Keeper by Kasey Jueds (University of Pittsburgh Press)
Kasey Jueds’s prize-winning first book of poems, Keeper, is a beautiful collection of meditations on keeping and its opposite, whether that be losing or relinquishing. Throughout the book she explores the hunger to hold on to the objects, experiences, memories that shape and define our passage through the world; and the very different hunger to move into the dark, into boundlessness and emptiness. The two desires seem at first to be mutually opposed. As it turns out, of course, they cannot be separated, for to move through time accruing the experiences and memories that create one’s identity necessitates also a constant process of loss as all things pass into memory or oblivion. And to gain the depth of feeling, the wisdom, to which Keats refers when he calls the world a place of Soul-making necessitates opening the heart to embrace that loss. This is the terrain of Jueds’s imagination. Her poems are deceptively accessible. She writes about animals, places, weather, personal experience, firmly grounded in the actual. Yet one gradually becomes aware of an undertow, a spirituality that does not call attention to itself at first, but that gathers power upon rereading. She knows, as the poet Paul Eluard said, “There is another world and it is in this one.” She is willing to inhabit loss, to inhabit loneliness, so that she may “learn the words again / slowly. Knowing each thing / as new” (“December Underneath” 37).
A giddy hunger for the past, “to hold it all” (53-54), is expressed in “Race Track, Hialeah, FL.” An evocation of girlhood with its passion for horses, the poem ends by describing the child swinging, leaning back “until my hair swept ground,”
Asking roots and leaves,
our house, the horses, asking
all of it to remember me. (8-9)
The title poem, “Keeper,” also tackles this hunger. “Today I’m back / in the city where I lived,” it begins,
what the city keeps, what
of all the muchness
I’ve called mine.
Skin cells sloughed off,
with exhaust and dust. . . .
Other offerings, other evidences of the past presence of the self, include various bits of the body’s passage through time: “Hair for a bird’s house,” “breath,” “Blood each month / and sometimes more. . . .” But is the self present, or absent, if it endures in dispersed molecules? At the level of substances, all things are to some degree interconnected, and also at the level of emotions, of “Love that returned to me and love / that didn’t, spiraling endlessly / somewhere else….” Still, we experience ourselves as discrete entities bound in time, and the evocation of all these cells, molecules, emotions, triggers the memory of longing,
the purest thing
I knew, always reaching
for something without heft
or breath that still, I swear,
moves and breathes
in, around, between
each fog-bound house—
where everything is something
I tried to keep, and
couldn’t, and can’t,
and won’t, and won’t
stop trying. . . . (53-54)
Predominantly, Keeping explores the more mysterious and melancholy reaches of the self in its dance with vanishing. One especially strong poem, “Girl in the Backseat, Wisconsin Winter,” describes a girl riding through countryside in the back seat of her parents’ car. Night comes on as she studies “the habits of dusk,” watching the farm lights “stutter on,” and aligning her breath with the passing phone poles, “one quick inhale each time / they pass.” The alignment of her breathing seems to become a conduit to meditation, for what’s extraordinary about this poem is the way it opens out quietly beyond the known self into a sense of its participation with all things. The process is subtle, expressed in terms of (impossible?) possibility rather than realization. Riding through the dark, the girl knows that, though her breath is “a solid thing,” “she’s liquid still” like the melt that drips from icicles. She knows too that she could hear “the voices [the phone poles] carry flooding the wires” if only
she stretched into this dark that’s different
from sleep, hollowed as birds’ bones,
that emptiness at the center that lets them fly. (19)
A surrender of the self into darkness pervades also “The Bat,” the book’s opening poem. Set off in a section by itself, it is obviously thematically important to the book as a whole. In it, the vividly realized animal also represents a state of soul. “First dark,” Jueds writes,
then more dark
smoothed down over it.
