Bittersweet: Lori May on Keetje Kuipers’s Beautiful in the Mouth

Beautiful in the Mouth, Keetje Kuipers, BOA Editions, 2010

Keetje Kuipers makes a stunning entrée with her debut poetry collection, Beautiful in the Mouth. Winner of the 2009 A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize, a prize that honors the late founder of BOA Editions, Kuipers shares a bold collection penned over the course of five years. While several of the poems have been previously published in journals such as Prairie Schooner, Willow Springs, and AGNI, this collection is fresh with flavor and pleasing to the palate.

Kuipers utilizes emotionally riveting imagery. In “Across a Great Wilderness Without You,” the speaker questions the tangibility of sound and language, “if language can be a kind of crying.” This collection proves it can, as the poems are wrought with desperation, loss, and defeat. Yet this debut is no pity party. Within such sadness, the speaker surfaces with truth, honesty, and – quite possibly – hope, as a result of healing.

Indeed, Kuipers approaches loss with such sensual emotion and execution, the reader is drawn into the hopeful heart of healing. This is evident in the poem, “Remembering Our Last Meal in New York”:

I have tried to forget your light, the way it breaks
me open, even now, and makes me speak,
how it glitters in the gutters up and down Eighth Avenue,
swirling in pools of snowmelt, so many
sparkling tea leaves I still read for signs of you.

The poet’s language conveys emotion not only within defined meanings, but also through the skillful use of assonance and internal rhymes, creating a sensual audible symphony. The poem “Self-Portrait with Cockroach” demonstrates such musicality: “the forced // music of your body’s slapping / rhythm when it lands against // your lover: how you do love her.”

While it is not the dominant form in this collection, Kuipers also employs the English sonnet. The poet, however, does well to loosen the restrictions of tradition in offering pleasing, innovative mechanisms. In “Why I Live West of the Rockies,” the speaker begins the sonnet with bittersweet reminiscence: “When I said I didn’t want to live in / Pennsylvania, I meant it. The house out- / side Philadelphia rotting each limb / that’s lost its use.”

Kuipers artfully manipulates the Shakespearean rhyme scheme with an inventive approach, particularly in the third quatrain where she rhymes “never” with “weather.” This is also where the volta is introduced with the firm statement, “You could never / understand why I won’t go back.” The speaker then addresses the essential seed of her memory: “Like all / shadows, our history’s carved by weather- / bent sun. Against us all the seasons.”

The tasteful liberty Kuipers takes in her sonnets is simply refreshing in its execution. “River Sonnet” is another English form wherein the poet loosens the constraints of end rhymes, relying on skillful assonance to carry the pattern. Here, Kuipers rhymes “moldering” with “ticking,” “apple” with “dull,” and “road” with “know.” The effect is that the sonnet is no longer predictable; in fact, a reader could very easily miss the cues to Kuipers’s sonnets, noticing only the musicality and creativity in beautifully shaped forms.

Assonance is but one of Kuipers’s vehicles for expression. The poet craftily enlivens metaphors, giving an old trick a new voice. In “Across a Great Wilderness Without You,” even limp fish have the power of metaphor. Here, the speaker says she will “scoop them from their pockets of graveled / stone beneath the bank, their bodies / desperately alive when I hold them in my hands, / the way prayers become more hopeless / when uttered aloud.” This haunting image is compared to the hands which have been “retired from their life of touching” a lover.

The theme of passions lost and found is abundant in Beautiful in the Mouth. Kuipers invokes the spirits of her poetic predecessors in a confrontation of personal demons and difficult choices. Kuipers’s speaker is often faced with the either/or of being a woman. This dichotomy of wants is executed beautifully in the poem “Desire”:

I can’t tell the difference anymore
between what I want and why I want it:
the white, clapboard house in the country
or the husband and children
who wait on its porch; a man with a truck
or our frank heterosexuality. Hunger
hasn’t gotten a very good name around here.

In this same poem, the speaker admits melancholic defeat: “when I do get what I want … it never seems to be enough.”

Where does such insatiable desire come from? Perhaps the speaker’s unsatisfied appetite is the result of the many painful losses weaved throughout this collection. Such loss is evident in the poem, “Waltz of the Midnight Miscarriage,” wherein the speaker begins by facing tragedy: “My little empire goes to sleep around me.” In a drawn out simile, the speaker likens moths to her unborn child:

Bugs swirl to a delicate halt around the bulbs
of my many lamps—leggy hallows—and I wonder,
what does it feel like, the helix of heat
they weave to their burning death?

A few lines later, the speaker relates how “the one who bleeds out / between my legs is silent tonight, her pulse / undone from my own heart’s beating.”

While such loss is irreparable, the speaker and her lover try to heal wounds in a later poem, “Making Love After the Death.” In this poem, the speaker addresses her lover directly, recalling his feeble attempt to free himself from the weight of loss: “Grasses hugged your long thighs / and you turned among them, a grain of sand / in a moving sea. The baby had been dead a week.”

Kuipers has made an incredible impact with this debut collection. Her use of form and skill with language mirrors her power of imagination, thus creating a perfect harmony of technical skill and artistry. Haunting personal losses pave the way for a cornucopia of sensual expression that exudes humanity and begs to be loved. If Kuipers’s debut signifies anything for the future, her poetry will be loved for a long, long time.

Lori A. May is a poet, novelist, and freelance writer whose work has appeared in publications such as The Writer, Tipton Poetry Journal, and anthologies such as Van Gogh’s Ear. She is the author of stains: early poems and two novels. For more information, visit

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