Better Living Through Poetry

All Its Charms May Be This Year’s Big-Deal Local Poetry Book

Keetje Kuipers’s third collection is a precise and elegant look at motherhood, love, and what it means to live.

By Stefan Milne April 25, 2019

Kuipers released her third poetry collection this week. 

A collection of contemporary poetry can’t come with much more spectacular endorsements than All Its Charms, the third collection from Keetje Kuipers, who teaches at Hugo House and lives on one of the San Juan Islands. Last month, when picking a poem for The New York Times Magazine, Rita Dove selected “Spring Letter from the South.” And this week the book arrived with a cover blurb from Tracy K. Smith, the current U.S. Poet Laureate, who calls it “daring, formally beautiful, and driven by rich imagery and startling ideas.”

The book centers on a few key events in Kuipers’s life—her decision to become a single mother, her marriage to a woman she loved years before—but those are like a prism the poems radiate from, so the book becomes not only about birth and living and loving, but also about death and time and loss. Bodies abound: an elk her father shot, neighbor kids kicking around a small corpse (“some slim gift of faulty flesh / floats on the tips of their sneakers—squirrel? robin?”), a teenager “who hanged herself / in the neighbor's woods last week, just in time / for Halloween.” Some of this she plays with blunt wit; one poem is called “Landscape with Ocean and Nearly Dead Dog.”

Juxtaposed with this are poems about motherhood. “At the Museum of Trades and Traditions” dips into the strangeness of artificial insemination, choosing her daughter’s father from “a list of hair / and eye color, narrowing the field by height and weight and college major.” And about sex: “There is no perfect / metaphor for the act / of turning you on. / But I try anyway.” 

What fuses this together is Kuipers’s precise voice, ever-light in its touch and resoundingly constant. The book contains only 52 poems and they rarely reach a page’s bottom, yet each is so lapidary that when you read them together, you feel as if you’ve been moved through a life.

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