ary Karr set out in elementary school to be a great poet, but became a literary phenomenon primarily due to her first two best-selling memoirs, The Liars’ Club (1995) and Cherry (2000). Both books memorably described Karr’s youth in a poor and unstable Texas family as she careened toward literary success while fighting lifelong battles with depression and alcoholism. Her third best-selling memoir, Lit (2009), covered much of the same territory, although with the added unexpected dimension of her idiosyncratic embrace of the Catholic Church as key to her recovery.
The success of Karr’s memoirs has somewhat overshadowed her poetry, even though she has published regularly in top journals and won major honors for her work. Her first book of poetry, Abacus (1987), received little critical attention, but it should have established her as an heir to the great confessional poets of the past mid-century: John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton. Abacus and subsequent books avoided the intellectualism that diminished the Lowell’s and Berryman’s confessional poems in favor of the raw directness of Plath and Sexton. Karr is now closer in most respects to Sexton in that they share the same guerilla wit and aversion to Plath’s fondness for long metaphorical excursions.
Karr’s second book of poetry, Viper Rum (1994), thoughtfully made life easier for literary critics by including her essay “Against Decoration,” which outlined her ars poetica. Consistent with the values expressed in her own work, she argued for clarity and emotion in poetry, which led to a harsh critique of mainstream postmodern poetry: “Harold Bloom begat John Ashbery and the poetics of coy adorableness.”
She also blasted New Formalism’s “ornamentation,” particularly in the work of Anthony Hecht and James Merrill. As someone who once infuriated Hecht by not backing down after declaring that Merrill’s “The Blue Grotto” was “emotionally arid,” I have no standing to argue with her. Indeed, “Against Decoration” made me wish Karr would express herself about other poets more often than she has done; contemporary criticism would be livelier if she would join its ranks.
Karr continued to mine her Texas upbringing for another decade, and probably could have continued mining it for the rest of her life without exhausting it as a source of literary inspiration. However, as with her confessional predecessors, her explorations of her bleak, nihilistic worldview were only accelerating her own self-destructive behavior. Severe alcoholism and a suicidal gesture eventually led to treatment at the legendary McLean Hospital, where Plath, Sexton, Lowell, and many other literary luminaries spent time as psychiatric in-patients in earlier decades.
Fortunately for Karr, treatment at McLean and elsewhere introduced her to impressive people in recovery who insisted that religion had been essential to their progress toward sobriety. Despite enormous resistance to this idea, she set aside her agnosticism, tried prayer, and started attending church services. Eventually she embraced Catholicism, albeit as a self-described “cafeteria Catholic” who refused to jettison many of her political and doctrinal views that are at odds with orthodox Catholicism.
Karr’s conversion and recovery reshaped her poetic vision as well as her life. Tropic of Squalor is less inwardly focused and more ambitious than her earlier poetry. The most obvious example is her new elegiac bent. Having set aside the long war with her charismatic but troubled mother in “Illegitimate Progenitor,” Karr tries to relieve her own guilt as she memorializes her longsuffering father, an oil worker in the Gulf of Mexico who was Karr’s mother’s fifth and seventh husband:
Come home, I’m lonely, he wrote in undulating script.
I’d left to scale some library’s marble steps like Everest
till I was dead to the wordlessness
he was mired in, which made drink permanent.
In “Genesis: Animal Planet,” another poem about her father, she skillfully combines the gritty and the metaphorical with the phrase “a distance he drowned in.” Karr ends the book with a heartbreaking tribute to the dying Father Joseph Kane, the person perhaps most responsible for her conversion.
Karr extends her gift for one-liners (note “Unreadable/as Pound on usury or Aquinas on sex” in “Read These”) to a full-length satirical poem in “Discomfort for the Unwhole.” In this poem she takes a hard shot at both the excesses of gourmet grocery stores (not specifically mentioning Whole Foods Market) and the self-obsessed people who wander the aisles looking down at their phones rather than marveling at the lush and exotic offerings:
Behind us stretch rows of iced Gulf shrimp, New
Zealand lamb, the Russian sturgeon’s glistening
Black eggs, dewy orchids misty from Brazil—
So much from so many for so few and at such
Spectacular cost, and yet we cannot lift our heads
From our hands to look around.
