Theresa Kishkan, Black Cup

 My relations with poetry have only gotten more complicated over the years.

I love to read and teach poetry, and I can reach an unseemly degree of excitement during classes, but when pressed to articulate more than my own excitement, well, let’s just say that I waver.

At heart, I distrust my own declarations about (relatively) contemporary poetry, in a way that I don’t with prose or with older poetry. There’s absolutely no reason for that, beyond an ancient hold- or hangover from long-ago grad school days (“If I want an 18th-century perspective on this, I’ll ask for it”), but it’s no less genuine a self-doubt for all that.

And one consequence is that when I read a poetry volume that I greatly appreciate, like Theresa Kishkan’s 1992 volume Black Cup, I’ll always face a much more fraught drafting process than usual. (This explains, too, why it’s taking such a terribly long time to post about Meghan Fandrich’s remarkable 2023 volume Burning Sage, which needs to be nominated for the BC Book Prize.) In the case of Black Cup, too, I’ve written so often about Kishkan’s fiction and nonfiction that there’s always a risk I’ll mistake my own speculations for truth.

So let’s start here.

Every year, a very large number of poetry books are published that deserve a great many more readers than they’ll find. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy on the part of the publishing industry: they assume no one reads poetry (by which the publishers mean simply that they’re never ʙᴇꜱᴛꜱᴇʟʟᴇʀꜱ, Rupi Kaur and Rod McKuen aside), so they don’t market or distribute them properly. As a result, it’s depressingly easy to stumble across wonderful collections of poetry (second-hand or newly published) that you’ve never heard of and can barely find mention of online. That’s true even for authors you already know, whose work you already read, and whose work you already tend to love.

In this narrow sense, Theresa Kishkan’s Black Cup is much like many other books published in those last years immediately before the internet. The title page will tell you that it’s a Porcepic Book, which was a special imprint from Beach Holme Publishing, but good luck finding out all that much about the imprint, the publisher, or indeed this book. Those who know, know, in that at least a dim sense of BC small-press publishing history can be surprisingly helpful when you’re dealing with books from before about 1995 2000 2005 … actually, anything published from a smaller BC press.

Yes, you’re right, indeed there are a few different rants suppressed under all the verbiage. Never mind those for now.

The thing is, Black Cup would’ve been excellent at the time it was published, and it remains deeply readable now. If you’re interested in the trajectory of Kishkan’s writing career, too, this book’s all kinds of fascinating given its place as her last volume of poetry (so far? Though she’s said she doesn’t write poetry any longer), as well as its connections to so many of her later essays and nonfiction books.

Black Cup is divided into three sections, each of which shows signs of composition across many years, that don’t overlap very much except, occasionally, in voice or in form. Generally speaking, which means I’m not describing it quite accurately, the first section feels like it’s from the years before Kishkan became a mother, the second from a woman who’s writing as a mother, and the third from a woman who might be a mother but isn’t taking that as her identity. Even for as small a book as this, with poems on only 56 of its 75 pages, for some readers Black Cup will function well as three separate reads, maybe even three separate miniature books.

  • The first, “Nothing to Forget,” seems in most cases the least personal, the least autobiographical, including as it does imagined landscapes and perspectives in its exploration of a kind of ungroundedness. There’s still plenty of ground, as in “The Unexpected Sun,” but even then there’s often a searching for more clarity or intensity about the experience of being in this place, at this time.

  • The second, “Cradle Songs,” focuses tightly on the overlapping experiences of pregnancy and motherhood. A repeated thread has to do with something like wistfulness at what motherhood can steal from the person someone was before becoming a mother; another is something like fear at the many losses that’ll hit her as the child grows (independence, most often).

  • The third, “Black Cup,” feels the newest, with some signs to my ear of a different voice that I think I hear as well in Kishkan’s 1990s essays (as in Red Laredo Boots). Its events and preoccupations, though, reach back in some cases to Kishkan’s own youth.

I was tempted to call the book’s third section more mature, but I would’ve been wrong to do that. There’s no greater maturity or immaturity to any of the sections, but I confess to feeling a temptation to read them as a sequence that means the last shall be first, so to speak, a temptation toward imposing a narrative where none exists.

In any case, there are gems in each section, some of them speaking direct but others feeling impenetrable to me (appropriately so!). From “Longings,” for example, in the book’s first section:

It is something to remember:
I do not belong
to this house that I live in.


I must also remember
that this man who shares
my bed is not mine.

“My bed is not mine”: such a tight encapsulation of what it means to live where you’re not fully embraced, no matter how tight the embraces themselves might be. I’ll always resonate with what reads as clear-sightedness in a piece of what feels like self-reflection. That’s one of Kishkan’s perennial strengths, as I’ve said before about her essays, and it’s visible throughout this book of poetry.

And yes, of course I realize that the grammar (as opposed to the line breaks) means instead that not the bed, but “this man … is not mine.” Poetry allows syntactically for just this kind of interlocking and simultaneous reflection, and Kishkan deploys layering to great effect in Black Cup.

From the title poem, “Black Cup,” in the book’s final section:

I had forgotten the way whisky tasted
in this cup, black porcelain
feathered with a thin brown glaze.

The way I’d bend
my face to drink from the wide mouth
and see myself
in circles in the darkness.

Right?!? I mean, come on. Read it slowly, respecting the line breaks, but then read it again continuously: such richness, such delicacy.

The poem “Black Cup” is among other things a reminiscence about a lost love, a man Kishkan has written about several times since then (in Blue Portugal, for example). This time, the reflection comes at a very specific moment in the speaker’s relationships: “I have quarrelled with my husband / and my children are asleep.” (A whole novel, a whole life, a whole way of being, exists in these 35 spare lines.) The poem exhibits deep poignancy and tang, eying up both acceptance and reluctance, a person’s lost former possibilities still alive in imagination. “Black Cup” deserved being plucked out of the book, to share its title not just with the final section but with the whole book, and in some ways I think it foreshadows a good proportion of the nonfiction that Kishkan subsequently went on to write.

The book’s central section, “Cradle Songs,” feels in some ways the most special of the three. These are, if I can paraphrase the book’s back-cover description, intimate and mysterious poems about the complexities of pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood. Another reader would speak more wisely of those than I would, so for now I’ll say simply that “The Wife’s Lament” and “Nine Lines for a Small Son” were marvelous.

A couple of lines from “How It Was,” though, almost made me gasp. It’s a short, light poem about dressing her two sons after a bath, telling them that popping their heads out of a t-shirt’s neck was like the moment of being born, but then there’s this:

Lives were dropped from my body like stars.
Whole constellations, their colourless

Like everybody else, I chase new books, seeking new experiences and new stories, something that’ll help me through this new and often stupid world I’m faced with every day.

And as I said at the beginning of this long post, I’ve got a lot of self-doubt when it comes to writing about poetry.

Reading something like Black Cup, though, which was published more than 30 years ago, which seems to have received only a couple of reviews in the mid-90s, and which is hard to find mention of online (except for one happy GoodReads reader!): we readers need to face the future with a sense of where we’ve all come from, and my most fervent wish is that readers do their own excavation work.

Don’t trust publishers to tell you what’s a classic, what bits of the past are worth your time in this present, because they’re looking for sales, not truth.

Read for truth, and if you’re reading for truth, then do yourself a favour and search out a copy of Black Cup for yourself. I’m not sure whether the note on Kishkan’s website remains accurate, but it may even be possible to buy a copy directly from her.


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