Review of Lee Upton Swallowing the Sea on Writing & Ambition Boredom Purity & Secrecy


by MaryAnn L. Miller              

Review Excerpted from an Essay

Lee Upton Swallowing the Sea on Writing & Ambition Boredom Purity & Secrecy

            Tupelo Press, North Adams Massachusetts, 2012


Lee Upton begins Swallowing the Sea by citing Tomas Transtromer’s poem “The Name” about the momentary panic of a man who has forgotten his name upon waking from a nap. (3) Upton states “The writer writes against panic…reclaiming…ambition.” (4) Upton makes clear how the fear of not knowing who we are drives us to create identity from our writing. Upton recognizes conventional definitions of ambition such as money, fame, and power, but more important is the goal of making work that is “itself more powerful.” (4)

Upton’s second topic of boredom can also be a cause of panic. The fear of boredom, and of being boring pushes us to work and guides us to avoid those who bore us. This sapping of life is a fearsome thing because it is a physical reaction felt as an unquenched restlessness. Upton says, “A writer must rinse out the trough of expectation and turn boring moments into functional ones.” (55) She remembers her mother enlivening dull conversations by saying “I once saw a man completely covered in warts.” (60) Upton guards against any possible boredom in her writing by punctuating her barrages of citations and good sense with the same kind of sudden humor. Her chapter titles are full of wit and there’s even a riddle buried in the book.

She makes a sly comment “ …our temporary defeat of boredom and our capitulation to boredom are recorded in the fossil records of our books—and on our blogs, too: endlessly.”

Upton speaks of M.F.K. Fisher whose writing is sensuous, direct, and replenishing. She cites Fisher’s ability to “bring her obsessions with food into literature—to make food into a narrative, and to make narrative into something like food.” (75) And she hadn’t even been born French. (76) Ordinariness can be replenishing.

Upton slips into examples of purity from history, culture, and literature. We want to avoid writing “pure poetry” although she admits to trying to purify her poems in the past. There is an unheralded section between Purity and Secrecy titled Bigamy for Beginners that deals with cross-genre writing.

“…writing across the major genres can be a sign that a writing life may require more apertures, more outlets, and that for some writers the most fruitful ambition can best be realized on multiple fronts…” (101) When a poet writes prose she leaves behind compression and engages in a slower unfolding of a vision.

In the last section on Secrecy Upton says, “We probably never entirely grow out of burying and unburying what’s valuable…” (119) “Literature is the province of the secret…” (121) “So much of life is a secret that wants to be expressed and can only be approximated.” (123) We keep trying through panic, boredom, misplaced ambitions, and the struggles Upton acknowledges along with us.