Top positive review
55 people found this helpful
on April 22, 2006
Not since I was introduced to Wislawa Szymborska's writing have I found a collection of poetry that I not only wanted to read over and over and over again, but to memorize every word so that I could recite the poems to myself whenever I wished. Mary Karr's newest collection, SINNERS WELCOME, is a beautiful meditation on revelation in a world gone mad with abundance and self-interest. Karr seeks and finds the divine in the grittiest of objects and places - factory restrooms, a coat hangar, ashes sent to her in a plastic bag labeled "Mother, 1/2". Karr's poetry is a reminder that the sacred is everywhere, only hidden from view until we draw it out with our longing.
Concurrent shame and redemption is a recurring theme in this collection. The poet often writes of reaching out to the sacred just as she shrinks back from it, as in "Disgraceland":
"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."
Or, in one of my favorites - "For a Dying Tomcat Who's Relinquished His Fomer Hissing and Predatory Nature", in which the poet cradles her dying cat and finds an analogy between herself and the cat, and God and herself:
"It hurts to eat. So you surrender in the way
I pray for: Lord, before my own death,
let me learn from this animal's deep release
into my arms. Let me cease to fear
the embrace that seeks to still me."
The waxing and waning of human relationships is another theme: the collection includes two beautiful requiems for deceased friends:"Metaphysique du mal", and "Elegy for a Rain Salesman", as well as a few poems on the theme of her son's birth, childhood, and departure for college. Whether she is talking of delinquents or dying cats, serial-killing football players or her alcoholic mother, Karr writes with a rare grace that will astonish the reader with its truth and beauty.
Her final essay "Facing Altars" is a beautiful explanation of and companion to her poetry. The essay is ostensibly about how she became a believer after being a confirmed agnostic for forty years by approaching prayer through poetry, and finding similarities between them: "With both prayer and poetry, we use elegance to exalt, but we also beg and grieve and tremble." She also outlines the next step in her literary project: to bring more joy to the poetry that she writes, and prove the maxim "Happiness writes white" wrong.
This collection suffers by two points. The first, I lay solely on the publisher: the jacket blurb, which opens "Mary Karr describes herself as a black-belt sinner . . ." and continues with "Not since St. Augustine wrote 'Give me chastity Lord - but not yet!' has anyone brought such smart assed hilarity to a conversion story." The "Catholic Girls Gone Wild" label that this blurb gives the book is misleading. First of all, if Karr is indeed a "black belt sinner", no evidence towards this label is presented in this collection. No sins she discusses reach anywhere past blue belt, unless you're the Jerry Fallwell type. Second of all, while some of the poems are funny, the collection is far too good to be demeaned by the label "smart-ass", which is something you would call a funny kid who talked back or a bawdy comedian. Janeane Garofalo is smart-ass. Mary Karr is not. It really irks me how much the publishing industry has sexed up their jacket blurbs to make things seem "hip" and "edgy". They usually end up just misleading and degrading the work they describe. They should stop.
The second point by which this collection suffers isn't in the poems themselves, either, but in the final essay, "Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer". The essay does a good job of explaining how an 'undiluted agnostic' could convert to Catholicism. It is personal and empathetic, and I really enjoyed it. My only problem with it is in the opening paragraph: "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.'
While publishing an essay on Karr's conversion through poetry in the same journal that T.S. Eliot published "Prufrock", the same poem that brought Karr to poetry, is fitting, or ironic, or something, it is not kinky in any definition of of the word kinky, and the "dildo-wielding dominatrix" line is so out of place in the context of her poetry and the rest of the essay, that it really threw me off of Karr's message in her final essay. If I didn't know that the essay had been published in _Poetry_ magazine before being published here, I would have thought that that opening paragraph was thrown in to justify the "smart-ass" description on the jacket blurb, and anyway had the effect of again, trying to sex up something that could have stood on its own merits.
This is a fantastic collection of poetry, and is highly recommended.