(United States of America, 1955)
© Marion Ettlinger
BiographyPoet and memoirist Mary Karr was born in 1955 and raised in Texas. The author of several critically acclaimed books of poetry, including Abacus (1987; reprinted 2007), The Devil’s Tour (1993), Viper Rum (2001), and Sinners Welcome (2006), she is also the author of a trilogy of memoirs: The Liar’s Club (1995), Cherry (2001), and Lit (2009). Karr’s poetry and prose frequently include autobiographical elements, such as her hardscrabble childhood, teenage drug-use, failed marriage, and adult alcoholism, as well as her subsequent recovery and conversion to Catholicism. Yet despite the brutality of much of her subject matter, Karr’s work has received tremendous praise for its lyricism and beauty. “Avowedly unsentimental, Karr doesn’t overcompensate by striking exaggerated poses of disabused wisdom or affecting mandarin disdain for the muddle of human relations,” writes David Barber of Karr’s second book of poems, The Devil’s Tour. “Hers are the measured lamentations of a writer who will always side with the painful certitude over the wishful thought.”
to me, the flightless fly,
the listing, blistered, scalded.
I am the rod to their lightning.
Mine is the earhole their stories pierce.
At my altar the blouse is torn open
and the buttons sailed across
the incensed air space of the nave,
that I may witness the mastectomy scars
crisscrossed like barbed wire, like bandoliers.
(from ‘The Blessed Mother Complains to the Lord Her God on the Abundance of Brokenness She Receives’)
Sinners Welcome includes meditative poems on Karr’s recovery from alcoholism and her newfound, perhaps surprising, sense of faith. Reviewing the collection for the New York Times, David Kirby found in Karr a careful, tough religious poet: “Images rather than wishful abstractions abound,” Kirby noted. “So much trickery has been got up to in religion's name that it's natural to get nervous when a writer starts talking about salvation, but Karr never tries to substitute faith for sound poetic practices. If anything, by adding prayer, she just makes the poems that much stronger.” Karr’s interest in concrete language and representing lived experience has been widely noted—Karr herself has written about the need for poetry to remain grounded in direct, accessible language in her essay “Against Decoration,” included in her book Viper Rum. Ellen Kaufman in Library Journal contended that the poems in Viper Rum “affirm human gestures towards life by highlighting them as gestures . . . Karr peers beyond illusions of safety and is energized by the shadows out there, the persistent and unanswerable questions.”
With words you sought to shape
a world alternate to the one that dared
inscribe itself so ruthlessly across your eyes, for you
could not, could never
fully refute the actual or justify the sad heft of your body, earn
your rightful space or pay for the parcels of oxygen you
inherited. More than once you asked
that I breathe into your lungs like the soprano in the opera
I loved so my ghost might inhabit you and you ingest my belief
in your otherwise-only-probable soul. I wonder does your
death feel like failure to everybody who ever
loved you as if our collective CPR stopped
too soon, the defib paddles lost charge, the corpse
punished us by never sitting up. And forgive my conviction
that every suicide’s an asshole. There is a good reason I am not
God, for I would cruelly smite the self-smitten.
(from ‘Suicide’s Note: An Annual’)
Reflecting upon her aspirations as an author, Karr told Publishers Weekly: “Public readings and the oral tradition [are] important to me. An aesthetic experience is fine, but unless someone is infused with feeling from a work of art, it’s totally without conviction. My idea of art is, you write something that makes people feel so strongly that they get some conviction about who they want to be or what they want to do. It’s morally useful not in a political way, but it makes your heart bigger; it’s emotionally and spiritually empowering.”
Mary Karr has received numerous honors and awards for her work, including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Bunting Fellowship from Radcliffe College. She has received a Pushcart Prize, the PEN/Martha Albrand Award, and Whiting Writer’s Award. In 2012, she released an album of songs she wrote with singer Rodney Crowell, Kin. Her memoir, Lit, is scheduled to become an HBO television series. Karr is also the Jesse Truesdell Peck Professor of Literature at Syracuse University.
- Abacus, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT, 1987.
- The Devil’s Tour, New Directions. New York, NY, 1993.
- Viper Rum: With the afterword “Against Decoration,” New Directions, New York, NY, 1998.
- Sinners Welcome, Harper, New York, NY, 2006.
- The Liars’ Club: A Memoir, Viking, New York, NY, 1995.
- Cherry: A Memoir, Viking, New York, NY, 2001.
- Lit: A Memoir, Harper, New York, NY, 2009.
Paris Review: Art of the Memoir No. 1 with Mary Karr
Poem of the day (audio): Disgraceland by Mary Karr
Poem of the day (audio): Oratoria for the Unbecoming by Mary Karr
Poetry magazine: David Barber reviews Mary Karr’s The Devil’s Tour
Poetry magazine: Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer
Poetry magazine: Q&A with Mary Karr for poems in the December 2012 issue
Poetry lectures (audio): Mary Karr and Stuart Dybek
Publishers Weekly: Mary Karr interview
Mary Karr's web site
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