Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Bookmarks -- The Devil's Tour

Mary Karr is probably best known for her memoir The Liar’s Club. In the past few years, she has become a bit infamous for her essay, “Against Decoration,” in which she lambasts the kind of poetry that says nothing and hides behind “ornaments,” the kind of verse Donald Hall would later call McPoems. These little verses come out of workshops and graduate programs whose main goal is to pad the vita and land teaching assignments for its participants.
Karr’s poetry comes from life -- joyous, painful, and real -- and if more volumes were like those in The Devil’s Tour, we would have no reason to believe poetry in America was dying.
Her second volume of verse, The Devil’s Tour is much about the hells we make and endure in our own lives. The book opens with the brutally beautiful “Coleman,” about a black friend viciously murdered by boys in town who could cover up their crime by calling it a “hunting accident.” The event of the poem is not just the murder, but also joy of their friendship beforehand and the memory after: “you rode that ghost horse/hard and recklessly against the dark,//but could not break it.” Events like these are addressed in this book are the building blocks of a soul wandering the earth, not mere recollections.
Many of the poems in The Devil’s Tour are centered around the relationships the author has as mother, daughter, friend, and lover. Those that I found most moving and honest were the poems addressed to Karr’s parents. One does not have to have read The Liar’s Club or Cherry to understand the struggle to take from one’s parents only the good and the difficulty of giving back to them as much as our love contains. In “Her One Bad Eye,” Karr writes,
We are dead to each other
that way, though she opened
her body to let me shine
weeping into this world,
and sometimes I feel her
looking through me to
that other world. Blind, this way
we stare at each other like corpses.
Dan Chaisson, staunch defender of the McPoem, ironically criticized Karr for writing poems that seemed to come from the workshop or that were unaware of their audience. But these salvos come from the offices of a magazine that openly criticizes Karr and other Christian poets (like Franz Wright) merely for being Christian. I don’t know if Karr had yet entered the Catholic Church when she published this work in 1993, but one sees in these poems a sacramental vision of the universe, where the things of the earth (including suffering) become the avenues where grace can enter. These are poems from someone who has something to say.

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