Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7927
SOURCE: Karr, Mary. “Against Decoration.” In Viper Rum, pp. 49-72. New York, N.Y.: New Directions, 1998.
[In the following essay, which was originally published in Parnassus magazine in 1991, Karr expounds her opinions on modern poetic techniques and presents a critique of contemporary neo-formalist poetry, arguing that it lacks both emotion and clarity.]
Decoration abounds in contemporary poetry, much of it marching beneath the banner of neo-formalism. Actually a mix of strict form and free verse, the new formalist poems juggle rhyme, meter, and various syllabic and stanzaic strategies. In the last ten years, the movement has generated a rush of anthologies, such as Robert Richman's The Direction of Poetry: Rhymed and Metered Verse Written in the English Language since 1975. Richman, the poetry editor of the neo-conservative New Criterion, selects not only distinguished writers such as the late James Merrill, John Hollander, and Anthony Hecht (all of whom, by the way, have served as chancellors for the Academy of American Poets), but also from the forty-something generation that includes Michael Blumenthal, Gjertrud Schnackenberg, Brad Leithauser, and Rosanna Warren. This book produced one outraged notice by poet-critic Ira Sadoff, who in an issue of The American Poetry Review called neo-formalism “A Dangerous Nostalgia,” linking it to the political conservatism of the eighties. Once a poetry movement can boast an anthology, a starting date, and a metaphorically machine-gunning detractor, it qualifies as a movement—even if it lacks a coherent manifesto.
The fault, of course, doesn't lie with form per se. The late Amy Clampitt rarely employed strict forms, yet her work is almost exclusively ornamental, particularly in her overuse of historical references, which seem to increase in their obscurity over the course of her books. Her Collected Poems came out this year to vague but unanimous praise. It's easier to know what Clampitt's read than what she's writing about (the notes for Westward consume four-and-a-half pages). Critics have called her obscure, polysyllabic diction a long-awaited return to high language, likening her to Hopkins, Keats, and Milton. But Clampitt's purple vocabulary sounds to me like a parody of the Victorian silk that Pound sought to unravel. This passage could be Swinburne on acid or Tennyson gone mad with his thesaurus. In it, the sun is rising or setting:
Seamless equipose of crossing: Nox primordial half-shape above the treadle, the loomed fabric of the sun god's ardor foreshortened, with a roar as if of earthly fire.
(from “Winchester: The Autumn Equinox”)
Influential critics have cheered Clampitt's linguistic intricacy for its own sake. And the appreciation for ornament extends to others. In April 1990, The New Republic carried Helen Vendler's seminal review of Merrill's The Inner Room beneath the telling headline “In Praise of Perfume.” There, she aligned Merrill with writers “interested in intricacy of form, and a teasing obliqueness of content.” In Merrill's “Losing the Marbles,” Vendler enjoys a kind of crossword puzzle challenge:
A poem-manuscript has been rained on, and some of its words obliterated. On its half unreadable “papyrus,” the poem looks like one of Sappho's enigmatic fragments:
body, favorite gleaned, at the vital frenzy—
—and so on, for seven stanzas. The game is to deduce what the poem's lost cells may have been holding. … We become, with Merrill, scholars of the papyrus, hunters for lost words—and find ourselves (in a mockery of classical scholarly reconstructions) wholly mistaken.
There's something scary about Vendler's enthusiasm for the poem as scholastic game, particularly when her efforts leave her “wholly mistaken.” I always thought that poetry's primary purpose was to stir emotion, and that one's delight in dense idiom or syntax or allusion served a secondary one. I don't mind, for instance, working hard to read Paradise Lost, because I return to Milton for the terror and hubris Satan embodies. If, as Vendler suggests, the sport of decoding a poem is its central pleasure, then one would no more reread such a poem than one would bother reworking an acrostic already solved. Indeed, such a poem would become disposable after one reading, the “game” played.
Yet the affection for decorative poetry extends beyond Vendler to other powerful critics, poets, and publishers: Vendler begat Clampitt and others; Harold Bloom begat John Ashbery and the poetics of coy adorableness, which in turn begat Language Poetry; Merrill begat a string of ornament-spouting progeny through his service at Yale University Press and the Academy, as well as through his general pull with New York publishers (his blurbissimo on book jackets was famous); Alice Quinn, poetry editor for The New Yorker, begat the flowery, emotionally dim poems that one typically reads in that magazine; ad nauseam.
