Sinners Welcome

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From Mary Karr, the prize-winning and New York Times bestselling author of The Liars' Club and Cherry, comes the paperback edition of Sinners Welcome, her fourth and most recent collection of poetry. Published to coincide with the hardcover release of her newest memoir, Lit, Sinners Welcome traces her improbable journey from a tormented childhood into a resolutely irreverent Catholicism.

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Gissinglover

Sep 8, 2017

A Poet's Conversion

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 Crucifixion, 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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