and thirsty vegetation it brings to mind.
Picking berries is revisited in the poem “Essentials,” that highlights the sultry eroticism that is always just a tinge below the surface of much of Kuipers’ work. She writes of avoiding barbs to pluck fruit, “nipple-dark and quickening to sugar at my touch,” and reflects on the first time her hands strayed up under a lover’s shirt. This juxtaposition of images is what I love so much about poetry. Kuipers work lives there.
I find something new to love every time I open this book. “All Its Charms” is a collection of poems from a wonderful poet at the height of her powers. It is a book to be read in a sitting, then revisited, again and again, slowly, and savored.