March 30, 2009

Review by L.J. Sysko

UNDID IN THE LAND OF UNDONE
by Lee Upton

New Issues Poetry & Prose
Western Michigan University
1903 W. Michigan Avenue
Kalamazoo, MI 49008-5463
ISBN 1-930974-72-8 / 978-1-930974-72-2
2007, 81 pp., $14.00
http://www.wmich.edu/~newissue/

Lee Upton is lucky she is a poet over 40-years-old. If she were any younger, she would have been anointed the Voice of Generation X because her latest book, Undid in the Land of Undone, gives voice to the ambitious ambivalence and outlandish irony of those born between 1965 and 1980. Alas, Upton is more mature, more accomplished, and more poised to speak— full-throated and craftily— the truth as she sees it than any Gen X’er could. And so we are lucky. This is a book for those of us who have lived long enough to look backward and forward with equal parts forbearance and chagrin. Lee Upton’s poems manage the winsome trick of vacillating between wildly diverse subjects and tones—from indictment of others to self-implication, from the wily to the vulnerable, from classical allusion to pop references—the reader cannot escape the sense, while strolling this gallery of Upton’s mid-life masterpieces, that she has entered the mind of an extravagantly intelligent big sister with an ax or two to grind.

Lee Upton is the author of nine books, a published writer of fiction as well as poetry, and the writer-in-residence at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. Undid in the Land of Undone is her fifth book of poetry. She is a recipient of the National Poetry Series Award, the Pushcart Prize, and the Georgia Contemporary Poetry Series Award. For two excellent poems that appear in Undid in the Land of Undone, Upton was presented with awards by The Poetry Society of America in 2005. The Lyric Poetry Award was given for “And though she be but little, she is fierce,” a poem whose title is taken from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Award judge Susan Wheeler wrote of the poem, “It seems to put no foot in the wrong place…and makes sparkling comparisons, both apt and unexpected. Though it be modest, the poem be steel.” The Writer Magazine/Emily Dickinson Award, judged by Mark Doty, was given for “Dickinson’s Day Lilies,” a poem that amplifies the moment in Emily Dickinson’s life when she met her erstwhile editor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

“Dickinson’s Day Lilies” makes use of metaphor in a mode similar to that employed by Sylvia Plath in her tragic hospitalization poem, “Tulips.” Like Plath’s flowers, Upton’s blooms signify internal feminine power. But, in Plath’s poem, that power never finds a voice, in part because it fails to recognize itself. Conversely, Upton’s self-conscious Dickinson knows her voice, her power. At the close of the poem, Dickinson retreats back into the quietude of her existence, saying, “They weren’t what would make her,” referring to the flowers. But, of course Upton’s noun serves a double purpose: “they” are the others like Higginson whose esteem she ambivalently seeks. Upton’s Dickinson concludes that, rather than lament the isolation of her condition as Plath does, she will relish it. In fact, she fears the intrusion the meeting may have brought upon her work: “What have I said?/Who saw in me a specimen?/But what had she given away/but a camouflage.” Dickinson’s talent, the wild thing it is, receives counsel from its owner to “breathe in,/do not roar./The lion in the parlor/ is playing the lily bearer.”

As it is here, Upton’s third person speaker’s voice is braided with the Dickinsonian first person voice. As such, this technique prevents this poem, and many others in this book, from becoming stale under the weight of Upton’s heady diction and cymbal-crash witticisms. For lovers of Dickinson, the poem paints a scene we wish we could have witnessed. Upton is a knowing and clever guide. This is Dickinson for the 21st century—the one extolled by Adrienne Rich in “Vesuvius at Home,” the one who knows what she’s got and isn’t going to efface it for all the society in Amherst. This is the voice Plath might have had if she had lived, if she had slogged through those early years to winch the corners of her mouth skyward in a wry and knowing smile.

Beyond “Dickinson’s Day Lilies,” there are so many intriguing and technically adept poems in Upton’s new volume. Poems like “Ancient Art” that open with zingers like: “Come Down, Dido//Off the pyre./Forget the man./Remember your resume.” There are poems with zany titles like: “You Made Me Read You And I Didn’t Want To Do It,” “100 Ways To Say ‘You’re Not Taking This As Well As We Hoped,’” and “Soitenly” which enumerates the ways in which Upton considers Larry, from the Three Stooges, “sexual,” “well-meaning husband material.” And then there are the tender and riskier poems like “Omniscient Love” and “The Changeling” which delve into the dangerous territory of familial recrimination with astuteness and hard-won grit. Readers can sense the greater risk in these poems.

Lee Upton’s imaginative freedom, technical mastery, and confidence of voice are on full display in the essential Undid in the Land of Undone. This poet, a woman who quietly but firmly taught my undergraduate creative writing class at Lafayette College in 1995, has written a book for this decade, this time—about the spectre of ambivalence—warning of its costs with humor, wit, and decidedly unambivalent precision.

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L.J. Sysko received her Bachelor’s degree in English from Lafayette College and her M.F.A in Poetry from New England College. Her poems have appeared (or are forthcoming) in Ploughshares, 5AM, New York Quarterly, Alehouse, and www.dirtynapkin.com. She lives in Wilmington, Delaware with her family and teaches English at Tower Hill School. She can be contacted at ljsysko@gmail.com.

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