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Issue Date:  September 29, 2006

Mary Karr: sharing the shock of reality


Mary Karr’s new book, Sinners Welcome, is stunning both as poetry and conversion story. Those who have read Karr before will recognize her characteristically fresh, earthy language, but many will be astonished at the spiritual depth revealed in Sinners Welcome, her fourth book of poetry. Much of this she attributes to her conversion in 1996 “after a lifetime of undiluted agnosticism” to an “unlikely Catholicism.”

It was an unexpected development for Ms. Karr, whose best-selling memoir The Liars’ Club describes growing up as a bookish child in a “godless house” in a poor Texas oil town. To meet Ms. Karr is to meet that girl grown up, still open, bright and talkative, one to whom relationships are far more important than reputations. Sipping iced tea across the table at her neighborhood café in Hell’s Kitchen where we met, Mary was interrupted by a phone call from her sister telling her about an old friend with three children who had unexpectedly died of a stroke. Both were upset.

Mary told me she and her older sister, Lecia, are in touch almost daily. Readers who read Cherry, the author’s second memoir, which records her life from age 12 to 17, will remember Lecia as the wise and pretty older sister who managed to become popular with mainstream students at a time when Mary was never invited into the social world of pajama parties and instead made impulsive, imprudent decisions that put neighbors and schoolmates on guard. The neighbors were already wary of Lecia and Mary’s mother, who neither cooked nor cleaned but instead painted, drank and found nothing amiss in giving Nietzsche and Sartre’s Nausea to her sixth-grade daughter. Together the young girls often bore the responsibility of bringing their brilliant but alcoholic mother back home after one of her inexplicable getaways; once they saved her from suicide.

Mary’s yarn-spinning, oil-worker father taught her how to play baseball -- it came in handy later when she was a Little League coach -- and took her to the bar with him to hear his tall stories. But as she grew into adolescence, the part of her life covered in Cherry, both parents became detached. Lecia was caught up in an older social world, and even Mary’s closest girlfriends distanced themselves from her. She filled in the gaps, at first with books, then by sharing drugs with the wild boys who were her friends at beach parties till the police caught up with them. When she left home at l7, heading for an unknown, fantasized Los Angeles, nobody tried to stop her.

Readers who want to know what happened next will find out in her third memoir, which she’s writing now. There’s quite a gap between that naive, endangered teenager and the current professor of literature at Syracuse University, who was a Guggenheim Fellow in 2005. But reading Ms. Karr’s current book fills us in on the fundamentals, if not all the facts. Sinners Welcome reveals that poetry has always been central in her life. Her interest began at an early age; it helped her gain her mother’s attention when she was young. In the essay “Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer,” from Sinners Welcome, she explains that poetry became the source of awe that eased her isolation as a child, a lifeline that created a semblance of the community she craved.

Despite what seemed the craziness of her upbringing, her parents managed to introduce their younger daughter to the power and beauty of language, making words into sacraments for her. And 20-some years later, Mary discovered a new use for language in the prayer she grudgingly took on as a last hope in overcoming alcoholism. Desperate to be a good mother to her baby son, at first she prayed “with belligerence,” but doggedly got down on her knees morning and night -- and quite unexpectedly stopped drinking.

Slowly she began to realize that the nihilistic attitude she had long nurtured as “realism” was in fact a dark projection of her own self-pity. “My mind didn’t take in reality,” she writes, “before I began to practice regular devotions.” She clung to the “rational” cynicism in which grim fate was a “realistic” worldview. Over a barbecue, a recovered alcoholic poet-friend suggested she might try giving thanks instead. “For what?” she replied. “For the sky,” he suggested dryly.

Looking around with new eyes, she began to find giving thanks a more suitable response to the natural beauty and the many small acts of goodness she realized were all around her despite the world’s pain and injustice. When her 6-year-old son suggested they start looking in churches to see if God was there, she was willing to start what she calls their “God-a-Rama.”

It’s instructive to hear someone without pious preconceptions or clichés witness to the beauty and power of prayer. With genuine enthusiasm, Ms. Karr shares the comfort she finds in the Mass, where the church’s “carnality” (read Incarnation) comforts her: lighting candles, talking to statues. The simple physical motions of Mass help quiet her mind, she says, and she loves moving with others.

“I don’t mind being a sheep,” she admits, smiling across the table, a light in her large green-brown eyes. Clearly she doesn’t mean being a conformist. She means following Christ, led by his spirit in the Eucharist where “someone else’s suffering and passion entered my body to change me, partly by joining me to others in a saving circle.”

“Before my first Communion at 40,” she says in the poem “Disgrace-land,” “I clung to doubt,” keeping Christ on the sidelines for years, holding out his glass of water.

When my thirst got great enough
to ask, a 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.

This latest work of poetry reveals the emotional and spiritual depth of the life she recorded so vividly in her memoirs. Her subjects grow out of the pain and suffering of her own experience; she has doubts, dark memories and a clear sense of herself as a “black-belt sinner.” She doesn’t hide her faults, but neither does she wallow in guilt.

