Saturday, February 26, 2011

The good graces of Mary Karr

I haven’t been to church in decades as a matter of habit, and confess the only time I set foot in a pew is for either funerals or weddings. One will have to take it on faith that while I haven’t renounced God nor made statements to the effect that ours is a reality without a spiritual r recourse, my ideas of spirituality have changed over the last forty years; it just seems to strange to think of God as being willing to be a bully demanding ritualized acts of devotion and loyality while a fate he won’t reveal , the “meaning of life” we drink too much booze and coffee to discern, unravels. Is the All Powerful a vain micro-manager? I don’t think so, and entreaties to Him can be done, I think, without wishing for more for oneself, or wishing harm to befall those who we think smited us. Yes, I turned my back and have little interest in investigating the religion of my youth, but surprise again, sometimes my curiosity is aroused, as it was when I happened across this fine poem by Mary Karr in online version of Poetry Magazine, a sly hymn called “Disgraceland”/Strange and wonderful; I am a lapsed Catholic at best (a curious agnostic, perhaps?), but I recognize the parallels Karr draws here with her truly ethereal poem.
Christ was of this earth and of the human race because his task was to suffer various degradations for preaching a moral philosophy that would, after all, deliver humanity from its base motives and actions, all this so he might transcend and come into that state of grace that is tempered, conditioned by experience. We come to know what it is we are being delivered from, the sins, their consequences, and their horrible toll. Karr's narrator, born into a Christian life, goes her own way, feeling each pain, pleasure, the exact quality of being human:
Eventually, I lurched out to kiss the wrong mouths,
get stewed, and sulk around. Christ always stood
to one side with a glass of water.
I swatted the sap away.

Christ was always there with the glass of water, that thing that refreshes and gives life to tired limbs, but he would not intervene to make Karr's wayward soul come into the house of his father; she must know her own experience, have her own narrative to fasten a merging faith upon, and come of her own accord to another way of being;
When my thirst got great enough
to ask, a stream welled up inside;
some jade wave buoyed me forward;
and I found myself upright
in the instant, with a garden
inside my own ribs aflourish. There, the arbor leafs.
The vines push out plump grapes.
You are loved, someone said. Take that
and eat it.

A phrase you might have heard of; she had to get sick and tired of being sick and tired. This has all the trappings of things I hear at AA meetings, yes, but AA shares are either drunkalogues or hard-core sales pitches that will speak of an intervening Higher Power in Street terms. The quality of a good AA share is that one This poem is jargon free, as I read it, and the mention of Jesus and references to spiritual things are voiced in a tongue that is plain but not dull; her rhythm is sure.
It has been remarked that this poem isn't much more than what you'd get in a better class of women's magazines and that what delivers is a rather conventional story, but I think there are crucial distinctions to be made.This is quite a bit different than what you'd find in women's magazines, in that the ground covered in those articles are tear jerkers, better class or no, and there's an inescapable residue of self pity/self congratulation through out these publications that creates a particular consumer mind set that is perfect for delivering an audience an empathetic audience to corporate advertisers. The swings of the downbeat and the upbeat do not go against the not so subtle requirements of the revenue stream. Karr's poem is somewhat different, and she tells the tale differently as well; it is the form of testimony, of confession and reclamation, and there is no wallowing in the details of a wasted past; as per the requirements of contemporary poetry, pace Pound, Eliot and Yeats, there are associative leaps in the narrative, elisions, ideas contained in images that convincingly, for me, convey the more abstract notions of life with and without grace. Poetry isn't required to dramatically thrust a reader into areas of consideration they wouldn't have thought of or might have been too lazy to explore, but rather work well on its own terms, within its particular structure, congruent with its unique ambition.
This needn't be the grand entrance of Christ as one can read in Flaubert's tale "The Legend of St. Julian Hospitator" from his book Three Tales. Karr , in her own fashion, speaks of the Personal Jesus much is made of these days and finds Him in an unconventional, almost banal manner, after a life that, while not chaste nor righteous, isn't portrayed as especially heinous or glutted with evil deeds. What takes me my surprise is Karr's conception of a savior who speaks not to saving one's soul for eternal salvation but instead a Christ who can help her appreciate the life she has and make something useful of. This is a Christ who wants her to live fully on this earth, not to treat her religious experience like it were an audition for American Idol. Surprise, this is a Jesus who wants us to live as adults, not pavlov'd dolts who drool when a bell rings.
What I especially appreciate here is that Karr
 This is quite a bit different than what you'd find in women's magazines, in that the ground covered in those articles are tear jerkers, better class or no, and there's an inescapable residue of self pity/self congratulation through out these publications that creates a particular consumer mind set that is perfect for delivering an audience an empathetic audience to corporate advertisers. The swings of the downbeat and the upbeat do not go against the not so subtle requirements of the revenue stream. Karr's poem is somewhat different, and she tells the tale differently as well; it is the form of testimony, of confession and reclamation, and there is no wallowing in the details of a wasted past; as per the requirements of contemporary poetry, pace Pound, Eliot and Yeats, there are associative leaps in the narrative, elisions, ideas contained in images that convincingly, for me, convey the more abstract notions of life with and without grace.
Poetry isn't required to  violently thrust a reader into areas of consideration they wouldn't have thought of or might have been too lazy to explore, but rather work well on its own terms, within its particular structure, congruent with its unique ambition.