The argument against decoration, however, runs as far back as literary criticism itself. Aristotle called metaphors of all kinds the mere “seasoning of the meat,” and believed that clarity resided instead in “everyday words.” Cicero and Horace basically elaborated this dichotomy between seasoning and substance. Ancient rhetoricians admonished writers to avoid—among other things—excessive use of tropes. These elaborate figures of speech could, it was argued, over-decorate a work and reduce its power to convey feeling. In fact, the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics tells us that the poet and orator in the early Christian era had to justify the use of a limited number of tropes by demonstrating the extremity of his or her own feeling. In other words, unless the orator could convey the depth and sincerity of his or her own experience, the use of tropes fell into the realm of mere decoration. That's how I often feel about much of today's popular work: The poet concentrates so fixedly on the poem's minute needlework that he or she fails to notice—like a blind man with the elephant in the old fable—that the work involves only one square inch of a tapestry draped across an enormous beast, and that the beast is moving.
I define two sins popular in much of today's poetry—particularly the neo-formalist stuff—which signify decoration and can starve a poem of value:
- Absence of emotion. What should I as a reader feel? This grows from but is not equivalent to what the speaker/author feels. Questioning a poem's central emotion steers me beyond the poem's ostensible subject and surface lovelinesses to its ultimate effect. Purely decorative poetry leaves me cold.
- Lack of clarity. The forms of obscurity in decorative poetry are many and insidious: references that serve no clear purpose, for instance, or ornate diction that seeks to elevate a mundane experience rather than clarify a remarkable one. Lack of clarity actually alienates a reader and prevents any emotional engagement with the poem.
Again, I do not decry decorative elements in a poem per se. One can with perfect legitimacy use a reference or create an elaborately metaphoric or linguistic surface in a poem. But when those elements become final ends, rather than acting as a conduit for a range of feelings, poetry ceases to perform its primary function: to move the reader. To pay so little attention to the essentially human elements of a poem makes a monster of poetry's primary emotional self, its very reason for being, so that the art becomes exclusively decorative and at times grotesque. Like cats in jewelry or babies in makeup, the ornaments detract from rather than illuminate their subjects.
ABSENCE OF EMOTION
We can marshal evidence for the emotional vacuity of ornamental verse with the example of Merrill, who may well have been the first emperor of the new formalism. I contend that this emperor wore no clothes—or, to use a more accurate metaphor, that the ornamental robes existed, but the emperor himself was always missing—a surprising state of affairs, since Merrill was among the most revered and ubiquitous poets of his generation: He boasted two National Book Awards, the Bollingen, the Pulitzer, and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Merrill's chief talent is his mastery of elegant language. And in his earlier work, the complexity of language and metaphor applies to human dramas that are grounded enough in the world to move a reader. In “Charles on Fire,” for example, we hear some privileged young men at dinner discussing the difference between “uncommon physical good looks,” which are believed to “launch one,” and “intellectual and spiritual values,” without which “you are sunk.” In this poem, Merrill gives us far more narrative data than he bothers with in his more recent books. Knowing certain physical and social facts, the reader can become sufficiently engaged in the poem to marvel at Merrill's sparing use of ornament. Here is the final two-thirds of the poem:
Long-suffering Charles, having cooked and served the meal, Now brought out little tumblers finely etched He filled with amber liquid and then passed. “Say,” said the same young man, “in Paris, France, They do it this way”—bounding to his feet And touching a lit match to our host's full glass. A blue flame, gentle, beautiful, came, went Above the surface. In a hush that fell We heard the vessel crack. The contents drained As who should step down from a crystal coach. Steward of spirits, Charles's glistening hand All at once gloved itself in eeriness. The moment passed. He made two quick sweeps and Was flesh again. “It couldn't matter less,” He said, but with a shocked, unconscious glance Into the mirror. Finding nothing changed, He filled a fresh glass and sank down among us.
