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Sinners Welcome: Poems by Mary Karr. Harper/Collins, 2006; 93 pages; $22.95.


Mary Karr describes herself as a black-belt sinner, and this -- her fourth collection of poems -- traces her improbable journey from the inferno of a tormented childhood into a resolutely irreverent Catholicism. Not since Saint Augustine wrote "Give me chastity, Lord -- but not yet!" has anyone brought such smart-assed hilarity to a conversion story. Karr's battle is grounded in common loss (a bitter romance, friends' deaths, a teenage son's leaving home) as well as in elegies for a complicated mother. The poems disarm with the arresting humor familiar to readers of her memoirs, The Liars' Club and Cherry. An illuminating cycle of spiritual poems have roots in Karr's eight-month tutelage in Jesuit prayer practice, and as an afterword, her celebrated essay on faith weaves the tale of how the language of poetry, which relieved her suffering so young, eventually became the language of prayer. Those of us who fret that poetry denies consolation will find clear-eyed joy in this collection.


Mary Karr, born in the mid-1950s, grew up near Janis Joplin's birthplace, the coastal oil patch Texas town of Port Arthur. Joplin's little brother was one of Karr's friends, and the two youngsters often surfed together. Karr was a Guggenheim Fellow in poetry in 2005 and has won Pushcart prizes for both her poetry and her essays. She has also published two bestselling memoirs: The Liars' Club, which won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award, and Cherry. She has received the Whiting Award and the Bunting Fellowship from Radcliffe College. Her poetry appears frequently in the New Yorker . She is the Peck Professor of English Literature at Syracuse University.


Friday afternoon and Mary Karr was seated in a taxi's back seat. The taxi pulled out of a parking lot at Syracuse University to head to Manhattan where Ms. Karr maintains an apartment with her 20-year-old son, a student at NYU. During the week Ms. Karr lives in her home in Syracuse. The trip, via car, she said, would be "about four hours, door to door." Usually, she said, she flies. "When the train gets fixed, I'll take the train. I'm four blocks from Penn Station, so that'll be much easier."

She excused herself several times to talk with the driver, and off we went through subzero temperatures and a razor wind.

Earlier this year (February 2), the Reader reprinted Ms. Karr's essay, "On Poetry and Faith." In that essay, included in

Sinners Welcome, Ms. Karr, a recovering alcoholic and an un-recovered philanthropist of human kindness, writes about her relationship with the Roman Catholic church.

In the days before Ms. Karr and I spoke, I had been reading critic Helen Vendler's newest book, Invisible Listeners: Lyric Intimacy in Herbert, Whitman, and Ashbery. Vendler notes that among the lyric's possible addressees is God, or, gods. A poem often is a prayer, spoken from an open and often broken heart. The voice of such a poem seeks an answering voice, a voice that will speak to the poet in depths that satisfy. Vendler reminds readers of Dickinson's "This is my letter to the world,/That never wrote to me," the poem that tears open the soul's every secret and asks readers to bow low and listen.

Writing, said Ms. Karr, "is not like that for me, really. I think reading poetry is like that, but writing it is not quite like that for me."

"What it is like for you?"

"Writing? It's like setting my hair on fire. It's really hard. I don't write with much ease so I find it very difficult. I never know what's truth, so I spend a lot of time saying no to myself saying, 'Not this, not this, not this.'"

"Not this line, not this word?"

"Yes, exactly. I have a lot of jabber in my head. It takes me a long time to get somewhere with it."

"Does the word arrive on the page before you begin to converse with that word about whether it's the right word or the wrong word?"

"No, I'm not a very fluid writer. It's not very fun for me."

We talked about a poet we mutually admire for whom we thought it was "not fun." Ms. Karr said, about this poet, "And he has a lot more natural praise in him than I do in me, I think."

"Well," I said, "he didn't grow up in Texas."

"No, but he didn't grow up easy, either. Nobody gets easy, they don't promise you easy when you show up, and, boy, they're right. It's not about easy."

"The poems in this book must have taken a long time."

"They did. I think there were five years between the last book of poems and this one. I wrote a book of prose between the last book of poems and this one, so I would say I've been working on this book seven years. Obviously, intermittently, I was writing other things."

"Reading you, I can almost feel your breath in my ear; that's how intimately you inhabit your pages."

"I feel that with other poets. I don't feel it with myself. I always joke that the only poem I ever write is 'I'm sad. The end. By Mary Karr.' I tell my students this, that all my poems are variations on that, or elaborations. I make all of them a little more specific every time. I never know what I think so they're sort of eked out and then I rewrite and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, as I'm sure you do and everybody does."

"I like to rewrite."

"Me too. I'd much rather rewrite than write."

"Writing feels like surgery without anesthesia. Rewriting can almost begin to feel like getting well," I said.

"Toby Woolf calls rewriting, 'lapidary work.' It's sort of like polishing a stone."

"Do you read your lines aloud to yourself when you work on a poem?"

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