Mary Karr & the Poetics of Conversionby Angela Alaimo O'Donnell
ary Karr is not your average religious poet. In the midst of a moderately successful career as a poet and a wildly successfully career as a memoirist, Karr was asked by the editor of Poetry magazine to write an essay about her mid-life conversion to Catholicism after what she describes as "a lifetime of undiluted agnosticism." Karr agreed, though reluctantly:
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. ("Facing Altars : Poetry & Prayer," 69)
The resulting essay, "Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer," the opening lines of which appear above, was published in the November 2005 issue of the magazine, demonstrating Karr's own sense of herself as atypical. Though originally springing from the same source—the human need to imagine the ineffable and express the unknowable through language and metaphor—poetry and religion have been unlikely bedfellows for most of the previous century and all of the current one. Poets, philosophers, and literary critics spent much of the 20th century dismantling religious orthodoxies, so much so it was understood that anyone who subscribed to such outmoded structures of belief was unsophisticated, at best, and unintelligent, at worst. In the midst of this cultural and intellectual milieu, Karr was baptized in 1996 into the Catholic Church, a choice that prompted a friend to send her a postcard that read, "'Not you on the Pope's team. Say it ain't so!'" ("Facing Altars," 69). In the eras of Dante, John Donne, John Milton, and, to some extent, Gerard Manley Hopkins, the religious poet was practically an inevitability; in the present era, she seems a walking contradiction.
In some ways, Karr's very public conversion is a manifestation of her own instinctive sense of the ancient affinity between poetry and religion: "Poets were my first priests, and poetry itself my first altar" ("Facing Altars," 70). Nonetheless, Mary Karr is well aware of the tensions inherent in being out of step with one's time, and it is precisely these tensions that lend her work its energy, its authority, and its authenticity. The winner of multiple prestigious awards for her writing, including Guggenheim and NEA fellowships and several Pushcart prizes, Karr has achieved something rare: recognition of the value of her work by the literary establishment as well as by readers (many of whom are not poetry lovers) in search of a voice that can articulate the challenges of enacting belief in a culture of unbelief.
Born in 1955 in Groves, Texas, a gulf town dominated by oil refineries and chemical plants, Mary Karr was the daughter of an oil worker and an amateur artist. Her unlovely childhood is portrayed in appalling, yet compelling, detail in her best-selling memoir, The Liar's Club (1995). This, the first of her trilogy of memoirs, focuses on the events that took place between 1961 and 1963. She and her sister, Lecia, were raised by ill-matched, difficult parents, their childhood shaped by alcoholism, mental illness, substance abuse, and neglect. They were also shaped, however, by a passion for art and a reverence for colorful language. The title of her memoir is drawn from this period of her life: her father, "a black-belt barroom storyteller," would gather with a group of men in the back room of the local bar to swap tall tales—a group aptly nicknamed by some of the local women as "The Liar's Club" ("Facing Altars," 73). Young Mary absorbed her father's gift for story-telling, extravagant language, and the artful use of local idiom—all elements clearly visible and audible in her poetry and prose. From her mother, an avid reader of serious literature, Karr inherited a love of poetry. "In my godless household, poems were the closest we came to sacred speech… I remember Mother bringing me Eliot's poems from the library, and she not only swooned over them, she swooned over my swooning over them, which felt close as she came to swooning over me" ("Facing Altars," 71). From an early age, Karr learned that language was a means and method of arresting attention, engendering love, and reshaping a life consisting of human suffering and failures into powerful story and song. In the shadow of the refinery towers, against the backdrop of dysfunctional family drama (which included a psychotic episode wherein Karr's mother nearly killed her two daughters), she memorized Shakespeare and scribbled poems in her diary. She also wrote in those pages at age eleven her plans for her future career—"to write ½ poetry and ½ autobiography"—a description that has proven both prophetic and eerily accurate (Cherry, 25).
After graduating from high school, Karr left her hometown (for good, as it turned out), and traveled with friends to California where she became part of the drug-and-alcohol-laden surfer/hippie counterculture. Karr recounts these adolescent years in some detail in the sequel to her first memoir, Cherry (2000). Yet even as she rolls joints on the beach, trips on hallucinogens, and wakes up beside strange boys, Karr manages, miraculously, not to lose track of her literary calling. "Humming through me like a third rail was poetry," she writes, "the myth that if I could shuffle the right words into the right order, I could get my story straight …." (Lit, 48). Later that year, she enrolled in Macalester College in Minneapolis; there she would begin the serious work of writing.
