JUNE 5, 2019
“EVERY ACT / IS an act of waiting,” writes Keetje Kuipers in her third collection, All Its Charms. The book is poised in the midst of the acts that constitute this waiting: working through long, slow periods of development and decay, tracing the drawn-out campaigns of romance and love, and tracking the compounding desire for one child while watching another grow. As she waits, the speaker in these poems is learning to care for herself, her body, and her life, while also tending the living, breathing, changing landscapes around her. Suggested by the striking cover image — a distinctive yellow calla lily with variegated leaves, its white roots hanging down against a coral background — Kuipers’s poems contain a multitude of living things. “Butterfly wing, shark’s tooth, quill,” begins the poem “Wife,” heralding a menagerie of other plants and animals that emerge: an early spring meadowlark, blackbirds, a sparrow and a magpie; huckleberries and purple knapweed, fireflies, glaciers and ice caps; migrating monarchs, eucalyptus, spilled poppies, an ibis and seagulls pecking at sand; mosquitos and palmetto bugs, whales and tanager eggs, zucchini blossoms and purple pole beans, new pasture grass and poisonous beauty berries.
In the midst of all of these buzzing, chirping, moving creatures and things, Kuipers crafts a meditation on the blurred boundaries between our bodies and the natural world, suggesting the ways in which bodies become earth, while earth forms a body of its own. In “Native Species,” the speaker tracks the urban development happening around her, describing how “the men come out again to clear in the land” in spring, noting the ways in which the process of breaking ground and building reflects her own embodied experiences:
Untouched? No such thing. Razed, plowed under, laid
to rest only to have soil peel back from the jaw bone.
What hasn’t been populated by trespassers, remade from
the inside out? No wonder my body is finally doing the dirty
work it’s always wanted to, spiraling deep within itself to make
from this wilderness something that doesn’t care if it belongs.
Here, the body becomes like land, no longer an untouched wilderness but a site for trespassers “doing the dirty work,” crafting something that “doesn’t care if it belongs.” Similarly, her poem “Yardwork” compares the trials of IVF to the process of tending the landscape and animals outside. On the weekend, she instructs her partner to “rake, fill feeders, give the grass a mow,” while “[m]y body, too, is told to work, while yours — // lush and flowering on all scores — / is asked to wait for what mine might grow.” In the end, there is no separation between body and land; in a related fashion, the boundaries between her own body and that of her partner dissolve:
I resist planting and can’t bear play. But more
than plotted cycles, this I know:
Some things can’t be fixed through faithful chores,
my body failing to work apart from yours.
This desire for their disparate bodies to work together, intertwined like plants growing side by side, is threaded throughout the collection. In “At Golden Gate Park with You,” the speaker intimates that “[t]here is no perfect / metaphor for the act // of turning you on […] everything / becomes your body / twisting in my arms.” In “Wife,” the speaker again links her own body to both the earth and that of her partner, writing,
If only I could hold myself so close to the ground,
my body over the stones making a robe
of seamless understanding, a comfort not
unlike forgiveness. Tell me if this is the promise
you’ve been waiting to untie like a knot.
The speaker’s desire for closeness with her wife manifests itself as a closeness with the earth itself, revising the traditional “chivalrous” representation of a coat laid over a muddy patch or puddle. Here, the more intimate garment of the robe is used instead to cover stones, becoming “seamless” and hearkening to the possibility of forgiveness as a knot that can be untied.
It is this notion of forgiveness that Kuipers generates in another poem, “Picking Huckleberries as the World Ends,” a meditation on what it means to love in a time of precarity. At the poem’s close, the speaker reflects on this sense of impending doom as a time to reconsider our relationships with others:
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.
The possibility of shelter becomes, instead, the human body — “the consolation of touch” — emphasizing the current lack: “that human habit you and I / have fallen of.” Love of self and love of the earth are deeply imbricated with love for another, Kuipers suggests, all united by a careful attention to the realities of embodiment.
It is, in part, this focus on embodiment that brings us some of the most moving and striking poetry in the collection. In her consideration of what it means to raise one child while still desiring another child, Kuipers makes a stunning contribution to writing on motherhood. Here she asks: how are children our legacy — and how can we leave other kinds of legacy in lieu of children?
In a poem titled “The House on Fish Hatchery Road,” Kuipers watches children playing kick-the-can outside before she goes inside to inject herself with a needle, another mention of the precursors to IVF. Out the window, she describes a beer-bottle-turned-ashtray that sits on the neighbor’s picnic table: “Someone had peeled the label off all the way / around and left it there, wanting and half-full of nothing.” Then, in an abrupt and gorgeous shift, she addresses the child she hopes the injections can foster: “Unmade child, I dream you despite everything — the beakers // filled with blood, the sudden taste of metal — whatever / we’re meant for when it comes for us ready or not,” the final lines echoing the imagined shouts of the children at play.