Charles literally serves, and serves to contrast with his guests, who seem more foppish than he. In fact, Charles draws the poet's pretty diction by bringing out “little tumblers finely etched,” a phrase that throws in lovely sideways relief the noise of “filled with amber liquid.” This diction is juxtaposed with the poem's plain speech, something which—like narrative clarity—Merrill rarely employs in later work. At the instant the liquor catches fire, Merrill's staccato suspends us for an instant. Here's a wonderful example of a transforming moment that requires its adjectives and commas and one-syllable words to hold us at a key instant: “A blue flame, gentle, beautiful, came, went / Above the surface.” And how convincing and surprising is the higher diction in the next lines when Charles, like Cinderella's footman “down from a crystal coach,” briefly enters the realm of fire: “Steward of spirits, Charles's glistening hand / All at once gloved itself in eeriness.” After this, the diction again irons out, becomes plain. “The moment passed. He made two quick sweeps and / Was flesh again. ‘It couldn't matter less,’ / He said. …” When Charles finds nothing changed about his outward appearance, he returns from the consuming to the mundane, from fire to flesh. In doing so, he literally sinks to the level of the others. Here the poet never embellishes a line with blowsy diction or froufrou unless it warrants such decor.
Parts of Merrill's later work show the old sparkle, but often the flourishes obscure the central subject, render it meaningless. Here, from The Inner Room, is “Serenade” in toto:
Here's your letter the old portable Pecked out so passionately as to crack The larynx. I too dream of “times We'll share.” Across the river: MUTUAL LIFE.
Flush of a skyline. Owning up to past Decorum, present insatiety, Let corporate proceedings one by one Be abstracted to mauve onionskin,
Lit stories rippling upside down in thought Be stilled alike of drift and personnel, Then, only then, the lyric I-lessness At nightfall banked upon renew
Today's unfolder. Whose lips part. Heard now In his original setting—voice and reeds— As music for a god, your page Asks to be held so that the lamp shines through
And stars appear instead of periods.
Merrill never clarifies the central characters in this memory, or the relation between the you and I. A serenade suggests a night song played under the balcony of the beloved. And the poem hints at tremendous feeling—the letter so passionately typed that the periods have pounded holes in the paper. But never does the poet furnish the information required by the reader to understand and, thereby, feel moved. Instead, one small question after another niggles me. I don't know who serenades whom, so I don't know whether the letter writer's larynx cracks or the reader-poet's larynx cracks. If the former, typing does not touch the larynx; if the latter, there's a sick bathos to having one's voice crack while singing one's own poem. I don't know what “past decorum” and “present insatiety” mean, and I very much want to, because it sounds sexual. Unfortunately, the only excerpt from the letter is as meaningless a line as can be found on any Hallmark card, “I too dream of ‘times / We'll share.’” The idea and tone suggest a foggy yearning, yet the source of that yearning remains blurred. Merrill's peculiar diction, however, seizes our attention: We guess at some business association with that official-sounding language; then we slip into gushlike “lyric I-lessness / At nightfall.” The final stanza seems to allude to the famous musical duel between Apollo and Marsyas (the god won, and Marsyas was flayed and nailed to a tree for his arrogance), yet the reference seems dragged in (kicking and screaming, in my opinion) solely to demonstrate the writer's erudition. I never understand any clear link between Apollo and Marsyas and the two characters in the poem, or between the poet serenading and the letter writer's star-studded letter. We guess that a parallel exists, but how does it illuminate the poem's human situation?
I can only conclude that Merrill didn't mind these obscurities of character and metaphor, which leave us to gape at the poem's gorgeous surface—the mixed diction, the clever double entendre of “MUTUAL LIFE.” Indeed, this surface seems the poet's final goal. Merrill wants to dazzle us, perhaps, with his dexterity and his ability to crank out metaphors, yet he doesn't value the ostensible subject here enough to communicate narrative data about it. The subject barely merits his attention at all, acting only as a backdrop for glittery pushpins of language and metaphor.
My test for a poem's emotional clarity is this elementary exercise: Can you fill in a blank about a poem's subject with an emotional word? The Waste Land, for instance, is a poem about spiritual despair. It is also about lots of ideas, not least of which is a twentieth-century decay of faith which precipitates that despair. But it strives to create that despair in the reader. That's why I return to it, not to test my knowledge of Greek myth and the Upanishads (references to which I had to look up initially anyway), but to rediscover the gravity of certain ideas with the conviction that is only born of feeling.