Karr proved to be an erratic student. After a leave of absence on the heels of her sophomore year, wherein she returned to her native Texas (though not her hometown) to work for a few months, Karr came back to Minneapolis, tending bar at night and writing poetry during the day. During this period, Karr attended a poetry conference and made the acquaintance of a number of poets she admired, among them outspoken African-American poet Etheridge Knight:
He spoke of poetry as an oral art (this was pre-poetry-slam America). Without pages, he half-sang the folk tale of Shine, a porter on the Titanic strong enough to swim to safety … This language both rocked me back and echoed how Daddy talked. (Lit, 51-52)
Karr then joined a private poetry workshop Knight held at his house. The sessions were challenging and confrontational, well fueled by marijuana and alcohol, but the young poet honed her craft: "[T]he first poems of mine that ever saw print were sent out under Etheridge's aegis, in envelopes he paid postage on" (Lit, 53). In addition, her mentor helped her to land a job as poet-in-residence for the city of Minneapolis at the age of 22. Karr also lucked into her first teaching job, a poetry class in a group home for "fairly functional retarded women," an experience that confirmed her sense of the central role poetry would play in her life:
The way an uncertain believer might stumble onto proof of God, the women at the group home fully converted me to the Church of Poetry … Such a small, pure object a poem could be, made of nothing but air, a tiny string of letters, maybe small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. But it could blow everybody's head off. (Lit, 54, 59)
Encouraged by Knight, as well as by one of her Macalester professors who recognized her talent, Walter Mink, Karr finished her BA and entered a low-residency MFA program at Goddard College in Vermont, where she earned her MFA in 1979.
Karr recounts the years of her life from college through to the present in her third and final memoir to date, Lit (2009), the title of which suggests both her full engagement in a literary life and her struggle with alcoholism. Graduate school brought Karr into further contact with mentors who recognized and encouraged her talent, including Robert Bly, Robert Hass, and, perhaps most significantly, Tobias Wolff. Writer of extraordinary prose, including his celebrated memoir, This Boy's Life (1989), Wolff would serve as a model and a source of inspiration for Karr, both in literary terms and also in religious terms. Wolff was a Catholic, and would eventually serve as her sponsor at her baptism.
It was also in graduate school that Karr met Michael Milburn, a bright young poet from an aristocratic family who had studied with Robert Lowell at Harvard. They would marry in 1983 and produce a son, Dev (short for Devereux), but the marriage would end in divorce in 1991. Balancing a demanding work life (Karr and Milburn taught college writing courses), raising a child, and maintaining dual writing careers would prove difficult for the couple. They also endured the poverty of itinerant young professors, as Milburn's wealthy family did not believe in handouts. Karr began to take solace in drinking and soon found herself thoroughly in the grip of the alcoholism that had marred her childhood. After a number of household mishaps and an automobile accident, Karr became acutely aware of the dangers her drinking posed, for herself and, especially, her child. She joined Alcoholics Anonymous to get sober.
Even her successful kicking of her drinking habit could not cure her ailing marriage. In 1990, Karr accepted a teaching position at Syracuse University, and the family moved upstate. A few months later, she and Milburn would separate amicably, leaving Karr a single mother. During this period, Karr received a call from editor James Laughlin from New Directions inquiring whether she had a second collection of poems ready for publication. (Karr's first collection, Abacus, had been published in 1987 as part of the Wesleyan University Press New Poets Series). Once Karr sent off the manuscript of the book that would be published as The Devil's Tour (1993), she felt free to begin writing the memoir she had been planning—in part for artistic purposes, but mostly in order to produce a book that (unlike poetry collections) would earn much-needed income. The book that resulted, Liar's Club, would become a New York Times best-seller, would be named one of the best books of the year, and would be a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award as well as winner of prizes from PEN and the Texas Institute of Letters.
