Mary Karr has made a life, a brilliant one, of telling stories about herself, from her scrappy Texas childhood to getting sober and converting to Catholicism in adulthood. Karr’s fifth collection of poetry reveals one of the strongest voices in contemporary letters in conversation with itself, pushing back against the constructed self, ever more aware of the geological transformation wrought on identity by time, work and circumstance. The speakers of these poems appraise that long trajectory and are engaged in the struggle of both physical and psychic displacement.
The “scab” of a small, polluted hometown is still a presiding concern, the landscape she may know very best, but Karr has lived too long and far from that “big vacant state” not to take stock of that distance. “For years I fought/ moving to this rich gulag because I thought/ it was too white or too right or too dumb,” she writes in “Exurbia.” She dryly considers the wilds of New York City, which she now calls home: “It’s not law but the sprawl/ of our separate wills that keeps us all flowing.” In many poems, the journey reckoned with is one of faith—from the “disbelief” of hard-lived youth, “suffering the torments/ Of mine own mind,” to a new relationship with God. “The voice never/ panders, offers no five-year plan…It is small and fond and local,” she writes in “VI. Wisdom: The Voice of God,” one of a cycle of poems that borrows the books of the Old Testament as organizing principle.
Several poems ostensibly take as their subject the late writer David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide in 2008. Karr knew Wallace well, and she pulls no punches in her reflections on his life and death. Respect, grief, and anger thread evenly through these poems.
As in all her work, Karr’s genius is in creating her own music from a mashup of lexicons, daringly and often wittily infusing the lyrical with everyday vernacular. She is, at last, perhaps most faithful to her own known self. In “IX. Ecclsiastes: Amok Run,” she writes, “I myself confined/ In a subway car befumed by the farts of strangers do wish them/ Heartily dead, which I text my son who texts back,/ You are so not a shepherd.”