(Cleveland, OH: Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2015)
If you’ve ever driven down a mountain road at night, you have some idea of what it’s like to pick up Lee Upton’s new poetry collection Bottle The Bottles The Bottles The Bottles for the first time. Dark and full of momentum, these poems leap from the page like the sudden flash of trees whipping past your headlights.
The subject matter of Upton’s work varies, commenting on love, modern life, rejection, and despair. The title of the collection says a lot about what it contains—and in fact, containment is the watchword. Bottles, terrariums, committee meetings, a suit of armor: these images and topics all make an appearance, things that hold, bind, encase. The contents of Upton’s poems are all under pressure—or perhaps more appropriately, “bottled up.”
The title poem of the collection begins with this stanza:
I never thought I’d lie down.
Now I’m a ship in a bottle
getting nowhere fast.
Crewed by a soon-dead bottle fly, this ship in a bottle can only stagnate, disappointed; but the poem itself doesn’t lie down, and guides us through the frozen image with language that is restless and ironic. The poems burst with imagery and eddy with hidden currents. It is language that is full of motion and laden with a sense of inevitability, such as this line from “Snow”: “Type it and your fingers gallop: snow snow snow snow snow.” The word “snow” itself seems to gallop across the page with each repetition.
Upton’s work is deeply personal, and yet transcends the person. She finds the common ground between her own experience and the pantheon of human experience; the result is a series of poems that are as mythological as they are musical. And like so much of mythology, Upton discusses human nature in both its transcendence and its brutality, flinching away from neither. As a result, these poems exist in a way that is undoubtedly real, in the way that only the classic myths can embody reality.
Much of the collection contains familiar archetypes and literary references, many of which are female. Referenced are figures such as Pandora, Daphne, Miss Jewel, and Lady Macbeth. Upton riffs off of other writers such as Emily Dickinson, Keats, Fitzgerald, Voltaire, Shakespeare, and Stein. Though it makes use of homage, it is by no means derivative; the poems create their own archetypes out of the ones we all know so well.
One of my favorite things about this collection is how much enjoyment Upton seems to be having with the language. Take the ending of “Grim Progress”:
We make sex
We dig hollows
We take up
It’s ironic twists like the end of this poem that delight me so much with Upton’s work; the language is playful, yet toys with something altogether serious. It’s a perfect cocktail of the funny and the macabre; juggling its humor and horror so that each element is equally surprising and effective whenever it appears. Take also the first stanza of “Suit of Armor”:
This is a skinned man.
The rain rolls off a thistle
in a field of guillotines.
As with many of the other poems, this imagery is not pleasant. It shines like wet blood—violent, yet careful and precise in its violence. But even for the rather horrifying image conjured up of a flayed man, it still isn’t afraid to have fun with the idea of a suit of armor as the skin humans shed when they remove it. It emphasizes vulnerability. In this way, as hard as many of the poems in this collection may seem, there’s a sensitivity beneath them which makes them all the more enjoyable to read and re-read—and these are certainly poems that should be revisited. Though each poem is free with the emotion it inspires, there are layers of meaning to pick through before getting to the heart. And the heart of this collection is as red and full of life as a glass bottle full of blood.
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Amelia Fisher is a writer and recent graduate from Fairleigh Dickson University, living in Virginia and aspiring to Portland.