In 1995, with the publication of her first memoir—and for the first time in her adult life—Mary Karr enjoyed job security, financial stability, a reputation as a serious writer, and a clear sense of her path as an artist. In due time, she would be given an academic chair, becoming the Peck Professor of Literature at Syracuse University. She would go on to write two additional memoirs and publish two additional collections of poems, Viper Rum (2001) and Sinners Welcome (2006), all of which would be greeted with great acclaim. Though Karr would probably not have predicted this, she would also go on to become a lyricist, partnering with Grammy Award winning singer-songwriter, Rodney Crowell, on Kin (2012), an album of songs inspired by the hardscrabble East Texas childhoods they shared. More recently, Karr's last memoir, Lit, has been scheduled to become an HBO series. Over the years, Karr has garnered numerous honors and awards for her work; in addition to those already mentioned ( fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, Pushcart Prizes, and the PEN/Martha Albrand Award), she was awarded a Bunting Fellowship from Radcliffe College and a Whiting Writer's Award. All of this success coming before Karr's 60th year suggests the hopeful prospect that more work—and more accolades—are likely to follow.
As with her memoirs, Karr's poetry is highly autobiographical, so much so that it is nearly impossible to separate her life from her work. Her religious conversion is an integral part of her biography, but because of its consequences for her writing, it merits special attention. In her essays, her poems, and in Lit, she narrates the gradual nature of her conversion (a word that derives from the Latin "convertere" meaning "to turn," suggesting that the process is inherently gradual and accomplished by increments). Upon joining A.A., Karr found herself faced with the challenge of her life. Unable to stop drinking through sheer act of will, she was urged by friends to pray for help: "'But I don't believe in God,'" Karr objected. Nonetheless, in her desperation, Karr prayed for thirty days, and, to her amazement, she managed to stay sober:
Ergo, I prayed—not with the misty-eyed glee I'd seen on Song of Bernadette, nor with the butch conviction of Charlton Heston playing Moses in Ten Commandments. I prayed with belligerence, at least once with a middle finger aimed at the light fixture—my own small unloaded bazooka pointed at the Almighty. I said Keep me sober, in the morning. I said, Thanks, at night. ("Facing Altars," 79)
After Karr got her alcoholism under control, her prayer life continued to develop as she encountered crises of various kinds, particularly the dissolution of her marriage. A friend gave her a prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi (that famed poet-saint), an incantation that begins, "Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace," which she recited nightly with her five-year-old son. Karr credits the prayer—its patterned language powerful as any poem—with enabling her to strive to "become an instrument of love and pardon rather than wallowing in self-pity." About a year later, her son made what then seemed a strange request: "He wanted to go to church 'to see if God's there' … Thus we embarked on God-a-rama—a year spent visiting any temple, mosque, church or zendo a friend would haul us to" ("Facing Altars," 85). Karr engaged in this ritual reluctantly at first; despite her reliance on prayer, she had inherited a deep-seated cynicism about organized religion from her agnostic parents, a cynicism which was further shored up by her reading of existentialist philosophers, including Nietzsche and Sartre, at a young and impressionable age. In addition, she found the Catholic Church, in particular, repugnant to her feminist sensibility. It seemed the last church she would join, but gradually she relented:
[T]he church's carnality, which seemed crude at the outset—people lighting candles and talking to dolls—worked its voodoo on me. The very word incarnation derives from the Latin in carne: in meat. There is a body on the cross in my church … [T]hrough the simple physical motions I followed during the Mass, our bodies standing and sitting and kneeling in concert, I often felt my mind go quiet, and my surface difference from others began to be obliterated. …The exercises during Mass that may rankle a lapsed Catholic as "empty rituals" made me feel like part of a tribe, in a way, and the effect carried over in me even after church.
Karr's attraction to Catholicism betrays her deep-seated preoccupations as a poet with the body, with suffering (and the possibility of redemption), with the healing power of ritual, and with the sacramental quality of language. Engaging in prayer and the sacraments seemed to be another means of practicing her art: "Poetry had consoled me in the same way, with Eucharistic qualities … In memorizing the poems I loved, I 'ate' them, in a way. I breathed as the poet breathed to recite the words: Someone else's suffering and passion entered my body to change me, partly by joining me to others in a saving circle." ("Facing Altars," 86-87). In practicing this new religion, Karr found herself on familiar ground.
The Poetics of Conversion
Karr's conversion to Catholicism might be seen as the logical (if unexpected) consequence for a poet with her particular interests. Looking back at her first two collections, Abacus (1987) and The Devil's Tour (1993), containing poems written well before her baptism in 1996, one can see quiet but clear adumbrations of what would later become her characteristic preoccupation with the central story of Christianity: sin, suffering, and the search for redemption.
