Two Poems – How Can We Prepare for Our Losses? – One Poem Each By Keetje Kuipers and Jane Hirschfield

American poet Keetje Kuipers.


Not yet old enough to read, and already
            my daughter’s learned nostalgia by example,
what to feel at a loon’s call or when passing
            a blue door, how the sky just before nightfall
turns like a vulnerable animal showing
            its belly. She misses the dog who died
before she was born, the town we barely
            lived in. When she tries to give language
to everything she thinks as past—the Indians
            and ice caps and the neighbor girl, now
ten states away, who used to thread flowers
            through her baby-fine hair—her words
become the ropes that lower each to its grave.
            I want to cut loose from her each wistful sigh
I hear escape her lips, lips that have never
            spoken secrets like scars on the air or kissed
another’s mouth to bruising. But if she doesn’t
            learn nostalgia now, how will I ever teach her
regret? I have to get her ready for the future.

Keetje Kuipers from Narrative On-Line Journal, Winter 2019

First, the definition of Anemoia: nostalgia for a time you’ve never known. And that seems pretty well embodied in Keetje Kuipers poem published recently on Narrative On-Line.

Second, who is Keetje Kuipers? Turns out she is an American poet , winner of many poetry honours, whose third book, All its Charms, is coming out from BOA Editions in 2019. And she has a list of blurbers on the back cover of her book to envy: Tracy K. Smith (U.S. Poet Laureate), Ellen Bass and Beth Ann Fennelly.

And thanks to the net I discovered more about Keetje Kuipers who lives not far from me on an island in the Salish Sea. She is married to her college sweetheart Sarah Fritsch Kuipers and gave birth to their daughter Nela about six years ago. I don’t usually mention these kinds of domestic details in my blog posts but I have for this post because of the story of her relationship with Sarah in the Swarthmore College Bulletin, Winter 2017, profiling LGBTQ couples who met and fell in love at Swarthmore, a liberal arts college founded in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania in 1864 by a branch of the Society of Friends (Quakers).

Kuipers poem struck me as soon as I read it especially the concept of anemoia and the power of imagination to give us feelings, nostalgia for things or events we might have no direct context for. This list poem of the things her daughter misses or is moved by, for example. So evocative. Taking a big abstraction like nostalgia and rooting in the particular, the everyday.And then, for me, this meta narrative clincher:

............................But if she doesn’t
            learn nostalgia now, how will I ever teach her
regret? I have to get her ready for the future.

Yikes. Nostalgia and regret. And for me, this leaves an open question. How do we manage not to let nostalgia or regret prevent us from living vividly in the present moment without looking back to an imagined better past. And I think of the wisdom saying: forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past. How do we teach this, alongside regret? How do we teach letting go of regret? I love how this poem asks the big questions while still grounded in the images of loons, blue doors and baby-fine hair.

The one tick for me in Kuipers poem is a tick I find in a lot of American writers: how some of them still refer to native Americans as Indians. It’s a word my Canadian ear no longer hears easily. A cultural difference I keep noticing.

When I read Kuipers poem I was reminded of American poet, Jane Hirschfield’s poem, On the Beach, its resonance for me with Kuipers poem. Its profile also of a young girl. The losses she will face. I also like how Hirshfield’s poem grounds her big questions in the particular. And her deft use of metaphor, especially this one: Changed glass/ that is like the heart after much pain. Ouch and double ouch. Broken heart, a cliché. How Hirschfield reworks it and makes it fresh, new. Hirschfield, one of the make-me-stop-and-listen poets of her time.

On the Beach

Uncountable tiny pebbles
of many colours.

Broken seashells mixed in with whole ones,

Sand dollars, shattered and whole,
the half-gone wing of a gull.

Changed glass
that is like the heart after much pain.
The empty shell of a crab.

A child moves alone in the grey
that is half fog, half wind-blown ocean.

She lifts one pebble, another,
into her pocket.
From time to time takes them out again and looks.

These few and only these. How many? Why?

The waves continue their work of breaking
then rounding the edges.

I would speak to her if I could,
but across the distance, what would she hear?
Ocean and ocean. Cry of a fish.

Walk slowly now, small soul by the edge
of the water. Choose carefully
all you are going to lose, though any of it would do.

Jane Hirschield from the Lives of the Heart, HarperCollins Publishers, Inc, 1997

As in Kuipers’ poem, the ending of Hirschfield’s gob smacks me:

Walk slowly now, small soul by the edge
of the water. Choose carefully
all you are going to lose, though any of it would do.

Oh, such a cry I hear to all our small souls that have in one way or another stood by that edge. And what is not said: all the losses we cannot choose. That this young soul could not choose! Is it Hirschfield standing there? Is it me? Is it you? And yet, and yet, my losses, my regrets have also, dare I say, brought me with them fierce gifts.

American poet, Robert Hass famously, in a line almost cliched in its familiarity, said in his poem Meditation at Lagunitas written years ago: All the new thinking is about loss./In this it resembles all the old thinking. And again, in these two memorable poems, more new thinking on loss and its difficult twin, regret!


  1. Donna Friesen
    Posted February 23, 2019 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    Love these poems—so prescient—I mean both present and future at the exact same moment.
    Thank you Richard!

  2. Anne-Marie Heckt
    Posted March 1, 2019 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    Hi Richard. Re: use of ‘Indian’ vs. first nations, very problematic for writers down here as I don’t see the actual nations using that word, and often using the word Indian. So it’s in flux I think, and difficult to figure out how to be genuine and honoring. When speaking of people in Canada, most people I’m around use the terms used there. I think I need to speak to some contacts in the tribe I did research with for my historical fiction book. Curious what the members of the S’Klallam nation would say.

  3. Richard Osler
    Posted March 1, 2019 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    Please let me know what they say. I know Sherman Alexie uses indian.

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