Jueds’ first full-length collection of poetry won the 2012 Agnes Lynch Starrett poetry prize from University of Pittsburg Press. The poems meander through nature, mysteries of language and trying to understand it, family and art. Nature is the most prevalent topic, touching on butterflies and birds as well as mythical Selkies, half-man half-seal. Most of the book is driven by words and images but lacks comment, depth and clarity. The book fails to do any of the fundamental goals of art: entertain, excite or teach.
The book is split into five untitled sections, but the reason for the sections is unclear. Within each section there is no obvious thread of topic or language, while several topics, such as Selkies and secondhand clothing, appear in multiple sections without any reason for the separation. The opening and closing sections are each comprised entirely of one poem, the first being “The Bat” which is about seeing a bat and not understanding it immediately, and the ending poem, “The Underpainting,” is about the parts of paintings that are painted over. However, there are several other poems about art and about a specific animal in other sections, including poems called “Two Owls” and “Cave Painting, Font-de-Gaume.” Why remove these poems from the other similar poems? There is no clear arc, which is not something that every book must have, but if you are going to break a collection of poems into sections, there should be some justification that the reader can identify. It appears the author tried to braid several topics into one piece, but it untangles quickly because it never established a foundation.
The strongest poem in the collection is “His Letter.” This poem is about a letter the speaker’s great-grandfather wrote to his family in Ireland after he moved to South Dakota and began work in the mines. The great-grandfather never wrote about Ireland, his home-land, never acknowledge it in any way. His letter is conspicuously empty of any pastoral descriptions the speaker, presumably a child, associates with Ireland, while expressing joy at having work, without any reservations about it being in a mine. “What forges sadness so insistent / he needed all those miles to keep it at bay?” the speaker asks. The great-grandfather gave up home, forgot the past, and forged ahead in a mine in South Dakota, something the speaker views as dark and precipitates escape, while the great-grandfather views it, ostensibly, as a home if not something bigger. The mother returns the letter to the darkness of the drawer, mirroring the darkness of the mine and the darkness of the great-grandfather’s idea of happiness. While the mother keeps the letter and reads it often, we can’t help but feel a separation, an abandonment. The poem ends with “paper meager and needed as a lamp / in the pit’s extravagant black.” which adds another layer of emotional searching: the mother and the speaker both use the letter as a beacon, but a different beacon for each of them. The mother keeps the letter as a connection with her grandfather, while the speaker views the letter as a connection to Ireland, her (or his) original home-land. While the great-grandfather choose to ignore Ireland, the speaker clearly has imaginations of Ireland and a desire to see it in person rather than on postcards. This poem has depth, many emotions in play and is subtle enough to let the reader sift their way through them, making it a great poem.
Most of the book (including “His Letter”) follows a formulaic structure: intro of images, middle that moves to some observation of self or nature, and an ending that connects the observation to the beginning image. An example of this structure working is in “The Missing Women.” The poem starts with the speaker as a child waiting for her mother to pick her up from swim practice. While she’s waiting, she reads the missing person fliers on the billboard. The poem wanders through the various posters and then switches to the speaker’s life using swimming as a metaphor to explore what it means to be alive and a human: how much of the body is water, how the skin reacts to the water, how we can hold our breath and kick ourselves back to the surface before drowning, and how the speaker is continually waiting in the cold for her mother, each drawing comparisons to the missing women. The end of the poem reads:
… somehow I was swimming
into the next day, the next,
into love that seemed sometimes
a desire to be gone, whittled to the thinnest
stem of bone—as those women
might have desired, or not
desired, the ones so lost
by now they must be almost home.
This ending is great because it keeps the childish perspective on “lost” women. Those women are not waiting for their mother’s to pick them, or even trudging through snow back home: they are disappeared and, if lucky (arguably), dead. But the speaker is too innocent for those concepts, and instead views these lost women as herself, women who are kicking through the cold water to reach the other side, women engaged in a difficult but perfectly completable task.
This formulaic structure (Beginning + Middle=Ending) breaks down quickly and loses its meaning, perhaps because of its overuse, or perhaps because the author forces an ending which combines the beginning and the middle in terms of language and subject even if the poems doesn’t want that structure to happen. Regardless, many poems fall flat in the end. “Secondhand Sweater” is an example of this failure. The poem is about finding a secondhand sweater. The beginning describes the stitching someone did to mend a sweater, and is described in a very personal, warm, loving way. But the middle of the poem focuses on identifying a drown fisherman by the personal stitching of his sweater because he’s unrecognizable facially. This results in an ending of extreme awkwardness where the speaker puts on the sweater: “I swim my arms / through its sleeves”. This image on its own is fine, but coupled with the beginning that uses words like “unique” “heat” “heart” “warm” “beautiful” and a middle that says “each pattern unique / so drowned fishermen / made unknown by / weeks or months / of water might / be known again” this ending feels terrifying and forces the reader to view the speaker as a morbid character, something that is in contradiction with the beginning of the poem where the speaker views the hand-stitching as loving. The speaker puts on a sweater of a drown man, a man so adrift at sea he was unrecognizable except by the personal stitching of his sweater. This is a creepy ending that exists only because the author chose to following a simple formula of A+B=AB rather than letting the poem guide itself.
Another issue with this book is its overuse of language and repetition of description. “Secondhand Sweater” begins “Serpentine of stitches / twisted left to / right”. Of course serpentine stitches go from side to side, that is exactly what serpentine means when used as an adjective. “The parked cars’ edges / softened, swallowed” or “these fields, snow-struck, winter-polished” each describe an image twice, but there is little to no difference between the two descriptions. “Even the splinter: / you held my foot in both hands / to free the shard of redwood / tunneling toward bone” is a gross example of over-writing this book is filled with. “Shard of redwood” to describe a splinter already called as “splinter” is unnecessary and is evidence of the author enjoying pretty descriptions despite their effect or lack thereof.
In addition to the over-use of language, many of the descriptions and images are cliché, confusing or simply don’t add anything to the poem. “the real moon gleams, / its unreadable expression / meant to bless.” If it’s unreadable, how do we know it’s meant to bless? “Minutely, as even fixed stars / move” is a contradiction that isn’t clever and doesn’t offer a neat juxtaposition. It is confusing. “how quickly blood / could stray from safe channels, / like snakes from a charmer’s basket …” is, simply, a cliché that has lost all its meaning.
In the end, this book doesn’t offer new perspectives on any of the subjects it sets out to discuss, and fails to have the continuity and clarity the author wanted by having several repeating themes.
Keeper, by Kasey Jueds. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: University of Pittsburgh Press. 88 pages. $15.95, paper.
Jacob Collins-Wilson is currently earning his MFA in Poetry at Syracuse University and has poetry published or forthcoming in Crack the Spine, Barely South Review, The Finger Literary Magazine, Spillway, Rathalla, and Poetry Quarterly, among others, in addition to being a finalist for the Best of the Net 2013 anthology. He can be reached by everyone at: firstname.lastname@example.org.