In the opening poem of The Devil's Tour, a book whose title suggests the Inferno-like terrain poet and reader will navigate on their Dantesque pilgrimage through these poems, Karr combines her autobiographical impulse with her concern for matters of the soul. Set in her hometown, "Coleman" tells the story of an African-American boy Karr loved who became a victim of that region's horrific racial violence—a story which she manages to tell with great poignancy, but not a whiff of sentimentality. All of its grief and outrage is implied, conveyed by the clear-eyed narrator through her exact evocations of the world they inhabited and the ways in which Karr and Coleman defied the place that sought to claim and chain them:
To while away the mosquito-humming night,
we crawled beneath the oil field fence,
and you straddled the pump as it bucked
a slow-motion rodeo. Fifteen and drunk
on apple wine, hiding in your Afro's shadow,
you wore the bruised imprint
of your father's palm with quiet chivalry.
I loved you inconsolably, though we never
touched: a boy from the docks, a cracker girl
preoccupied with books. We sealed ourselves
behind your van's curved windshield
like figures in a paperweight, played chess
by the dashboard's eerie light, dawn breaking
in chemical-pink sky, refinery towers looming
like giants from a fairy tale.
Once a swarm of boys we'd swapped insults with
since nursery school reared into view,
flung bricks and bottles we hotrodded
just beyond—my hair streaming
against the glass, your a capella song.
And in the book the vigilantes keep
in some back room of some bait shop,
they marked you from then on,
beat knots across your skull,
until your sawtooth smile said you knew
a spray of buckshot already loosed
was flying towards your eyes like stars in negative.
You made the papers as a hunting accident.
And your mom, answering the torn screen door
in the palest flowered dress, claimed God
had shaped you for an early grave.
When I finally caught a Greyhound north,
I wanted only to escape
the brutal limits of that town,
its square chained yards, pumps
that bowed so mindlessly to earth,
the raging pistons of that falling
dynasty. Coleman, you rode that ghost horse
hard and recklessly against the dark,
but could not break it. White pawn
to black knight. I travel always
towards your missing face.
Against the backdrop of the spoiled landscape, refinery towers and chemical-pink dawns, a world of brutal limits that draws a clear line of division between black people and white, the protagonists in the poem enjoy a doomed freedom. Karr expertly controls the pacing of the poem, allowing the narrative to unfold in its own good time. Through careful enjambment and strategically placed caesurae, the first five tercets of the poem move quickly, capturing the energy and jeu d'esprit of their illicit friendship. Together in their little self-made world, (seemingly) safe from the giants who ruled the realm of day, they have carved out a space for themselves that seems timeless, private, and inviolable. The image of the black boy and white girl playing chess inside a glass paper weight is deeply resonant, setting up the powerful conclusion of the poem of "white pawn" Karr in eternal search for her absent "black knight."
In stanzas six through nine, the real world breaks in, shattering their fragile shelter; at first, in the relatively innocuous form of the boys who throw rocks and bottles, material versions of the insults they used to hurl in nursery school. Still defiant, the protagonists escape, hair flying in the wind, singing, the tercets still moving lightly as the characters they describe. Innocent of the vigilantes who will be soon be gunning for Coleman and the violence which will overtake them before they can escape, their joy is poignant. The momentum of the poem is suddenly stopped dead with the only unenjambed, fully end-stopped line in the poem: "You made the papers as a hunting accident." The line, ringing like a death-knell, brings the narrative to a standstill. Then, gradually, the pace picks up again with the subsequent lines, beginning with "and," recounting the subsequent developments in the story that add insult to injury. Coleman's own mother doesn't defend her son: instead of righteous anger, she responds with a fatalistic capitulation to The Way of the World, acquiescing to its murderous racism, going so far as to suggest her son's death was the will of God. This is a god—and a world—Karr wants no part of, signified by her escape from her hellhole life via Greyhound bus in the subsequent line.
Yet God is implicit—one might say incarnate—in the poem, in the figure of Coleman. Coleman is a sacrificial victim, the bruise he bore "with quiet chivalry" and the "knots across [his] skull" reminiscent of Christ's beating and crown of thorns, his identification from the very first line of the poem with a knight on horseback suggesting Coleman's role in her life as savior and chevalier. The image of Coleman with the "sawtooth smile," whose eyes will be put out by the "negative stars" of buckshot, and whose face will, by the end of the poem, be "missing," in every grim sense of that word, is the image of ecce homo, The Man of Sorrows. With seemingly prophetic foresight, Karr, the future Christian convert, confesses, "I travel always / towards your missing face."