There are many poems that seem haunted by suicides, most notably the charismatic poet Deborah Digges and Karr’s abusive former lover, the novelist David Foster Wallace, to whom she dedicates “Read These.” There is a love poem, “Exurbia,” that displays a tenderness about a man in her life that is absent in her earlier poetry or her description of her first marriage in Lit. The book also includes an uneven group of poems called “The Less Holy Bible” in which she riffs on Biblical passages, including a brief, stirring poem in which she confronts a neighbor in her apartment building who is raping young homeless boys.
The poem “Suicide’s Note: An Annual” shows Karr stretching with respect to form as well as themes. In this poem, her dalliance with the techniques of our generic postmodern poetry dilutes the usual intensity of her lines:
I hope you’ve been taken up by Jesus
though so many decades have passed, so far apart we’d grown
between love transmogrifying into hate and those sad letters
and phone calls and your face vanishing into a noose
that I couldn’t
today name the gods
you at the end worshiped, if any, praise being
impossible for the devoutly miserable.
Karr’s verse more typically falls just short of metrical, although occasionally she slips into nearly regular blank verse, as in this section of “The Burning Girl”:
While the tennis ball went back and forth in time
A girl was burning. While the tonic took its greeny
Acid lime, a girl was burning. While the ruby sun fell
From a cloud’s bent claws and Wimbledon was won
And lost, we sprawled along the shore in chairs,
We breathed the azure air alongside
A girl with the thinnest arms all scarred and scored
With marks she’d made herself—
She sat with us in flames
That not all saw or saw but couldn’t say at risk
Of seeming impolite.
More typically, Karr relies on a loose five-beat line, as in “The Organ Donor’s License Has a Blank Check,” or a loose four-beat line, as in “The Devil’s Delusion”—rhythms that usually work extremely well for her.
Tropic of Squalor for the most part frees Karr from the box of being an outstanding confessional poet in a time when our literary gatekeepers have largely lost interest in poets who inhabit that box. Most of her trips outside her old confines are worthwhile journeys, but sometimes it is not clear (perhaps not even to herself) where she is heading. An example of this kind of meandering is “Kings: The Obscenity Prayer,” which is extraordinarily clever linguistically, but does not seem to say much except to express a contempt for Christianity that goes far beyond the ambivalence that she expresses elsewhere in Tropic of Squalor and her most recent memoir:
Our Falter, whose art is Heavy,
Halloween be thy name.
Your kingdom’s numb
your children dumb on earth
moldy bread unleavened.
Gve us this day our
And empower our asses
that they destroy those
who ass against us.
And speed us not
into wimp nation
nor bequiver us
with needles, for thine
is the flimflam and the sour,
and the same soul-
sucking story in leather
for never and ever.
A poem expressing religious doubts would be fully in character, but “Kings: The Obscenity Prayer” seems like a strange and regrettable choice for this book after lines such as these:
I murdered you early, Father
My disbelief was an ice pick plunged
In mine own third eye
Like damned Oedipus
Whose sight could not stand
What his hand had done. (“Lord, I Was Faithless”)
His mouth is well water
His gaze true and from
His tongue he brings the blessed Word
(“How God Speaks”)
All around me,
a locust buzz as from the Book of Job. Yet I pray, I
pray: Christ, my Lord, my savior,
and my good brother, sprinkle me
with the blood of the lamb. Which words
make manifest his buoyancy in me.
(“XVIII. Petering: Recuperation from the Sunk
Love under the Aegis of Christ and Isaac Babel”)
The abrupt change in tone and content cannot help but make one wonder if “Kings: The Obscenity Prayer” is a preemptive sop to anti-Catholic elements of the academy and the New York literary scene.
Despite its inconsistencies, Tropic of Squalor is an important book that should remind critics that Mary Karr is one of our best poets in addition to one of our best memoirists. Looking ahead, she has already put us on notice that her next memoir will address aging rather than the traumas of her much-explored past. If her poetry parallels her memoirs again, then we can look forward to poems in which she confronts the challenges of faith with the urgency that comes from contemplating one’s mortality.