Waiting for a child “when it comes for us ready or not” reemerges in other poems, such as “First Trimester,” where the speaker nervously awaits an unknown future, yearning for a sign of the child that may be:
But when I go
inside to turn the fan on my damp body
or stand dizzy at the kitchen sink
to fill a glass, I have no flickering
yet to conceive of. It’s in my room’s dim
mirror I find the girl, my mother, every
thing I’m afraid of not becoming.
When that child does come, the speaker is dizzy yet again. In “Outside the New Body,” Kuipers describes the inherent strangeness of one body’s reliance on another:
One day I woke up in a new body
one that contained another and it made
For Kuipers, the process of conceiving her child is one of science intersecting with bodies, suggesting the complicated ways in which we extend beyond our own skin to touch others. In “At the Museum of Trades and Traditions,” the speaker looks over displays filled with tools of trade: “Here the tobacco horns, // here the looms, here the little knives / and the elegant silver-plated pistols,” she notes. In describing the tools’ corresponding trades — “Butter churner or glassblower? Blacksmith // or weaver?” — she also suggests the gendered economies of labor: “[A]s women, we wouldn’t / have had so many options,” she says frankly, shifting into a description of the multitude of choices she, as a woman, has in reproductive technology in the 21st century:
Unlike my daughter,
whose father I chose from a list of hair
and eye color, narrowing the field by height
and weight and college major. Someday I’ll find
that tool in a museum, the squat centrifuge,
the gasping seal of its lid, the gentle click
and whir as it swirled the sperm into a thin serum.
Or perhaps the slight catheter designed
to angle past the cervix and into the ether
of my womb.
These medical objects signify one of her roles, associate her with a trade and a tradition. And yet, just as the pipes or combs she sees in the museum, the presence of these tools alone disassociates them from the people who used them. She imagines them in some future display, “[t]here, on velvet, under a soft light / in some airless case, the tools that made me a mother.”
Herein lies the painful crux of this collection: although these tools make the speaker a mother in this instance, they fail in later attempts. A large part of the collection is devoted to the unfulfilled desire for a second child, the yearning for a body to perform in certain ways. In “Glassblower’s Glossary of Flaws and Defects,” the speaker describes feeling as though she could “breath[e] you into being with my want,” “coax [you] to life with pinpricks and prayers.” But even this strong sense of want — rooted in the body itself — cannot coax the child into being, and the poem closes with a warning about the violent force of desire: “When you refused conjuring, I carried // for months a dullness in my mouth, still not / knowing I had burnt my tongue on desire.” Later in the collection, the speaker bluntly states the ultimate outcome of these attempts at conjuring: “My body can’t make / another child,” she says. “We’re both / done trying.”
All Its Charms is laced with both hopefulness and the prickling sting of thwarted desire. As Kuipers navigates this tension, she articulates the role of memory as a way to reconnect with meaningful records of the past, but also as a redundant link to painful experiences and people who have wronged us. In “Anemoia,” the speaker describes the process of teaching complex emotions to her young daughter, wryly asking, “But if she doesn’t / learn nostalgia now, how will I ever teach her / regret? I have to get her ready for the future.” In “Migration Instinct,” the speaker notes the toll that emotions take: “Sadness is so much work.” All of this emotional labor is yet another kind of waiting, a slow waltz through growth with plenty of back-stepping, and Kuiper’s collection catalogs both the joys and heartaches of this process. In “Still Life with Small Objects of Perfect Choking Size,” the speaker worries over the unexpected dangers of parenting, but also worries about her own worrying. As she thinks of her daughter, she also recalls herself as a child:
in the past I’m a girl
doing a cartwheel for the last time —
feet in the air, spin of a body
propelling itself upside down,
the whole world turning while
I turn. No one knows
it’s the last time, not even I do.
The drive toward the past — toward what has been lost — is as strong, the speaker suggests, as the drive toward the future: the child “propelling” herself upside down and forward into life. These are the inevitable paradoxes of human life — waiting to grow older and then wishing to be younger — but Kuipers sits quietly in the midst of this tension, carefully reminding both versions of herself that these acts of waiting compound infinitely:
Don’t be so eager, I want to say
to us. In the August singularity,
the world tilts on its axis,
and our days slide into darkness —
In the end, there is no escape, but All Its Charms reminds us of the beauty to be found in the ongoing act of waiting, where we find “one thing beginning, another ending, / everything undone from within.”