The House That Made Me

The House That Made Me: Writers Reflect on the Places and People That Defined Them

The House That Made Me: Writers Reflect on the Places and People That Defined Them (Spark Press), edited by Grant Jarrett, is a essay collection that’s an ode, if a sometimes plaintive one, to our first homes. It takes us from the vacant lots of Jeffery Renard Allen’s Southside Chicago neighborhood to the opera singer rehearsing across the way from Julie Metz’s “classic six” apartment in New York. “After my mother’s funeral, members of my family drove to the house, although it no longer belonged to us,” Lee Upton writes of her Michigan childhood home. “We looked into the windows and saw a pool table and posters of naked women.”

A Review of Bottle The Bottles The Bottles The Bottles by Lee Upton

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(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

look like


We dig hollows

in your


We boil





We take up

all your


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.




My Fantasy Book Tour (Tin House)

My Fantasy Book Tour


I’ve never been on a book tour. Everyone says book tours are rare now anyway and so there’s probably no chance that I’ll ever go on one. And so when I hear that an author is on a book tour and complains about his/her driver and endless nights in drab hotel rooms I can’t help but feel that the author is doing the wrong thing: complaining. Except maybe complaining is part of the glamor of a book tour.

Even though I’ve never been on an actual book tour I do have a fantasy book tour. My fantasy book tour is like a cruise in one of those old movies. I arrive in my quarters and there’s an enormous bucket of flowers waiting and one of those huge fruit baskets wrapped in cellophane. A phone rings and my driver arrives, a nice person who knows where the signing is so I don’t have to get lost on the way or parallel park. We arrive at the signing and people are waiting for my signature and those people are extraordinarily kind…but this account is getting so boring. One of the best parts of my fantasy book tour: I return to my hotel room gratified and don’t spend the night regretting something I did or said. I don’t act like that woman in The Waste Land who mutters, “My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad.” No, I feel more like Walt Whitman wanted us to feel. And there’s a mini-bar in my hotel room. And someone has left something for me: a bowl of fresh raspberries topped with enough whipped cream to suffocate a cow.

I sleep happily and the next morning the driver—who has become a friend for life and also happens to be an importer of marvelous free trade coffee which she/he brings along for me in a thermos—drives me to the next stop on the tour. The next stop is like Paris except it’s only twenty miles away and nobody knows French—and people actually line up to buy one of my books. And that book is meant for each reader in some deeply meaningful way and, once again, people are extraordinarily kind. And I resist drawing a little picture next to my signature, because that can be profoundly irritating and may lower resale value.

I should mention that although I’ve never been on a book tour I have done book signings. In one of my favorite signings I was posted next to an author of erotic literature featuring baseball players. She was warmly welcoming and brought all sorts of swag: sexy magnets, sexy book marks, sexy baseball cards. This was at a Barnes & Noble, and we had been expressly forbidden to bring swag to lure people to our tables. But she wrote about the forbidden, and so the forbidden was her territory. I think I sold one book and gave away two, but it was still one of my favorite signings, because where else would I have met an author of baseball erotica? It was an opportunity to be a writer on whom nothing is lost—like Henry James. Besides, I liked the author, and there were plenty of opportunities to ask questions.

But sometimes signings are miserable. There’s a crowd passing by and you’re like a small zoo animal of no particular interest.

I have given readings that were worse than any of my signings. For one of my readings only two people showed up—a married couple who kept saying, “We thought the place would be packed!” Out of pity they gave me a collection of humorous revisions of that one psalm that begins “Yea, though I walk through the valley of death I will fear no evil.”

At another reading a man in the audience squealed like a pig, but I’ve recounted that story elsewhere and so I won’t go into that. And like probably every writer, I’ve given a reading where an espresso machine expressed regular, sadistically timed indignation.

Then too, I have also been that person in the audience at readings who gives the writer the creeps. I once introduced myself to another writer with great enthusiasm—we had a mutual friend. The writer’s male companion said, “I’m sure you’re a very nice person” and led me away by the elbow.

Worse: something happened when I was an appreciative audience member at a well-known novelist’s reading. After the novelist finished reading, everywhere I looked suddenly turned crisper, brighter. Even the maple trees in the window behind the writer became brilliantly lit—the way things appear illuminated after you’ve concentrated for a very long time on a remarkable painting. I tried to communicate this to the writer. He interrupted and said, “You’ve just told me that while I was reading you couldn’t stop looking at trees.” A few years later I went to another reading by this same novelist. He opened with an anecdote about a woman who insulted him by telling him that during his reading she couldn’t stop looking at trees.

My slim hope: could there have been another woman?

But back to my fantasy book tour. After I finish my book tour I return home, happily refreshed. As it turns out, my book tour has been so inspiring that I immediately write a book. The process is exhilarating and the book practically writes itself. The book is called My Book Tour! and has so much potential to draw readers that my publisher sends me on another book tour. And I whine about the book tour a little bit, to keep things interesting. Whining is just sharing specific information at a high pitch. It’s like, you know, opera. And then, because one good experience leads to another, I write an opera.

Lee Upton’s collection of short stories, The Tao of Humiliation, appeared in May from BOA. She is the author of the essay collection Swallowing the Sea: On Writing & Ambition Boredom Purity & Secrecy; the novella The Guide to the Flying Island; and the poetry collection Undid in the Land of Undone, among other works.

Posted in Book Tour Confidential