“Poem of Transformation”: Art and Magic in Keetje Kuipers’s All Its Charms
review by Eric Tran
Keetje Kuipers’s All Its Charms, her third book of poetry, is itself a book of charms, a set of spells that transforms and divines, creates and worships. The book opens with “Becoming,” where the speaker drives through the country and shapeshifts to become the landscape: “the next season would I become just one / more hillside of purple vetch, unwatched / too-muchness.” While this may seem a lament, All Its Charms also celebrates and reveals how human experience is exactly “too muchness,” a potion of seemingly contradictory ingredients.
Many of these moments take the form of ekphrasis. The series “Still Life with…”, in collaboration with visual artist Erica Harney, transfigures everyday subjects into grander meditations. In “Still Life with Small Objects of Perfect Choking Size” the “cap to the chapstick” becomes the moon, becomes a question of why a child swallowing it “want[s] to take / herself from me?” and turns again, into a meditation on losing childhood: “Don’t be so eager, I want to say / to us.”
Even outside the “Still Life with…” series, Kuipers’s poetry shimmers with a painterly quality. In “At Golden Gate Park with You,” Kuipers paints a scene of romance and sexual desire. She conjures her lover as wild as “the slick-skulled / koi” or the similarly red “nasturtiums / sweating on the vine,” and punctuates “everything becomes your body twisting my arms.” In “Shooting Clay Pigeons After the Wedding” she writes, “the truck’s tracks behind us like the drag of our twin wedding trains,” marrying tones of femme, butch, violence, and love.
Many of the poems are portraits of queerness and motherhood: becoming pregnant as a single woman, trying to become pregnant again with her wife, and raising her children. But these portraits animate and bleed outside their frames and unite with so many other themes. She writes of trying to soothe a baby “too hungry / to eat, too tired to sleep,” but finds herself unsettled by America herself:
too beautiful for me to forgive you any longer—
for allowing us to kill each other
with your graceless bullets or exile our
neighbors across the fences of your fictitious
border or argue over the ownership
of each young girl’s body
(“Getting the Baby to Sleep”)
And in “Self-Care at the Playground” she admits her own failure in being able to contend with the police shooting of Philandro Castile: “I am not important.” The connection of these themes feels surprising and bold, but also inevitable. How can one exist in the world as a lover, as a parent, without this sort of reckoning? She writes of her daughter in “Anemoia,” “How will I ever teach her / regret? I have to get her ready for the future.”
The poetry in All Its Charms vibrates with energy like a newly enchanted thing and chants celebration and caution all at once. Through both witness and creation, Kuipers creates an impossible space to live in this world. As she implores in “Picking Huckleberries as the World Ends,” “If there’s another way to live / on this earth, let us be brave and find it together.”
Eric Tran is a resident physician in psychiatry in Asheville, NC and received his MFA from UNC Wilmington. He recently won the 2019 Autumn House Press Emerging Writer’s contest. His most recent chapbook, Revisions (Sibling Rivalry Press) was released this year, and his work appears in Indiana Review, DIAGRAM, Black Warrior Review, and elsewhere.