The focus of The Devil's Tour is Evil and the multiple forms it takes. "Don Giovanni's Confessor" must listen to the famous seducer's loathsome catalogue of paltry behavior, bored and horrified at the relentlessness of our human appetite and our capacity for cruelty. The young girl in "Rounds" waits in the hospital, on suicide watch, reliving in her memory the sexual abuse she endured at her father's hands. In "Memoirs of a Child Evangelist," an itinerant preacher takes advantage of one his young converts to the Lord, forcing himself "into her quietest place." Karr's poems nearly always shed light on deep darkness and often give voice to the despised and neglected, the poems themselves offered as small but powerful engines of redemption. Implicit in Karr's moral imagination is the instinctive belief that every human being matters, no matter how depraved or seemingly insignificant.
Stylistically, Karr's poetry is remarkable for its vividness, clarity, and accessibility. Her poems are grounded in real life (mostly hers), and as such, possess a concreteness that places the reader squarely within the world they evoke. Karr's language is both learned and local, reflecting her broad reading in literature and philosophy and the slangy/tangy idiom of her East Texas childhood. As a result, she has created a voice that is unmistakably her own. The poetic principles behind that voice are most evident in Karr's celebrated essay, "Against Decoration." Originally published in Parnassus in 1991, Karr reprinted the essay in her third collection of poems, Viper Rum (2001), as an afterword. Like "Facing Altars" in Sinners Welcome, "Against Decoration" serves as a poetic manifesto, only in this case the essay establishes the aesthetic, rather than the theological, grounding of her work. Karr's method of procedure is typically confrontational. She wrote the essay in attempt to return poetry to its primary purpose—"to stir emotion," and to do so in a direct and visceral way without the distractions of dense idiom or syntax, self-conscious allusion, or linguistic tricks. She goes about this by castigating what she perceives to be an overvaluing in contemporary poetry of ornamentation. Karr names names, listing the worst offenders (to her mind); these include Amy Clampitt, James Merrill, John Ashbery, and any number of poets participating in the neo-formalist movement:
Sadly, the only thing that is news about neo-formalism is bad news. Rarely before has form been championed as a virtue in and of itself, and poems judged formally good that lack any relevance to human experience. Many of the poems … seem like the husks of poems, forms with the life bled out, the assumption being that impeccably rhymed and metered verse will be good regardless of poetic content, or lack thereof. This new passion for prettiness opposes, I think, the huge body of formal work that values form only as a relative quality. ("Against Decoration,"67)
In contrast to the excesses of neo-formalism, the "over-baroque" surface poetry "that's heavily allusive and unconcerned with communication," "the glib meaninglessness" of post-Deconstruction poetics, Karr champions (drawing on Aristotle) the employment of "everyday words," the judicious use of metaphor as "seasoning of the meat" rather than mistaking it for the meat itself, and (drawing on Coleridge) the balancing of formal concerns (meter, rhyme, and sound) with concerns for content ("Against Decoration," 51, 61). These virtues are clearly manifest in her poems, both early and late. Karr's passion for these aesthetic principles is on par with the passion she demonstrates in connection with her theological principles, suggesting that she pursues both with a kind of religious devotion.
In Karr's most recent collection, Sinners Welcome (2006), the theological undertones that were implicit in her earlier work become more explicit. Even as her conversion reified Karr's long-standing preoccupation with sin, forgiveness and redemption, it also signaled a new direction in her work. The title, consisting of a phrase she borrowed from the banner hung outside of her parish church in Syracuse, indicates a new openness to specifically religious language and to direct engagement of theological concepts and images. In the spirit of "H.C.E.," an acronym often construed to mean "Here Comes Everybody," the unofficial slogan of the Catholic church, Karr invites everyone into the parade of human personalities that march across the pages of her book. The catalogue includes rapists, murderers, serial killers, suicides, porn queens, addicts and psychotics. In the economy of salvation Karr professes, every life is sacred, no matter how profane.
