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Contemporary Poetry and Poetics

Review of Mary Karr's Book of Poetry




Karr’s true calling is the unstinting examination
of the dynamics of human relationships,
and she is essentially a narrative poet.
The poems that demonstrate these qualities
come closest to expressing a persuasive spirituality.

Maybe it is a sign of 21st century Americans’ supposed turn toward spirituality that recent books by important contemporary poets, such as Jorie Graham’s Overlord and Jack Gilbert’s Refusing Heaven, have included poems that take seriously the difficulties of praying, and of writing poems about praying. In a time when any public approach to the divine threatens to buckle under historical pressures ranging from the legacy of the world wars to psychoanalysts’ dissection of the self, such poems can seem an act of courage. Mary Karr’s Sinners Welcome grapples with these difficulties more directly than either Graham or Gilbert.
    Karr is well known for her memoirs of a tumultuous early life, growing up in a strained Texas family, and for writing about her struggles with alcoholism, as well as for three earlier books of poems. Sinners Welcome chronicles her path from agnosticism to Catholic faith and sobriety, and implicitly invites readers to approach her book as being about that journey. In “Facing Altars: Prayer and Poetry,” an essay appended to this book and first published in Poetry, Karr acknowledges being uneasily aware of the uncomfortable position in which her up-front religious poems may place her vis-à-vis the modern tradition, and she is at some pains to retain a measure of pop-culture “street cred”: “To confess my unlikely Catholicism in Poetry — the journal that first published some of the godless twentieth-century disillusionaries of J. Alfred Prufrock and his pals — feels like an act of perversion kinkier than any dildo-wielding dominatrix could manage on HBO’s Real Sex Extra.”
    This self-consciousness, the knowledge that a part of the usual audience for poetry might well consider her subject matter a kind of “perversion,” spills over into the poems, sometimes with deleterious effect.
    Not all of the poems in this book are “religious” poems, in the traditional sense. There are also grief-laden poems about the poet’s mother and grief-and-joy-laden poems about her son, elegies for dead friends and poems about teachers and students. Scattered throughout the book is a series of five poems on the life, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, collectively titled “Descending Theology.” This series, and many of the other poems that directly address prayer or religious practice, are among the weakest of this otherwise very strong book.
    Karr’s true calling is the unstinting examination of the dynamics of human relationships, and she is essentially a narrative poet. The poems that demonstrate these qualities come closest to expressing a persuasive spirituality. In “Revelations in the Key of K” she remembers discovering the magic of writing in kindergarten:

        I came awake in kindergarten,
        under the letter K chalked neat
        on a field-green placard leaned

        on the blackboard’s top edge. They’d caged me
        in a metal desk—the dull word writ
        to show K’s sound. But K meant kick and kill

        when a boy I’d kissed drew me
        as a whiskered troll in art.

    “Revelations in the Key of K” is an important poem for any reading of Sinners Welcome, because the coming “awake” mentioned in the first line is multi-layered and resonates throughout the book. The speaker comes awake not only to the initial that begins her name, but also to turbulent romantic feelings, the confining nature of authority and convention (“They’d caged me”), and the ambivalent influence of her mother, when she is punished later in the poem for repeating her mother’s rebellious dictum, “Screw those / who color in the lines.”
    Her punishment takes the form of exile to a “corner’s empty Sheetrock page,” and it is here that the poem’s most significant awakening occurs. Looking up, she notices the alphabet printed along the top of the blackboard:

        And in the surrounding alphabet, my whole life hid—
        names of my beloveds, sacred vows I’d break.
        With my pencil stub applied to wall,

        I moved around the loops and vectors,
        Z to A, learning how to mean, how
        in the mean world to be.

