Holding a Tin Cup with Mary Karr: A Belated Review of Sinners Welcome

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I’ve sung the praises of Mary Karr on Heartlands before, recognizing a seminal moment in my own development as a writer and human being that was spurred by her 2008 presentation at the Festival of Faith & Writing. But my very first introduction to Karr, the memoirist and poet, was a book that was given to me by Deborah Lewis, the United Methodist campus minister at the University of Virginia, on the occasion of her ordination. Usually gift-giving at such things goes the other way round, but I was grateful for what the book unlocked. It was Karr’s 2006 collection Sinners Welcome, which I have just picked up again for a glorious re-read.

To my mind, Karr is a better memoirist than a poet. She lacks the discipline to create small jewels. There is too much energy and narrative thrumming through her to be contained. That doesn’t mean that the poems in this collection aren’t powerful. They are, filled with provocative imagery and closely-observed moments. But Karr approaches truth the way a gymnast approaches the saddle vault—pell-mell and explosively—and what you admire is not so much the beauty of the words as the arc of her movement.

Karr is always bare on the page, refreshingly free of pretense. In this collection she is giving her struggles to comprehend and be comprehended by faith full exposure. As her brilliant essay to close the book says, she is suspicious of anything that looks like piety, acceptance, and, God forbid, joy. Such things are anathema to her aesthetic. “[N]othing can maim a poet’s practice like joy,” she tells us. “As Henry de Montherlant noted, ‘Happiness writes white.’”(89)

But she can’t deny that she’s in the grip of something that contradicts the gritty survivalism that got her through a difficult childhood and the new terrors of adulthood, including abusive relationships and alcoholism. Grudgingly, (very grudgingly!), she comes to the realization that even “gloomy and serotonin-challenged” hellions like her have a place in God’s grace. Hence the title of the book.

Maybe saints turn to God to exalt him, from innate righteousness. The rest of us tend to show up holding out a tin cup. Put the penny of your prayer in this slot and pull the handle—not an unusual approach. The Catholic church I attended in Syracuse, New York (St. Lucy’s), said it best on the banner stretched across its front: SINNERS WELCOME. (77)

The poems here don’t flinch as they explore the confrontation between a free spirit and a trusting soul. Karr seems always surprised to find that what she had taken to be a hard-fought act of will was really a discovery of how she had ended up in the grip of the divine anyway.

In ‘The Choice,’ she explores the vocation of writing:

When I told the resident genius 

that given the choice between writing and being 

happy, I’d pick the latter, she touched my folio 

 

with her pencil like a bad fairy’s wand, 

saying: Don’t worry, you don’t have that choice.

And in a blink of my un-mascara’ed eye 

the intricate world bloomed into being—impossible

 

to transcribe on the small bare page. (15)

And in a poem celebrating the yielding of her tomcat into death, she sees the thing she truly desires:

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.

—‘For a Dying Tomcat Who’s Relinquished His Former Hissing and Predatory Nature’ (46-7)

I need those reminders, too. To yield, to trust, to pray. And to pause from time to time and wonder—why and with whom am I fighting so hard? Thanks, Mary. As ever.

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