Shame is an Ocean I Swim Across by Mary Lambert

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.


  1. I think I’ve heard the Mackelmore songs she sings in-she’s got a beautiful voice! It sounds like her poetry would really speak to me actually, I like the sound of lines sounding like individual tweets. I also like a well-timed swear, but you know what really honks my hooter? people who swear too much just to seem tough, I hate that. 🙂


    • Oh, boy! You did it! You used your new phrase! I think poetry is reverting back to more accessible, and as a result has gained some popularity in recent years. Amanda Lovelace’s stuff always gets attention. I’m glad — poetry had a moment when it spoke to workers and activists, and then it did a nose-dive into inaccessible.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Sounds like a real mixed bag. Which honestly I find many poetry volumes to be. I have been reading an individual poem daily on the Poetry Foundation website and I find my brain likes poetry in small bites like that.


  3. This is a really nice, well-balanced review. Whenever criticisms are well-balanced with understanding of where the author might have been coming from, it makes me think that the writing was at least somewhat compelling and effective. I would have found the “thoughtful tweet” lines somewhat annoying, but this sounds super interesting overall!


    • I’ve been reading a lot more poetry lately. I know that about 50 years ago poets were writing for workers and civil rights activists. People talk about seeing a poetry collection in the back pocket of their co-worker in a factory. However, it got all wonky, in my opinion, too “academic” and nonsensical, and people lost interest, claiming they can’t understand poetry. It’s making a come back. I see more poetry on Goodreads, more slam competitions in different places, and YouTube is full of great stuff. I love the books Button Poetry publishes:


  4. Melanie, I enjoy reading everything you write, but what can I say about a) poetry, b) young women, and c) references to pop music (I think the radio station I listen to most goes up to about 1970).
    And yet I sometimes get landed with poetry or a verse novel and find the words and the rhythms strangely attractive.


    • For me, it always depends on what kind of poetry we’re talking about. I’ve read so much obscure nonsense poetry for classes, but then, when I dig a bit more, I do find poetry that pays attention to imagery and sound. That, for me, is the sweet spot. If you like listening to it, you’ve found someone who cares about the sound of language. I especially like novels that take the same care.


  5. I like that you put your blog links in the Sunday lowdown, so that if I miss a post I can catch up easily! I have noticed a lot of poetry that’s out recently sounds like thoughtful tweets, or carefully-worded captions on Instagram posts. I guess it makes sense as that is a medium lots of people use now, though poetry like that is not really for me, I don’t think.

    And yes, although I am a very infrequent swearer, I recognise the power of a well-chosen word – but if they’re used all the time, it kind of becomes background and loses its potency.


    • Thanks for the feedback about my links on the Sunday Lowdown. Sometimes when I’m adding them I wonder if readers are just skimming that part of the post because they’ve already visited my reviews, but I try to keep in mind that people access reviews in different formats. I have a Grab the Lapels email address, and I’m subscribed to all the blogs I follow. That way, they never go anywhere. I used to use the WordPress reader but found that challenging to navigate if I hadn’t visited for a couple of days.

      Thanks to your review of that collection from Button Poetry, I’ve been buying more work from them. I like Rachel Wiley’s stuff from them, but then your positive review and the description of the collection you read made me realize that they’re putting out the kind of work I like. Lambert’s collection isn’t from BP, but it was recommended as being similar according to Goodreads.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I can appreciate a well-placed swear word although I don’t personally use them. But I know what you mean here and this seems like a collection geared for a younger generation. Are the line breaks that way through all the poems? I think that would bother me more than the swearing!


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