(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Mary Karr’s poems in her collection Sinners Welcome approach their often deeply personal or biblical subjects from a clear, contemporary Christian perspective. Although her poems show occasional quibbling with official Catholic doctrine and use a casual and sometimes irreverent language toward biblical themes, Karr decisively sees herself as a Catholic poet.

The story of Karr’s conversion to Catholicism at age forty is rendered in the title poem “Sinners Welcome.” As the author writes in her essay “Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer,” which is included as afterword to her poems, the phrase comes from a banner hung over the entrance of Saint Lucy’s Catholic Church in Syracuse, New York, where Karr embraced her new faith. It is in this church that the persona of the title poem opens her heart to Jesus’ love.

Before the clearly autobiographical persona’s conversion and even after, many poems in the collection tell of her spiritual agonies when faced with the sadness, chaos, violence, and tragedy of contemporary human life. Throughout these poems, the spiritual despair of the persona is expressed with great emotion and with lyrics of personal directness. Yet there is always the insistence, even if sometimes very subtle, that Jesus has provided an answer to human despondency. “Disgraceland” tells of the persona’s four decades of rejecting Jesus who nevertheless “always stood/ to one side with a glass of water” while she was suffering, but she admits that she “swatted” him away for a long time.

Interspersed throughout Sinners Welcome, there is a series of five poems called “Descending Theology” that tell of the birth, life, betrayal, passion, and resurrection of Jesus. Derived from the author’s meditations along Jesuit precepts, the five poems retell key biblical stories with lyrics built on a modern combination of naturalism and spiritualism. Here, the voice of the persona is casual and sometimes irreverent, but her trust that the biblical message is still true in the contemporary world comes across as completely genuine.

Many of Karr’s poems deal with the persona’s...

(The entire section is 886 words.)