This article was first published at The Master’s Artist.
Mary Karr is one those rare individuals in poetry – a success. She’s won a Guggenheim Fellowship; Pushcart prizes; and a number of prominent awards and recognitions. She’s written two bestselling memoirs (The Liar’s Club and Cherry), and her poetry is often featured in The New Yorker. She’s currently a professor of English Literature at Syracuse University.
Karr is also a Roman Catholic, a practicing Roman Catholic, and she came to faith late, she says, after spending the first 40 years as an agnostic. And she explores and discusses her faith in her poetry and her essays.
In its essential grittiness, her poetry and non-fiction work can be compared to the writing of Anne Lamott. But it is distinctive, with its own voice, and that distinctiveness, marked by a keen self-awareness, approachability and often outright humor, can be seen in her 2006 collection Sinners Welcome: Poems. Consider this account of the birth and life of Christ in “Descending Theology: Christ Human:”
and you arrived in animal form so as not
to scorch us with your glory.
Your mask was an infant’s head on a limp stalk,
sticky eyes smeared blind,
limbs rendered useless in swaddle.
You came among beasts
as one, came into our care or its lack, came crying
as we all do, because the human frame
is a crucifix, each skeleton borne a lifetime.
Any wanting soul lain
prostrate on a floor to receive a pouring of sunlight
might – if still enough,
feel your cross buried in the flesh.
One has only to surrender,
you preached, open both arms to the inner,
the ever-present hold,
out-reaching every want. It’s in the form
embedded, love adamant as bone.
In a breath, we can bloom and almost be you.
In an essay for Poetry (included in Sinners Welcome), Karr described how poetry, from a very early age, may have anticipated her eventual found faith.”Poets were my first priests,” she writes, “and poetry itself my first altar. It was a lot of other firsts, too, of course: first classroom/chatroom/confessional. But it was most crucially the first source of awe for me, partly because of how it could ease my sense of isolation: it was a line thrown from seemingly glorious Others to my drear-minded self.”
She goes on – the essay is fascinating – but it’s worthwhile to pause and ask what it is about poetry that could inspire such a response in a young girl growing up in a Texas oil town where “bookishness” was not exactly an advantage. Poetry indeed suggests something higher – it moves out of the plane of narrative and story into a plane of speech and memory.
Try this experiment: read Karr’s poem above again, and then read it aloud. Something happens in the speaking: we fall into a voice and cadence that is not part of everyday conversation, and yet we recognize it. It is familiar. We know this voice, this sound, even if it we’re not quite sure of its origin.
It could be a faint echo, a very faint echo, of the voice that spoke creation into being: “Let there be,” and there was. Order was brought out of chaos, and it became recognizable, something that the best poets, and even very good poets, do routinely.
It’s no wonder that Karr refers to poets as her first priests.
Photograph by Vera Kratochvil via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.