Thursday, August 16, 2012

Lee Upton's 'Swallowing the Sea'

I'm attaching the review of Lee Upton's new book of essays on writing, which I just posted to Goodreads.  Definitely worth your while.

Fans of Lee Upton's poetry already know she is an ascended master, both feet firmly anchored to the planet even as she shares visions to make any bodhisattva jealous. So it's no surprise to see her assembled essays on the ambitions of the writer be presented as a distilled series of stories and aphorisms, almost overwhelming in scope. The book has a very particular focus for a developing writer facing unique challenges, and thus warrants a high four rather than a perfect five stars, if only for the eclectic target audience.

This is not a traditional instruction manual of writing as a craft - no guide to clarity in presentation, effective character development, parsing and pruning of lines. Instead, 'Swallowing the Sea' is meant to give writers who have a decent grasp of their own goals and methods a better understanding of how to interpret their ambitions, how to deal with dry spells and ennui, and how to disclose secrets deliberately and effectively.

Don't be fooled by the apparent brevity of the book. This is the type of distilled narrative where every word counts (scarcely surprising to find a virtual prose-poem comprising an essay about genre-hopping). Upton makes heavy use of other writers' observations, albeit in very unexpected and startling ways, almost approaching the style of a music mash-up at times. Those who might be frightened by dense and obscure references, however, should be delighted by Upton's warmth, humor, and directness. Just about the time we've had it with kibitzing by Salman Rushdie or Muriel Spark, we get a simple aw-shucks story of growing up on a Michigan farm. This book always puts its passionate humanity first, even if it's adorned with plenty of accessories at times.

The value of the essays will vary with what the reader brings to the book as opening assumptions, though any reader might agree that the final 40 pages of the book contain examples of some of the finest essay writing of the last century. The categories of ambition, failure, boredom, purity, bigamy, and secrecy will play in different accentuated movements for each reader. Leading with ambition and failure was wise, as the experiences are at least partially valid for any experienced or would-be writer. The examples of obsessive ambition in writers like Balzac are provided to bring us back to the theme of obsession at the book's end. Most worthy in these initial pages, though, is the description of examining a Titian painting from every possible angle, gaining new insights by seeing the obvious while it's askew. The topsy-turvy approach is applied liberally in the section on failure, examining everything from rejection to incapacitation.

The section on boredom will be invaluable for those whose wheels often spin in deep mud, though I had specific reasons for not finding resonance. Upton is not talking about writer's block here, as much as pointing to the places and times (committee meetings) where experience is a looped rerun, an infinite plain. In training for discovering the joy of small, almost inconsequential experience, I stopped suffering boredom a few years ago. In the process, I willed myself to almost an artificial autistic state - accept all perceptual inputs with equal status, then apply bandpass filters to keep from going crazy. Some of Upton's observations in the boredom section can be applied to the filtering problem, but it required some digging.

Upton makes clear in the purity section that the notion of cleansing and purging rituals must be applied with extreme care, and is not for everyone. Early on, she provides us with Pablo Neruda's virtual rejection of purity in poetry (an opinion I largely share). But the book provides a teasing suggestion that a ritual of stripping away is worthwhile, not just for reaching a minimalist core, but to let us know when we are filled with too much baggage.

The last two sections climax the book's hidden power with the unexpected directness of a suddenly-lopsided prize fight in its final rounds. Upton uses the term "bigamy" to refer to the melding of genres and the willingness to experiment outside familiar domains. Perhaps genre holds some mysterious power in academia - I don't see it as mattering very much in a world where improvisational musicians move into spoken-word performance, and Latin American poets give us hundreds of pages of police reports as the backbone for a new type of fiction. But even if the notion of bigamy means little in loosely-defined worlds, the observations in this section are astonishing.

Announcing up front that you are concluding with a section on secrecy may spook the reader into expecting a declaration that all writers should be enigmas to the outside world. That is hardly what Upton is about. She is talking about a strategy of disclosure in every work of prose or poetry, a process that begins with the crafting of a world too puzzling and personal to be relevant to a reader, and the means of carefully revealing the secret core in a manner that can makes the most monotonous of poems as much a cliffhanger as a detective novel. There are some startling, occasionally terrifying, passages in these final pages - poetry from Lawrence Joseph and Paul Celan, and an excerpt from a Don DeLillo novel, used in a discussion of the possible meanings of the word "embedded," that will chill many readers.

Upton's final page comes upon us abruptly, but with such love and hope that any reader can feel the book was a personal pep talk. Yet there are dimensions Upton chose not to explore. While a critic should never suggest what type of book should have been written if the author determines it to be outside a domain, Upton herself talks about the "schizophrenia of publishers," but never addresses the virtual disappearance of the traditional publishing industry. While most advisories within the book can apply to an online world, traditional notions of editing and vetting are vanishing at light speed, and it would have been nice to see an exploration of what a book-and-audience world devoid of moorings might look like. Oh well, that's another book. Upton has given us a collection of a half-dozen essays as radically unique as Giorgio Agamben's 'The End of the Poem." It seems difficult to imagine another set of honed and distilled observations that could even cover similar grounds, let alone do so as exquisitely as 'Swallowing the Sea' managed to do.

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