True to form, these poems are also autobiographical, rooted in the real life of the poet, and are largely narrative in impulse. One of the poems, "Delinquent Missive," tells the tragic story of David Ricardo, a boy Karr once tutored, who "stabbed his daddy / sixteen times with a fork—Once / for every year of my fuckwad life." The poem describes in telling detail his lonely and impoverished childhood, the neglect he endured, not only by his family and schoolmates, but also by Karr herself. In a poignant series of lines that read like a confession, she thanks him for ignoring "when I saw you wave at lunch—/my flinch." There is no doubting that David's actions are evil, but he isn't the only sinner in the poem. Everyone has played some small role in allowing him to become the sociopath he is and do the dreadful deed he does, and all are in need of mercy. In the closing lines of the poem, the narrator ponders David's fate:
… Maybe by now you're ectoplasm,
Or the zillionth winner of the Texas
death penalty sweepstakes. Or you occupy
a locked room with a small
round window held fast by rivets, through which
you are watched. But I hope
some organism drew your care—orchid
or cockroach even, some inmate
in a wheelchair whose steak you had to cut
since he lacked hands.
In this way, the unbudgeable stone
that plugged the tomb hole
in your chest could roll back, and in your sad
slit eyes could blaze
that star adored by its maker.
Here we see Karr's characteristic control, the blend of dark humor and pathos that keeps the speaker from indulging in sentimentality, the unswerving look at the brutal facts of Ricardo's existence. But the speaker also articulates her "hope," one of the three Christian virtues (along with faith and love). There is no sin that cannot be forgiven, no action so horrific it cannot be redeemed. That redemption she hopes for is described in explicitly biblical images, the "stone" rolled back from the "tomb hole" an allusion to Christ's resurrection, the forerunner of the resurrection she imagines for Ricardo. She even goes so far as to imagine the "star" that might blaze in "those mudhole eyes" she used to stare into while tutoring him. What the boy-turned-patricide lacked in life was love, a love his fellow human beings were too weak or too greedy to give him, but that his "maker" is not.
Confrontational as she is, Karr is unafraid to wear her religion on her sleeve, even at the risk of challenging and alienating readers who may not share her faith. By the same token—and true to her calling as a poet—Karr is unafraid to write religious poetry that challenges and interrogates the conventions of her adopted religion. Her "Descending Theology" poems, a series of five poems spread throughout the volume that are about Christ—specifically addressing the Nativity, the Incarnation, the Agony in the Garden, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection—portray Jesus and his mother as ordinary, deeply human figures who find themselves in painful circumstances. Rooted in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, a vigorous program of prayer and meditation Karr underwent after her conversion which require the exercitant to imaginatively participate in key moments in the life of Christ, Karr's richly imagined scenarios and fresh, evocative language enable her readers to see these familiar scenes as they have never been seen before. She manages to create poems that are strange amalgams of the outrageous and the reverent, the humorous and the tragic, the mundane and the transcendent. (Such seeming contradictions are reminiscent of another gifted Southern Catholic writer, Flannery O'Connor, whose stories bear these same qualities.) Nowhere are these qualities more evident than in Karr's reimagining of the central event of Christianity, the crucifixion.
Descending Theology: The Crucifixion
To be crucified is first to lie down
on a shaved tree, and then to have oafs stretch you out
on a crossbar as if for flight; then thick spikes
fix you into place.
Once the cross props up and the pole stob
sinks vertically in an earth hole, perhaps
at an awkward list, what then can you blame for hurt
but your own self's burden?
You're not the figurehead on a ship. You're not
flying anywhere, and no one's coming to hug you.
You hang like that, a sack of flesh with the hard
trinity of nails holding you into place.
Thus hung, your rib cage struggles up
to breathe until you suffocate. If God
permits this, one wonders if some less
than loving watcher
watches us. The man on the cross
under massed thunderheads feels
his soul leak away, then surge. Some wind
sucks him into the light stream
in the rent sky, and he's snatched back, held close.
Karr effectively defamiliarizes what is perhaps the most familiar scene in Western art and Christian mythos in a number of ways. First, she structures the poem as a basic primer in the nasty business of crucifixion, complete with step-by-step instructions. The reader is further distanced from the horror of what is taking place by the casual language the speaker uses to describe the scene. The torturers are not torturers but "oafs," the foot of the cross is a "pole stob," and the cross does not stand straight and true but leans "at an awkward list." The event is not well-executed, but, instead, is a botched job. In addition, the figure on the cross is not a dramatic one, noble in its suffering. Instead, the crucified is just "a sack of flesh," made to seem ridiculous by the descriptions of what he is not—"a figurehead on a ship," arms outstretched as if to fly away or to receive a hug.
