The title of Lee Upton’s new book, Swallowing the Sea: On Writing & Ambition, Boredom, Purity & Secrecy (Tupelo Press), tells you everything you need to know about what is to come without giving anything away. If the title feels irresistible, that’s at least in part because it is in itself a micropoem that gets swiftly and surely to the heart of who a writer is. In this book, at once fast-moving and deep-dwelling, Upton constantly circles and vivisects each of the abstractions in her title. More than anything, she explores the notion of ambition, trying to understand its negative implications and to celebrate what she sees as an ultimately creative, engendering force. She describes her own early forays into language, which she conceives as intimately wedded to ambition, and describes with particular poignancy her memories of communicating with her father, who lost his hearing over the course of her childhood. Although the story is tinged with pain, she remembers, “To be heard by him meant that all of us in our family had to weigh our words.” This is both an origin story and an ars poetica, describing one fundamental problem art addresses and one it creates: the desire to be understood and the best way to achieve it through the media available. She credits ambition with seeing not only her through these difficulties, but also Dickinson, Kafka, and everyone else who takes up the pen. Ultimately she argues that ambition unites artists in a kind of brotherhood.
The book is not all apologetics: alongside Ambition lives Purity. This seeming virtue brings up a string of contradictions and complications that Upton delights in unpacking. “The rhetoric of purity can be connected to horrific violence,” and “We don’t often use the phrase ‘a clean mind,’” are two examples of how an idea important to every writer is astonishingly beset with connotations at variance with one another. All this despite the world’s seeming indifference to the notion itself. She describes a strong impulse she felt after the birth of her daughter “to purify [her] writing.” She gives the example, “I neglected to respect the vitality of the vernacular. I pared away draft after draft. Only gradually did I re-learn how to allow more life into my writing—that is, more of language, graced with its inevitable impurities.” She links this strongly to new motherhood, mentioning the obsession of making a dangerous, unpredictable world safe for a baby, and also to womanhood itself, discussing Plath and Anne Carson’s explorations of women in their own art and in classic culture. I found this fascinating even beyond those links as a description of the paths we take as writers. We repeatedly confront challenges that seem to change every moment, and which almost always originate within us. The challenge of removing impurities without removing the quicksilver of life itself is one of the great ongoing challenges of craft, and Upton gives compelling, illuminating testimony of that.
Upton reckons with the idea of “Swallowing the Sea” early in the book, writing, “Even before writing any notes, I had wanted to call this book Swallowing the Sea to suggest and honor the wildly outsized but exhilarating ambition that the act of writing can generate, and as an image of the love of impossibility, the love of something astonishing achieved through the imagination.” The book itself is such an attempt at containing the limitless, and in many ways does touch the impossible. Surely to make sense of the experience of being a human being, much less a writer, is a task one can never complete. Yet, through its simultaneously scholarly, kinetic and musical journeys through Upton’s imaginative universe, the book is again and again satisfyingly accurate in its portrayal of an artist’s inner life, and defends and celebrates that life in a meaningful and enlivening way. We are treated to not only her relationship to these words and concepts, but also to her great love of writing, which ranges from Milton to detective fiction. The writing is at every moment charmingly irreverent and dead-sincere, a book, first and foremost, for writers.
—Jasmine V. Bailey