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Exploring the Backlist: Keetje Kuiper's THE KEYS TO THE JAIL

Hello readers! BOA Editions presents a new occasional series for our blog. Join our team of interns as they explore over 40 years of our publication history and share their passion for some of their favorite titles from BOA Editions. In today's post, Rachel B. delves into the quiet, profound ideas of poet Keetje Kuipers.

Evocative, Rich, and Inevitable: Keetje Kuipers’s The Keys to The Jail

Well, hello! I’m glad you stopped by for some poetry! My name is Rachel, and I’m one of the interns at BOA this summer. I’m heading into my last year at SUNY Geneseo this fall as an English/Creative Writing student, working on my own collection of writings, and preparing to begin a journey into the publishing world!

The question for a creative writing student tends to be along the lines of "what genre do you write?" Although I’ve formally studied poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction, I still have trouble answering. There’s usually a shrug, a flustered grin, and a noncommittal response. And yet, I always return to poetry. That’s what has made BOA such a wonderful place for me to learn: the amount of poetry published here. If someone took down the clock on the wall staring me in the face, I would probably sit and read until my landlord wondered why I hadn’t paid rent this month. Each of the poets is doing something different, something that makes them stand out from one another. There really is a collection here for every reader. Of course, I’m still adding to my list of favorites, but I’ll share one with you now.

One of the first poets I picked up, with whom I’d previously been unfamiliar, was Keetje Kuipers. Her first book, Beautiful in the Mouth, was awarded the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize in 2010. Her second, The Keys to The Jail, was published in 2014. It was the latter that introduced me to her masterful verse and quiet but profound ideas.

…Sometimes I put my fingers in my mouth
 and chew on what they’ve done. Do you ever
do that?...
–from "Letter to an Inmate in Solitary Confinement"

The Keys to The Jail continues Elizabeth Bishop’s tradition of “the art of losing”: examining love and the space after love, and witnessing the passage of time and bodies. It is both a discovery and reflection at the same time—not only grieving loss with “a belly of rusted metal,” but questioning the derivation of fault for that loss. Kuipers’s poems desire, and in their desire they dare to look with fervor toward the future. With stunning imagery, the harsh reality of love and aging is revealed as Kuipers not only pulls the curtain but holds it for you and challenges you to look out.

A short poem within the first few pages of the book, called “If One of Us Can’t Live Like This,” describes the decay of promises between lovers during the “slow smelting of years”:

A promise is a train lying in a field
for decades: we take pictures of the weeds
that flower around it and talk about the days
when it arrived with a whistle of steam.

We must imagine the trajectory of love after it has sung its fullest chorus. The what-happens-after-the-bridge. With the rest of the collection ahead of us, Kuipers answers our questions even when it would be easier to leave them unanswered, sometimes with questions of her own. The poems incite hunger and, ultimately, satisfy it.

The sentiment and power behind Kuipers’ poems does not elude readers like love slipping away. It is not hidden in the creases of an aging beautiful body. Her meaning is, instead, lyrically direct. She skillfully guides us on a journey through the poems, attempting not to drown in the emptiness left by love and time, for “The ocean is a fist, inside of which I / am allowed to be heartbroken.” And so we are. It is an honest ocean, this collection, and one to which any reader will relate.

Her clever mind and deft tongue are showcased in the title poem, in which place and body and love all together inevitably unravel. This idea permeates the pores of the pages, compelling the reader to, indeed, read on. In “Melancholy,” Kuipers laments that the effects of time apply to not only human being, but to the muddy river that once shone, that:

If I love, it will be replaced
by not loving. If I hate, someday

I won’t remember who.
I put the switching in, take it out―
the fabric goes on unspooling.

And yet, Kuipers’ poems instruct us to hope. That, despite the sadness and regret we may feel in regards to our past follies, there is a lightening in the distance, even if we cannot yet graze it with our fingertips. We have learned to trust the speakers of these poems, so we can trust that this hope exists somewhere, someday.

It may be easier not to look through the window Kuipers’ collection presents, as “We like to imagine that what we can’t see/ persists,” the fear that by looking we will see the change we knew all along would transpire. But she shows us to the bright, open panes, hands us a mirror. She says to us, “Even you, in his arms, have to try not to be afraid.”

To learn more about The Keys to the Jail and other books by Keetje Kuiper, visit the BOA Bookstore.

Stock up and save during the BOA Summer Sale—going on now! Take 30% off all BOA Bookstore orders for a limited time with promo code READBOA!


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