I am of the firm belief that poetry should be accessible. I fully support poems which present a surface level of simplicity, uncomplicated in the same way that a haiku can strike the perfect cord with only seventeen syllables. The reliability of minimalist poetry is necessary because it ensures that anyone can enjoy it. The more “basic” the poem, the easier it is to pick up for people who may not often read poetry. The spectrum of complexity allows for a broader audience, and that is a magical thing.
However, there can be such a thing as too simple. Lowercase words, improper punctuation, and sporadic metaphors alone do not make a poem—intention does, and occasionally, this can be muddied by simplicity. Striking the right balance between brevity and detail is not easily done, and Mary Lambert’s new collection, Shame Is an Ocean I Swim Across, strives to thread that needle.
Mary Lambert is a good writer. She understands a beautiful metaphor, and she knows her way around a clever simile. Before reading her book, I was not aware of her fame. She is a well-known singer, popular for her collaboration with rapper Macklemore. Mary Lambert’s talent as a singer-songwriter allows some of her poems to give us a superficial glance into the author’s life, while other pieces feel as though they are not meant for the reader to see.
It must be said that Lambert’s book should come with a trigger warning on the first page. Themes of rape, abuse, eating disorders, trauma, and alcoholism are frequent, if not the foundation of the book. This is not a negative thing, but it bears mentioning, as the audience needs to be aware that the author is grappling with these topics for, what appears to be, the first time. The poems read as though Lambert has not had the opportunity to discuss some of her thoughts out loud before, and is using her first collection as a cathartic reflective experience.
There are moments when you are left feeling voyeuristic and uncomfortable, notable during “Rape Poem,” where Lambert writes, “Once he’s inside you, you just kind of give up / and your eyes glaze over. / They stay that way for years.” Her words are striking and painful, a punch to the gut that leaves you feeling entirely hollow, but it does not feel like you should be reading them. Let me be clear: these poems are not bad, but her poetry is meant for an audience of which I am not a member.
If you have ever experienced any of these trying themes, you are in good company. Lambert is a survivor—just like you, and just like me. Exploring your trauma is a necessary part of healing, and this kind of art is a necessary part of our culture. That being said, it does feel like prying in on a deeply personal moment of self-exploration, as the poems themselves lack a level of awareness and attention to the craft of poetry that would make them feel poignant or well-informed, which detracts from the altogether crucial reflections on important subject matter.
The book is full of powerful lines smothered under titles that are meant to be tongue-in-cheek but instead feel disarming or pandering, such as “I Wish Powerful Men Would Stop Being Fucking Terrible,” a sentiment that is more or less the general consensus these days and does not resonate as a revolutionary idea for the title of a piece. These titles distract from the content of the poetry and supply a displaced joke or thesis statement instead of a well-orchestrated title for what is otherwise a good reflection on the subject of the modern patriarchal society.
Beyond the forced aesthetics, Lambert’s book is a critical view of trauma and mental illness expressed in a memorable and potent fashion. In “Grief Is a Sundress and I Am Starving,” she writes, “I am a person that exists, and I took a shower today. / And maybe tomorrow I will eat a full meal,” which resonates with those who suffer from depression, but also anyone who has experienced the incapacitating nature of loss. She continues the theme in “The Good News Is You Won the Lottery, the Bad News Is the Lottery Is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,” writing, “I am always one slipped rug away from losing everything.” This writing, while barren of unique phrasing or imagery, strikes a chord in the way that only those who have slogged through the trenches of mental illness can fully understand. Lambert’s words are not groundbreaking, but they are critical to the perpetuation of mental health acceptance in our society.
If you are looking for a brave collection of honest poetry, look no further. Lambert conveys a sense of emotional wisdom throughout the collection, and although I was not the right audience for it, Shame Is an Ocean I Swim Across will resonate with fans of Rupi Kaur and R.H. Sin, or anyone who needs to be reminded that they are not alone in their journey to better mental health and recovery.