It is human nature to fixate on the things that bring us discomfort or pain. As children, we wiggle loose teeth until our gums turn raw and our fingers are sodden. We pick at scabs, dig splinters out of our palms, scratch bug bites until they bleed. We go to the doctor and say, "It hurts when I do this," and she says, "Then don't do that!"
But sometimes our ailments aren't so easily solved. Our need to poke and prod isn't limited only to our bodily wounds, but to those of the mind and heart as well. Who hasn't obsessed over a lost love, a missed opportunity, an unfulfilled desire? We loll about in sadness and despair, turning memories and regrets over and over in our minds until we can think of nothing else.
This seems to be the state of mind in which Keetje Kuipers found herself while writing The Keys to the Jail. Loss, longing, sadness, desire—these are the themes that rule the day in her second full-length collection of poetry. And, though the themes are undoubtedly universal, a reader runs the risk of reaching saturation; just as the loose tooth can take only so much wiggling, a reader can only take so much introspective lamentation.
Kuipers' collection reads, in some ways, like one long poem focused on the poet's own inner life, and her feelings about a handful of other characters with whom she either had or currently has a relationship. (To be fair, this is ultimately what most poetry is about.) Some might call this continuity of tone, but I can only read so much of the same before I lose patience and start to become numb to the emotional pitch of the poems. Lines like "Every bright thing/ put inside me/ becomes one more/ dim room with a bulb/ I can't replace," eventually lose their effect when you come to expect them, when their dark tone pervaded the previous poem, and the one before that. That's the bad news.
The good news is that taken in small doses, Kuipers' poems have something lovely going on, and her voice, despite what might, at times, seem like an obsessively inward focus, is in fact striking, brave and highly in-tune with the world around it.
One thing Kuipers does well is draw on the natural world. In her poem "The Extinct," she evokes isolation by comparing herself to certain animals:
"Imagine I'm the last woman on Earth/ the snowiest plover, the loneliest/ deep-sea-swimming whale. It's not my fault, but it might be."
Later in the same poem she speaks of gray wolves, and how "When I tell them my name isn't a song/ to sing, they call it back to me again and again."
In many ways, this line is a good example of an underlying theme of the book, a current that threads beneath the loneliness. Kuipers is clearly focused on loss, but she is also aware of redemption, beauty and the insistence that no matter how bad things might be, life goes on—and that that is worth celebrating.
Certain poems give the sense that forces are gently nudging Kuipers toward happiness, even when she rails against it. In "Ought," she writes, "I ought to be sick of my life, I ought to be too bored/ for words. Each day the red-tailed hawk sits/ in his tree, cocks his head from side to side, takes/ a low pass over the field and returns with a mouse/ for his meal. The dogs/ bark at the deer, and the deer/ don't move until the dogs have stopped. I ought/ to be losing my mind with all this familiarity/ with loving every damn thing I've come to know."
Kuipers might be reluctant to love, but she isn't reticent to write openly about topics often veiled in metaphor. It's refreshing to see a woman write as honestly about sex and need as Kuipers does, readily admitting to lusty desires and past encounters. One glittering example from the poem "The Whore" allows a bit of humor to color this conversation, a reminder, perhaps, of our own occasional ridiculousness:
"Our bodies are born liars. The yoga/ instructor would disagree, wants me to/ relax into the bend, by which she means/ put my ear behind my knee. The man/ in front of me does it, opens his hips/ like a celluloid Gumby and tilts his ear/ to the floor. I want to say, Get over yourself!/ Then, Get over here! Better yet, Get on/ top of me! Take the not-candy sugar/ of my body and stick it on your tongue."
It's in moments like these that Kuipers' writing really shines. She is unflinchingly honest in her appraisal of herself and the world around her. We all can relate to these frustrations and desires, whether or not we've ever been in a yoga class.
And while The Keys to the Jail seems preoccupied with loss and longing when digested all at once, the honesty that pervades the book helps temper that saturation. Ultimately, Kuipers is pointing us toward something true about ourselves: that as humans, we will always be preoccupied with longing and desire. She's just giving us the words and ways to talk about it.
Keetje Kuipers reads from The Keys to the Jail at Shakespeare & Co. Wed., July 9, at 7 PM.