Mary Lambert’s name was familiar to me, but as someone who doesn’t engage with current pop music, I didn’t place that she’s a singer known for co-writing and is featured in the song “Same Love,” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, two people I don’t know but who are apparently Very Famous. Lambert has her own albums; she sings and plays piano, and she’s also a spoken word artist. Shame is an Ocean I Swim Across is Lambert’s second poetry collection.
Through the poems, you learn about Lambert — her depression, suicidal ideations and attempts, mental illnesses, the incest and rape in her past, her alcoholic tendencies, her desire to create music and poetry without being shaped by popular industries that tell her she isn’t good enough in her fat body, and her sexuality (she’s a lesbian who came out at seventeen to a family of Evangelical Christians, according to Wikipedia). If you’re looking for content warnings, you might be thinking Lambert’s life sounds like a content warning. However, it’s important to hear what people have to say and not exclude them based on things beyond their control.
While some poems use symbolism and circuitous language to get you to arrive at a feeling, Lambert’s got a direct approach, one that works in some instances. A poem ends with a woman telling the author, “. . . no one wants to hear a rape poem, mary.” When you turn the page, the next poem is titled “Rape Poem.” The punch of honesty hits hard. Wisely, Lambert pulls back and uses the imagery of animals in chaos to being “Rape Poem,” asking:
Have you ever seen a stampede of horses? Do you wonder what the hooves look like from underneath?
I wish more of the poems paid attention to imagery and allusions and focused on the alliteration, assonance, and consonance that make poems a deeply engaging experience when you read them aloud. Here is a sample of the audio book version, read by Lambert. I couldn’t help but feel that the lines sounded like thoughtful Tweets.
Like many young, modern poets Lambert does use strong language to give that edgy middle finger to the world. Personally, I swear a lot. I mean, not on this blog because I know many of you wouldn’t go for that. But I’m a big believer in a well-timed, perfectly chosen swear. Thus, when people swear all the time, it grates on me because I wonder just how “cool” they think they are. Lambert uses such language in both positive and negative contexts. She argues:
you are a goddamn tree stump with leaves sprouting out: reborn.
But she also admits:
Most of my life I've felt like a shopping cart with a shitty wheel
The language strikes me as young and twenty-something in a way that made me enjoy some poems less. Between the cursing and the way Lambert would get sentence-y with her poems, like she was telling brief anecdotes with line breaks, many of them didn’t engage me as much as I would have liked.
The poems about her fat body flip-flopped, too, which I don’t completely mind because I understand people have complicated feelings about their bodies. Lambert admits:
. . .and i cry because they call me fat even though i am fat and most of the time i don't care but some of the time i do care because a word is just a word until it is not just a word, it is a weapon.
Conversely, the poem “Margarita” is an ode to fat women that boldly claims:
Honestly? Any advice about being fat is tragic being fat should just mean that you get more awesome chairs! that you get more hugs! . . . I wish I could say: Hey, perfect angel cutie pie.
Because body politics are complicated, and we are stewing in diet culture in the U.S. and other Western countries, I recognize Lambert’s need to write negatively about her body, but give her credit for the way she stands up proudly, too.
Overall, Shame is an Ocean I Swim Across could be a good fit for younger women, but it wasn’t quite right for me.