Bottle the Bottles the Bottles the Bottles
by Lee Upton
CLeveland State University
Poetry CEnter, 2015; 100 pp
Reviewed by JOanna Novak
Bottle the Bottles the Bottles the Bottles, the fifth collection of poetry by Lee Upton, is a study in recursion. Think of it how you will: mise-en-abyme, the Droste effect, that thing that happens when you look at a box of Land O’Lakes butter and realize the cover girl is holding a box of Land O’Lakes butter (on which she herself (again L’O’L butter-bearing) is featured), Matroyshka dolls. Upton portrays recursion as akin to uncanny doubling, but scarier. When something is bottled, pressure builds. Air is eliminated. The contents are othered from their vessel.
“If you want the truth,” she writes, “don’t look in the mirror.”
Throughout the collection, Upton’s imagery showcases the hazards of containment, beginning with “Pandora,” the collection’s first poem, which gives voice to the mythically curious character, who asks, “why expect me to open this?” Upton invites smashing the lock and then having a staring contest with the revealed contents. Later, in “Tender Is the Night,” when she asks, “What’s inside the deep night/inside of us?” she links individual mortality with literary legend, which legend, for Upton, is blatantly constructed by individuals: “I’m placing/here that line/by Keats that Fitzgerald/himself saved.”
There are many lines to save in Bottle the Bottles the Bottles the Bottles, most containing startling, precise images that further Upton’s meditation on containment and release. These images are almost always tinged with the macabre, sometimes the abject: “a ship in a bottle/getting nowhere fast”; tanked lobsters; “the grouper/with its brain scooped out next to its eyes.” In consecutive poems, flesh is peeled, a lily flayed. A page later, in “Suit of Armor,” a man is skinned: “Nothing inside the hollow now,/ not even a draft./The body is a refugee./A tureen of guts.” In these lines, another of Upton’s gifts is displayed: her facility with assonance, itself a buried or contained resonance. Here, “refugee” and “tureen” share long E’s, double E’s at that, and thus underline the metaphor, which straddles two lines: the body is both a refugee and a tureen of guts, specter in search of shelter and soup-serving vessel.
Indeed, recursion often propels Upton’s poems, like “Committee” and “Beer,” which take their titles and turn them round and round. In those poems, however, repetition and extrication feels like an exercise—especially compared to “A Terrarium,” the book’s strongest and most effecting work.
In “A Terrarium,” Upton meditates on the death of her sister. This elegy, the longest poem in the book, is less explicitly concerned with turning language inside-out than other poems. Instead, “A Terrarium” has Upton pressing memories of herself and her sister like flowers between the pages of a book: “Here she is/in majorette camp. Here she is with a motorcycle./Here she is saying to me, Breathe.” Upton’s depiction of how our past plays on Repeat in our minds, especially after the loss of a loved on, shows how unavoidable containment—and holding on to—is for humans, bearers of “the body that bottles agony.”