First sleep, then eyes
open to the ceiling
where something circles. For a moment
you can’t name it. And for a moment
you’re not afraid. (1)
This is an opening into sacred space, the poem goes on to say, like the charged emptiness between the leaning bodies of “Blake’s angels,” who “balanced / by touching only the tips of their wings”—a space which is as natural yet as mysterious as
the one just after rain begins, when rain
isn’t rain, but the smell
of dust lifted, something silent and clean. (1)
One of the strengths of Kasey Jueds’s work, as we see in “The Bat,” is the way in which she always grounds her sense of mystery in the ordinary. What could be more ordinary, for instance, than road kill? “I pass him at the bottom of the hill,” Jueds writes in “Lost Things,” another poem about driving—a dead raccoon lying in Queen Anne’s lace, “his face pressed between the precise stars / of his paws.” She tells us that to see road kill is “not uncommon here” because the trees come right to the dirt road’s edge. She has seen dead squirrels, a coyote, many deer, and a black hound dog, all of them “any one of a hundred lost things— / a piece of tire, a child’s tattered coat.” So far, perfectly ordinary, though upon a second look, the coat might give us pause. Then, in the poem’s final stanza, this litany of losses begins to become—though subtly—eerie. At first “the road looks so clear, / a simple rope tying town to town.” She “bumps out onto the highway”—the verb a natural choice for turning from a dirt road onto a paved one, but also precisely accurate for running over an animal—and keeps going “past the gas station, the tidy church” (27). Still, perfectly ordinary. Then she passes more Queen Anne’s lace, that looks “like plates of stars” (28), and of course we think of the dead raccoon. Emily Dickinson writes,
Because I could not stop for Death—
He kindly stopped for me—
and though here the modern woman is the driver, she too travels on a journey into which the awareness of death keep seeping. The road kill deaths are not discrete; time itself is a journey into death, even though we don’t usually let ourselves know it. This wisdom is carried in the image: those flowers like paws, those
just beginning to darken
at the edges, though I can’t see that
from where I am now. (28)
Three eloquent poems about the Selkie Wife are braided into the second half of the book, beautifully summarizing Jueds’s themes of keeping and relinquishing. These persona poems grow from the Irish, Scottish, and Faroese myths of the selkies, creatures who live as seals in the sea but shed their skin to live on land. Furthermore, “if a man steals a female selkie's skin she is in his power and is forced to become his wife. Female selkies are said to make excellent wives, but because their true home is the sea, they will often be seen gazing longingly at the ocean. If she finds her skin she will immediately return to her true home, and sometimes to her selkie husband, in the sea” (Wikipedia, Selkie).
In the first poem, “The Selkie Wife,” the woman is living on land. “Nights,” Jueds writes, “she lies down / in her body’s longing.” But what is this longing: is it eros in the form of sexual passion for her beloved, or is it thanatos in the form of a hunger for the sea? We cannot tell, and the poem rests in this ambivalence. Almost without her knowing it, the Selkie Wife’s hands “continue to re-knot” the ropes that hold her even as the sea daily widens the gaps, “the open spaces / through which it loves to pour” (39). The poem that follows “The Selkie Wife” is called “The Missing Women,” and it describes the poet’s youthful fixation on pictures of missing women pinned outside the neighborhood pool: her dread yet fascination as a member of the swim team with “women who turned // to seals in the sea” (41), or women on land who are
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 (42).
Following this is “The Selkie from Shore,” which grounds itself in earthly passion, in a longing not for God but for “bees, their pulse and tremble / in flowers slackening toward summer’s end….” “Not God,” the poet writes, not “sky / streaming light, cathedrals,” for those incarnate “a wish / I am not big enough to hold.” Instead, here is a desire to rest in the plenteous natural world, with just a “slightest tremor of the air” such as bees cause, that hints perhaps at the presence of the sacred, “a humming / that has no need of me” (43).
And finally, “The Selkie Returns to the Sea.” Having returned to the sea, the Selkie Wife has learned that her longing has no end. At loose in the infinite, she searches “in its swells / for anything to pin me down,” just as, pinned down, she longed for the sea. The beauty, the poetry, lie in the tension and fluctuations—in the dream of the sea and the dream of land, of openness and limits, loss or relinquishment, keeping or finding. I’ll close with the final stanza of this tender and eloquent poem. “On land,” the Selkie Wife tells us,
my kitchen harbored smallness: sweet
oat cakes, my children’s silky heads. When I
return to them next spring, on the flood tide’s
seventh day, I’ll touch my mouth
to the house’s wall, a baby learning the world
with her tongue—stone and
salt, the garden leaning into bloom,
my sealskin just another dying I’ve put on.
For example, the litany of negations in “December Underneath”—“I am not waiting. . . . I am not waiting. . . . I am not holding my breath. . . . I am not holding anything” (37) deepens in resonance with each rereading until it seems to echo the great passage in Four Quartets in which Eliot writes,
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing;
I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God. (“East Coker”)
Churches are best for prayer that have least light.
Ann Fisher-Wirth is the coeditor (with Laura-Gray Street) of The Ecopoetry Anthology, published by Trinity University Press in 2013. Her fourth book of poems, Dream Cabinet, was published by Wings Press in 2012. She teaches at the University of Mississippi.