    Several other poems in Sinners Welcome are also about the importance of language, and writing, as a way of being in the mean world, but the emphatic placement of “Revelations in the Key of K,” the second poem in the book, suggests that its insights extend beyond the strictly poetic, into an understanding that prayer, just as much as poetry, consists of formalized speech addressed to a listener who may or may not be paying attention.
    Many of the more traditionally religious poems in Sinners Welcome are self-regarding and tentatively sentimental. “Disgraceland” (whose title sets the reader up for a play on Elvis and Graceland that goes nowhere in the poem) recounts a mid-life conversion experience after years of drink and dissolution. It begins with a Miltonic echo, “Before my first communion at 40, I clung / to doubt as Satan spider-like stalked / the orb of dark surrounding Eden / for a wormhole into paradise.” In contrast to the clear-imaged precision of “Revelations in the Key of K,” these lines fumble after what they want to say and never quite get there. Does “as” in the second line mean “while” or “in the same way that”? The first seems meaningless. But, then, how is clinging to doubt similar to Satan’s attempting to worm his way into a paradise that he knows is real? And how is Eden surrounded by an “orb of dark?” Doesn’t it make more sense to see Eden as an orb of light surrounded by undefined darkness?
    The vagueness of this and some other poems in Sinners Welcome feels, more than anything else, like nervous embarrassment at using “religious” language in public. The same unease that Karr acknowledges in the first paragraph of “Facing Altars” carries over into the poems that attempt to address Christ or God or prayer seriously and explicitly. There is something theatrical here. More often than not, in the prayer poems and in her essay on her conversion, Karr gives us, not religious speech, but a poet contemplating religious speech.
    “Disgraceland” continues:

        Eventually, I lurched out to kiss the wrong mouths,
            get stewed, and sulk around. Christ always stood
                to one side with a glass of water.
                    I swatted the sap away.

        When my thirst got great enough
            to ask, a stream welled up inside;
                some jade wave buoyed me forward . . ..

    Karr’s suggestion that Christ is “the living water” is anything but original. This has been a hard-worked staple of devotional poets since the biblical writers, and “Disgraceland” does little to make it new, despite attempts to rough up the diction with talk of getting “stewed” and “swatt[ing] the sap away.” The vague logic of the poem’s beginning seems continued here, as well: is Christ’s offer of a glass of water simply unneeded and irrelevant, once the “jade wave” of salvation wells up from inside the poet?
    Fortunately the bathos of “Disgraceland” infects only a minority of the poems in this book.
“Waiting for God: Self-Portrait as Skeleton” is one of Karr’s most successful poems about prayer and a hint at what Sinners Welcome could have been, were it completely purged of inhibiting self-consciousness. The poem recounts a dark season of the soul following the death of the poet’s mother. It opens with a perfectly tuned sense of pacing and narrative detail that shifts emphasis from the self-regarding theatre of prayer as problematic spectacle to the real dilemma, the meaning of prayer in a world where tragedy can seem arbitrary and intractable.

        The winter Mother’s ashes came in a Ziploc bag,
        all skin was scorched from me, and my skull
        was a hard helmet I wore to pray
        with my middle finger bone aimed at the light fixture—Come out,
        You fuck, I’d say, then wait for God to finish me
        where I knelt; or for my dead mother to assemble in clouds
        of the Aquanet hairspray she’d used abundantly
        in her bleach blond Flashdance phase at sixty when she’d phone
        all slurry and sequined with disco playing to weep
        so I’d send cash . . ..

    Working through the winter of desolation and holding onto prayer as a practice, despite the apparent sterility of its non-assurances, the speaker finally realizes that it was God who had gotten her mother “to detox, to a rickety chair where she eventually sat upright / with eyes clear as seawater” for a sober respite, a grace period, before her death. This realization is the trigger for a long-in-coming epiphany that feels absolutely earned in the poem:

        . . . Then from the hard knot at my skull’s base
        I felt warm oil as from a bath bead broken open
        somehow flow upward to cover my skull, and my hair
        came streaming down again,
        and the soft clay crawled back to form my face.

    The poem comes to a rest in this image of the anointing of grace, of rebirth and baptism, and it is the logical and theological conclusion that all the book’s best poems are tending toward, even if it is not the physical conclusion of Sinners Welcome. It is an example of the true power that Karr commands in her best work. As readers, we are grateful for her determination in taking on difficult and possibly unpopular subjects, especially when she succeeds as well as this. We are grateful, and we look forward to the poems of the future.

Karr, Mary. Sinners Welcome. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2006. ISBN: 0-06-077654-4, $22.95

© by James Owens


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