Poetry has always been her help in times of darkness. “The compassion innate in having someone -- however remote -- verbalize your despair can act like a salve to the psyche.” At one point the “terrible sonnets” of Hopkins helped shape her desolation. And she discovered that, like poetry, prayer often begins in torment “until the intensity of language forges a shape worthy of both labels: ‘true’ and ‘beautiful.’ ” Once, near despair, she found deep solace in Psalm 51: “Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness; in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense.”

After her mother’s death, she told me, she was astonished to see that in the Bible by her bed, this psalm was the only one her mother had ever marked. Like so many things in her life now, she finds this tie between them more than a coincidence. She feels the work of the Holy Spirit in just such everyday occurrences. And beneath the sure rhythms and often startlingly fresh images of her poems, she is able to do what the best poetry can do: Reveal some of that understanding, help us see what we might not otherwise see.

There are five “Descending Theology” poems in Sinners Welcome, the fruits of her eight-month initiation into Ignatian spiritual exercises. Perhaps only a mother could have described the Nativity scene in such physical terms that it adds to our awareness of the reality of Christ’s Incarnation:

between contractions, her skin
with the thousand animal itches
   that plague
a standing beast’s sleep ...
         ... her milk
spilled along his throat, while his
   pure being
flooded her.

These poems dwell on the bodily, human experience of Jesus. The Crucifixion and Resurrection poems are scenes of painful physical and psychological abandonment until, in the former, at the end “Some wind / sucks him into the light stream / in the rent sky, and he’s snatched back, held close.” And in “The Resurrection,” breaking out of the stone, the action of the Spirit begins:

it’s your limbs he longs to flow
   into --
from the sunflower center in your chest
outward -- as warm water
shatters at birth, rivering every

Sinners Welcome also shows us a variety of scenes from Mary Karr’s past life:

For years I chose the man to suit
   the instant
from good guy to goat boy,
dreadlocked to crewcut. Not one
could bridal me.

She offers moving elegies to dead friends, and gives thanks to a beloved teacher and an ex-student by bringing out the deep community among them.

She shares hope for a murderous boy she once tutored, and describes a gracious Arabic waiter in “Easter at Al Qaeda Bodega,” but the most intense poems concern her dead mother:

The winter Mother’s ashes came
   in a Ziploc bag,
all skin was scorched from me.

The revelation of this woman’s sufferings at the end of The Liars’ Club, about which, of course, the child knew nothing, has helped the daughter preserve the lasting love she feels for this strange mother. She still has nightmares, though, about the time her mother tried to kill her when she was 5. In “Overdue Pardon for Mother with Knife,” she makes a connection at last through forgiveness:

I no longer curse that hand, as I
   once did
But glorify the force that stayed
   it, set the blade
Aside ...

Here and in other poems, she begins to define a positive interpretation of Christian virtue as a fierce struggle to respond to the words of Jesus, controlling the natural forces we cannot deny, a startling yet traditional definition quite unlike the usual negative prohibitions.

When our conversation over the table was interrupted by the phone call from her sister, their closeness in compassion, despite their differences, underlined the direction poetry and faith have given Mary Karr. She is trying to put her ongoing life into perspective in these poems, but they are far more than merely expressive.

“I pray and poetize,” she writes, “to be able to see my brothers and sisters despite my own (often petty) agonies, to partake of the majesty that’s every sinner’s birthright.”

Reading this writer can gives us insight into our own relationships as well and perhaps a stronger sense of why Jesus preferred to spend his time among sinners.

Sally Cunneen is professor emeritus of English literature, Rockland Community College, State University of New York, and author of In Search of Mary.

Pathetic Fallacy

When it became impossible to
   speak to you
due to your having died and been
I sometimes held the uncradled

with its neat digits and arcane
   symbols (crosshatch,
black star) as if embedded in it
were some code I could punch in

to reach you. You bequested me
this morbid bent, Mother.
Who gives her sixth-grade daughter

Sartre’s Nausea to read? All my life,
I watched you face the void,
leaning into it as a child with a
   black balloon

will bury her countenance
either to hide from
or to merge with that darkness.

Small wonder that still
in the invisible scrim of air
that delineates our separate worlds,

your features sometimes press to-
   ward me
all silvery from the afterlife, woven
   in wind,
to whisper a caution. Or your hand
   on my back

shoves me into my life.

Easter at Al Qaeda Bodega

At the gold speckled counter, my
   pal in white apron --
index finger tapping his Arabic paper,
where the body count dwarfs the one in my Times -- announces,
You’re killing my people.

But in Hell’s Kitchen, even the An
ought to have coffee -- one cream
and two sugars. Blessings
upon you, he says, and means it.

-- Mary Karr, from Sinners Welcome, HarperCollins, 2006


National Catholic Reporter, September 29, 2006

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