Yet even as the reader is detached from the experience, she is simultaneously brought into the center of it though Karr's ingenious use of the pronoun "you." The victim in the poem is not Christ, it is us—all of humanity, doomed as we are to suffer, one by one, and die our lonely, outrageous deaths. What might seem at first to be merely a tactic to enable the reader to see the scene anew on closer inspection emerges as a brilliant means of making a familiar theological point: in submitting to the incarnation, to life on earth as a human being and death on the cross, Christ took on all deaths, all sufferings—only she makes the point in reverse, putting the reader in Christ's place.
All of Karr's "Descending Theology" poems, as the title would suggest, achieve the effect of retelling the story of Christianity in explicitly human terms, through close and careful evocation of the flesh-and-blood embodiment Christ shares with human beings. In "Descending Theology: The Nativity," Mary is a woman who "bore no more than other women bore." She lies in labor in a stable where "she writhed and heard / beasts stomp in their stalls, / their tails sweeping side to side." Her baby emerges from her body "a sticky grub, flailing / the load of his own limbs." In "Descending Theology: Christ Human," the God of the universe wears a disguise, absurd in its sweetness and weakness, "an infant's head on a limp stalk, / sticky eyes smeared blind, / limbs rendered useless in a swaddle." In "Descending Theology: The Garden," Christ weeps, begging for reprieve from his death sentence, "grieving on his rock under olive trees, / his companions asleep / on the hard ground around him / wrapped in old hides." And in "Descending Theology: The Resurrection," Christ's "hung flesh" is empty: "Lonely in that void / even for pain, he missed his splintered feet" having come to love the human form he inhabited, aching "for two hands made of meat / he could reach to the end of." Karr further humanizes the figure of Christ by integrating these poems amidst the autobiographical ones based on the lives of the ordinary, flawed humans (herself included) whose stories need to be told. All is of a piece, Karr implies—the human bound up with the divine, the sinner bound up with the saint, the sacred bound up with the secular, the transcendent bound up with the mundane. Through the miraculous power of language, the poet is able to bring these seeming contraries into right relationship with one another and create a vision that is equally grounded in hard realities and deep mysteries.
Karr's essay, "Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer," appears as an Afterword in Sinners Welcome, enabling the reader to locate these poems in the context of her conversion. In some ways, the essay serves the same purpose that her memoirs do, allowing the reader to see her poems as arresting, luminous moments, still frames or isolated outtakes from the moving footage of her life. Through this artful combination of poetry and prose—" ½ poetry and ½ autobiography"—Karr has created her own mythos, a narrative of her earthly sojourn that follows the archetypal pattern of sin, suffering, and redemption. Her extraordinary talent has earned her a vast readership, consisting mainly of similarly suffering souls glad and grateful to accompany her along the journey. "Poetry and prayer alike offer such instantaneous connection—one person groping from a dark place to meet with another in an instant that strikes fire" ("Facing Altars," 92). It is this communion with other human beings that Karr aims for as a writer, and, fortunately for her readers, achieves.
Mary Karr, "Against Decoration," in Viper Rum (New York: Penguin, 2001), pp. 49-72.
-------, Cherry (New York: Penguin, 2000).
-------, "Coleman," in The Devil's Tour (New York: New Directions, 1986), pp. 1-2.
-------, "Don Giovanni's Confessor," in The Devil's Tour (New York: New Directions, 1986), p 3.
-------, "Delinquent Missive," in Sinners Welcome (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), p. 11.
-------, "Descending Theology: Christ Human," in Sinners Welcome (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), p. 31.
-------, "Descending Theology: The Crucifixion," in Sinners Welcome (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), p. 52.
-------, "Descending Theology: The Garden," in Sinners Welcome (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), p 38
-------, "Descending Theology: The Nativity," in Sinners Welcome (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), pp. 9-10.
-------, "Descending Theology: The Resurrection," in Sinners Welcome (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), p. 61.
-------, "Facing Altars: Poetry & Prayer," in Sinners Welcome (New York: HarperCollins, 2006),
-------, The Liars' Club (New York: Penguin, 1995).
-------, Lit (HarperCollins, 2009).
-------, "Memoirs of a Child Evangelist," in The Devil's Tour (New York: New Directions, 1986), pp. 24-25.
-------, "Rounds," in The Devil's Tour (New York: New Directions, 1986), pp. 10-11.