Title: Sinners Welcome
Author: Mary Karr
Genre: Poetry, 2012
Summary: A collection of poems from Mary Karr (The Liar's Club / Cherry / Lit). Largely centered around her conversion to Catholicism in 1996, in her words" lit up by baby Jesus."
Mary Karr is famous as a memoirest, penning the critically acclaimed The Liar's Club, a memoir about her childhood in an East Texas oil refinery town, the daughter of oilman who loved alcohol and tall tales and an artistic, but emotionally unstable mother. I've haven't read the Liar's Club as it includes the painful subject matter of her molestation and rape, a subject matter I can't really handle well. But I have enjoyed pretty much every interview I've read with her. One interview called her a "scrappy little beast" and I think these three words really captures her personality succinctly. She's very charismatic, its not hard to see why David Foster Wallace fell so insanely in love with her that he bought a gun to kill Karr's husband. She really does pack a wallop. It was this scrappy charisma that first led me to seek out her non-autobiographical work. People who aren't too familiar with her might be surprised to learn that Mary Karr considers herself a poet first and foremost. My first introduction to Karr was a blistering essay called "Against Decoration" which is a well-composed rant against the hollowness of modern poetry that daringly name names. My second introduction is this book of poetry, her fourth, called Sinners Welcome.
Aside: I'm non-religious, I wouldn't even go so far as to say I'm spiritual. That being said, my favorite book is CS Lewis' Till We Have Faces
and I find the subject matter of spiritual transcendence intriguing. The majority of the poems in Sinners Welcome
are about Karr's late life conversion to Catholicism, a process which she addresses in an essay at the end of the book called Facing Alters: Poetry and Prayer.
Her conversion had nothing to do with shame or sin, rather it was the desire for a better philosophy for living, especially as her life has been scarred by childhood trauma and adult alcoholism. She cites reciting a rote prayer (the very beautiful Prayer_of_Saint_Francis
) with her 5 year old son, and finding the language of that prayer boring into her brain, quieting the noise there. How its message that she should become an instrument for love and pardon rather than wallowing in self-pity worked to improve her life exponentially. In her words:
There was an entire aspect to my life that I had been blind to-the small,good things that came in abundance. A friend had once told me regarding his own faith, "I've memorized the bad news." So it seemed to me that my uber-realistic worldview (we die, worms eat us, there is no God), to which I'd clung so desperately for its rationality, was never chosen for its basis in truth, nor for its efficacy in running my life. It was just a focal point around which my own tortured inwardness could twist.
The majority of the poems in this book are about her conversion from that tortured inwardness to spiritual joy. I found them to be deeply moving for the most part. My favorite is Disgraceland:
Before my first communion, I clung to doubt
as Satan spider-like stalked
the orb of dark surrounding Eden
for a wormhole into paradise.
God had formed me from gel in my mother’s womb,
injected by my dad’s smart shoot.
They swapped sighs until
I came, smaller than a bite of burger.
Quietly, I grew till my lungs were done
then the Lord sailed a soul
like a lit arrow to inhabit me.
Maybe that piercing
made me howl at birth,
or the masked creatures whose scalpel
cut a lightning bolt to free me.
I was hoisted by the heels and swatted, fed
and hauled around. Time-lapse photos show
my fingers grow past crayon outlines,
my feet come to fill spike heels.
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 clear stream welled up inside,
some jade wave buoyed me forward,
and I found myself upright
in the instant, with a garden
inside my own ribs aflourish.
There, the arbor leafs.
The vines push out plump grapes.
You are loved, someone said. Take that
and eat it.
I don't think all the poems are successful. The ones about her dead mother seem rather tired to me, as if its a subject matter she's been worrying like a sore tooth for 20 years. Or perhaps that's due to my own fatigue over this theme, every female poet writes about the black shadow cast by their dead mothers.
I am also annoyed by the book blurb which reads:
Mary Karr describes herself as a black-belt sinner, and this -- her fourth collection of poems --traces her improbable journey from the inferno of a tormented childhood into a resolutely irreverent Catholicism. Not since Saint Augustine wrote "Give me chastity, Lord -- but not yet!" has anyone brought such smart-assed hilarity to a conversion story.
As you can see from Disgraceland, these poems are not funny! Why does faith have to be swallowed with a chaser of humor? Its insulting that earnestness is so uncool that we need to mask it with something "smart-ass." Does the music of Bach need some giggles too? Blah!
Well, Karr had nothing to do with the blurb, so I only hold her publishers up for scorn. This book is a lovely collection of poems, not all brilliant, but certainly well crafted and very accessible to any reader. This passage from Karr's essay perfectly describes the satisfaction I received from reading this book: When I read a poem, it was as if the poet's burning taper touched some charred filament in my chest to light me up. The transformation could extend from me outward. Lifting my face from the page, I often faced my fellow creatures with less dread. Maybe buried in one of them was an ache or tenderness similar to the one I'd just been warmed by.