Customer Reviews: Sinners Welcome: Poems
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VINE VOICEon 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.
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on May 2, 2006
I picked up this book at a bookstore, because I remembered a couple of her poems I saw in the New Yorker, one was "The Choice" and the other was "Blessing from My Sixteen Year Son". Both I knew were wonderful poems, so I bought it. I've probably read this amazing book from cover to cover about 3-4 times already, and I've worked my way backwards, picking up all her earlier work. I've always been a huge Larkin fan and it's good to see the voice of angst again, but this time, unlike Larkin, there is hope for Karr, whereas Larkin dwelled in a world of desolation having never loved someone. This book is highly recommended, one of the few gems in contemporary poetry.
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Mary Karr is an amazing poet, an amazing thinker who is able to distill her responses to the world as she finds it and opens a few windows into the world as she wants or thinks it should be. We need Mary Karr and others who write words like these wonderful poems. She reminds us that there is a sense of meaning if we seek it. And while it is a well known fact that Karr's journey from agnosticism to Catholicism is a head-scratcher at best, the poems in this her fourth anthology, are among her finest.

A good example is her poem 'Orders from the Invisible':

'Insert coin. Mind the gap. Do not disturb

hung from the doorknob of a hotel room,

where a man begged to die entwined in my arms.

He once wrote

he'd take the third rail in his teeth, which is how

loving him turned out.

The airport's glass world

glided me gone from him, and the sky I flew into

grew a pearly cataract through which God

lost sight of us. The moving wall

is nearing its end.'

Read it, and then with all of Karr's poems, pause, think, and read it again. This is a major poet with a unique voice that has much to tell us - if we are open to listening. Highly Recommended. Grady Harp, May 06
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In this short volume of confessional poetry, Mary Karr describes her difficult conversion from irreverence and agnosticism to Catholicism. Karr is Professor of English at Syracuse University, the author of several earlier books of poetry and memoirs, and the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship. The volume also includes an Afterword consisting of an essay Karr wrote for "Poetry" magazine: "Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer" in which she describes in prose her religious conversion and the relationship she sees between poetry and religion. The essay rambles, and I found some of its colloquial, rough-talking character forced. It works far less well than the poems in this collection, which are generally moving and restrained.

Karr converted in mid-life. Prior to her conversion, her life was marked by a difficult childhood in a small Texas town, an ambiguous and violent relationship with her mother, unhappy sexual relationships, a failed marriage, and heavy drinking. In short poems, she writes about her early life experiences from the standpoint of her newfound life -- following her conversion. The poems are tart and sharp but they include an undercurrent of reflection and compassion.

Karr also writes poems describing her life following her conversion. Karr is emphatic that prayer and religious experience have not taken her from the realm of earthly sorrow. Karr describes her life as a single mother, her hopes for her son, and her loneliness when he leaves for college. She describes her continued and frequently unhappy experiences with lovers, and her ongoing difficulties with alcohol. Karr struggles with her religious faith as she struggles with events in her life. But she receives, undeniably, comfort in the church and in her personal experience of prayer.

Karr's autobiographical sequence of poems in this collection is punctuated by a series of five separate poems called "Descending Theology" which reflect upon the Nativity, the Life of Jesus,, the Betrayal, the Crucifiction, and the Resurrection. These poems are meditative in character and based, Karr tells us, on her eight-month study of Jesuit prayer. These five poems reflect upon and illuminate the way in which Karr responds to her experiences in the personal, confessional poems.

Many of the poems in this collection are harsh and tough-minded. Karr describes well her friends, family, and acquaintances as well as her own life. I tended to like best the poems with a more reflective tone. One of my favorites was "Elegy for a Rain Salesman" in which Karr puts the following words into the mouth of a recently-deceased friend:

"... I wanted to be a rain salesman,
carrying my satchel full of rain from door to door,
selling, thunder, selling the way air feels after a downpour,
but there are no openings in the rain department,
and so they left me dying behind this desk -- adding bleeps,
subtracting chunks -- and I would give a bowl of wild blossoms,
some rain, and two shakes of my fist at the sky to be living ..."

As I am, Karr is an admirer of the concert pianist, Awadagin Pratt. Her poem "A Major" celebrates her experience in hearing Pratt perform in a way that I understand first-hand. The poem begins: "I've come to see a dread-locked man/play Mozart like a demon(someone said) with angels/harrowing his back, or like a seraph/ sought by succubi." Karr concludes her experience with Pratt's performance:

"He's sprung our sternums wide
and freed us from our numbered seats.
We levitate as one and try to match
the thunder in his chest
with all our hands."

Some of the other poems I especially liked include "Hypertrophied Football Star as Serial Killer" the mystical and almost erotic title poem, "Sinners Welcome", "Winters Term End" which describes Karr's responses to the literary enthusiasms of a young student, and the religiously symbolic "For a Dying Tomcat Who's Relinquished his Former Hissing and Predatory Nature."

I had the good fortune to read this book at the same time that I was working through William James's "The Varieties of Religious Experience." James's book includes a lengthy discussion of religious conversion and awakening which distinguishes between a gradual conversion process and an instantaneous conversion experience. Karr's conversion fits the former pattern as James explained it. I found Karr's poetry and James's philosophy mutually illuminating. Readers interested in the extensive religious poetry written in the United States may also wish to explore the recent Library of America volume, "American Religious Poems: An Anthology" edited by Harold Bloom.

Robin Friedman
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on February 16, 2007
An absolutely wonderful book. I was moved to tears by many of the poems. If I could only own one book of poetry (thankfully that's never the case) this would be it. My knowledge of Mary Karr began with her memoirs (The Liar's Club and Cherry) , but one does not have to be familiar with her memoirs to appreciate Sinners Welcome.
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on July 1, 2013
This is poetry deep and turthful; no fancy words or complicated structure; just poetry carved down to its essense - each word is 'organic' to the whole - no other words would work and no extraneous flourishes necessary. She has lived her poems and it shows. While each person's life experiences are unique, our thoughts - at base - can be captured in the best poetry.
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on November 9, 2006
mary karr writes directly and poignantly about her life "of sin." Her return to a life of faith is described tenderly and clearly in the book.

I would describe it as a counter cultural behavior in our secular society
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on April 26, 2013
Mary Carr......what to say about this writer poetess so much to say but the below will have to suffice:
I love her writings...all of them from her earliest these poems...
He writings are raw,beautiful,personal and deep.
Love her poetry.
Love her writings....
Love Mary Carr!
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on March 30, 2015
My first encounter with Mary Karr was probably not a good I will try to read something else of hers before forming an opinion. I read the book based on a one-liner that had caught my mind and heart: "You are loved, someone said...Take that/and eat it." I found much of the book to not be of that quality or substance.
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on June 30, 2013
I really love Mary Kay's writing .I love the poems that are biographical, autobiographical and ones that I just plain relate to . I love her imagery and sassy metaphors that turn my head in the most unconventional way. She is top shelf and would love to hear her read her work someday somewhere!
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