Undid in the Land of the Undone by Lee Upton
One of my favorite curiosities is a set of two Victorian books put out by a man named William Hone. They’re “Table Books.” Intended to be strummed through in the parlor after dinner, or over tea, or while listening, I suppose, to some snobby ingénue trudge through piano practice, they contain a wide variety of material: almanac-type information, folktales, recipes, songs, poems, bio-blurbs of strange and or famous people, and so on. Lee Upton’s book, Undid in the Land of the Undone, feels comparable in its range of tone and emotional content.
The first section of the book revolves mostly around mythological scaffolding (taking a hint, I think, from Louise Gluck’s Meadowlands) -- devastating sadness, torment, elegance. The second section picks up there and moves to more allusions, more reaching into the self. The third is one long poem that, in Upton’s words (from an article at www.lafayette.edu, where Upton teaches, promoting her book), “focuses on ambition in its more malevolent form -- greed -- and on the desire for endless transformations [and]... draws from a story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses about a man cursed to hunger endlessly, and about his daughter, who is given the gift of changing into any form she wishes.” The poem seems to overlap eerily and very skillfully with the book’s primary persona (and that persona’s complicated relationship with her father). Upton says that “the poem explores certain problems in contemporary culture: an unending appetite for novelty and a desire for inhuman perfection.” This statement makes the poem sound more calculated than it actually reads. I felt a bit of the magical captivity of Frank Bidart’s Desire (and Upton formats different perspectives/moments in the poem with bold, caps, italics). The effect of overlapping voices (even coming from the same “character”) is interesting. And the piece has dark little flourishes like this:
. . . there is no stopping him.
Not even when ropes of blood
twist through the air,
spooling like honey from
the lip of the jar.
And as you move through the different sections, the speaker is newly positioned. The movement is only implied; there is an unwritten poem in the arrangement itself. And, in fact, the poem is even more a treat after having read the other sections.
The fourth section is a little variety-show of subjects and notions that Upton fancies: Thomas Hardy, Emily Dickinson, procrastination, glass models of flowers, and a really great ditty called “Poem to the Novel.”
A fog, a curving road, a woman unfolding fabric.
Later, she pores over specimens from a crime scene.
She thinks memory occupies her life.
And then she is home again, pacing a room
until her husband returns,
and she calls him by another man’s name
and the name is the title of the novel.
The fifth section of the book pops opens -- almost clumsily, but oh so intentionally -- a set of comedy poems, the best of which, in my opinion, is a list-poem called “100 Ways To Say 'You’re Not Taking This As Well As We Hoped.'” The list is a set of Uptonian idioms for maudlin obnoxiousness, wonderful and witty. Some examples: “Brain tourist, overfed by inhibitions,/ frontloaded by Gertrude Stein in a grain elevator,” “Dust handshake,” “Your defense team: paper dolls!” “Disappointment’s cheese,” “It must be dusk with you back in town./ All morning it must be time to go in for dinner.” This section even includes a poem about the sex appeal of The Three Stooges’ Larry.
By the time the sixth section comes around, Upton has really earned her emotional depth. Again, my argument here is that the strength of this book is in its hodge-podge-ness. In those implied movements (again, the hand that strings together the paper doll joke and the spooling blood -- and ends the book’s first poem with “I know you don’t love me,/ but why do you have to brag about it?”), Upton reveals, reveals, reveals. She is funny and earnest and so blatantly not self-conscious. This is an interesting break from the contemporary poetry voice of irony, but it’s clear, also, that Upton isn’t really interested in pushing the boundaries of language, in the art of breaking syntax and re-husking the poem. She’s more of a storyteller, a songwriter; she takes on any voice that interests her, tells any detail, any version, cares not for the blurred boundaries between writer, persona, speaker, reader. It’s an admirable trait -- in part because she does it so unapologetically, so naturally -- an eccentric without self-doubt.
On a final note, there are loads and loads of lovely images here... and like Hone’s Table Books, those can be perused casually and dreamily. Consider Upton’s deer on a shelf with “snow-caked eyelashes” preceded by honey petrifying in a book. A nice, edifying way to spend the evening...
Undid in the Land of the Undone by Lee Upton