In my view, emotion in a reader derives from reception of a clear rendering of primal human experiences: fear of death, desire, loss of love, celebration of being. To spark emotion, a poet must strive to attain what Aristotle called simple clarity. The world that the reader apprehends through his or her senses must be clearly painted, even if that world is wholly imaginary, as, say, in much of the work of Wallace Stevens.
In Merrill's later poems, intricate surface and form seem like mere amusements, rather than paths to or from human experience. Such decoration cuts a great gulf between form and meaning, with form favored over an attempt to communicate, word divorced from world, a kind of brittle cleverness supplanting emotion, wit elevated above clarity.
Contrast Merrill's poetry with that of Seamus Heaney, who works in form and still attends scrupulously to the human and sensory data that ultimately prompt emotion. Heaney proves, as do centuries of formal verse, that form and ornament do not in and of themselves diminish a poem's emotional possibilities. He never lets linguistic loveliness or metaphoric surface deter him from the primary task of inspiring feeling, nor does he seek to mystify facts by draping them in veil after veil of metaphor. The metaphoric and linguistic prettinesses balance somehow; they seem carefully chosen to move us. Heaney's sonnet sequence about his mother's death, in The Haw Lantern, elegantly and economically sends us all the sensory and social information we need to enter the poem's world. Here is the third sonnet from “Clearances”:
When all the others were away at Mass I was all hers as we peeled potatoes. They broke the silence, let fall one by one Like solder weeping off the soldering iron: Cold comforts set between us, things to share Gleaming in a bucket of clean water. And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes From each other's work would bring us to our senses.
So while the parish priest at her bedside Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying And some were responding and some crying I remembered her head bent towards my head, Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives— Never closer the whole rest of our lives.
Heaney begins the poem with gentle end rhymes, sometimes settling for mere consonance—Mass and potatoes, one and iron, share and water, bedside and head. He doesn't hit the reader on the skull with the form at first. Like Shakespeare, who endlessly varied his iambic pentameter, Heaney doesn't want the poem's noise to weight too heavily on the ear and risk obliterating the more colloquial noises, for the poem consists of natural speech: The priest “went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying.”
But after the volta—that space between the big stanza and the small one that traditionally marks a turn in the sonnet—Heaney moves to the present reality, his mother's deathbed, where he remembers their intimacy over the chore of peeling potatoes. Here the meter strengthens, becomes more regular, more heavily stressed. In doing so, it gathers force. The image of the two heads bent toward each other as they peel potatoes, forever near yet forever apart, like saints in stained glass, is luminous. “Her breath in mine” is also touching: on first reading because of the physical closeness that the two almost choose to ignore by tending to their chore; on second reading because we realize that she shared her breath with him in utero, then lost that breath on her deathbed. Yes, the dipping knives are adjectivally “fluent,” and thereby reminiscent of speech, but the resulting metaphor—fluent, expressive silence—neither distracts from nor conflicts with the human drama under study. Rather the metaphor enhances. The bucket of water subtly conjures both holy water and the life-giving fluid of the womb—the waters that cleanse us and slosh us forth into the world. The fluency of the knives echoes the way music—in this case potato peels weeping from a knife into water—“bring[s] us to our senses.” By the remembered sound of the water, the poet recreates in us that rare intimacy. And Heaney has no trouble making a direct statement of feeling at poem's end. Whereas Merrill would cling to emotional obliquity, Heaney earns the right to the weighty yet musical directness of his last line: “Never closer the whole rest of our lives.”
LACK OF CLARITY
All too many contemporary poems, particularly those in the burgeoning neo-formalist canon, shy away from passion. For example, the vast majority of New Yorker poems favor botanical subjects, and seldom travel any farther than the poet's flower bed. Or when poets pretend to more earnest topics, the formal elements—mere surface, the pattern in the lace, if you will—replace emotional, rhetorical, and sensory clarity. The forms of obscurity are many and insidious. I set forth the following list of those that bothered me when reading Richman's anthology:
- Obscurity of character. Who is speaking to whom and why? What relation do the characters in the poem hold to each other? How should the reader perceive them? Even in poems that assume the intimate tone of direct speech, with the reader as eavesdropper, I seldom—in the work of Merrill or Leithauser, say—understand the relationship between the characters, or even their identities in the most prosaic sense. Are they male or female; friends, lovers, or relatives; intimates, strangers; etc.?
- Foggy physical world. Where are we, and why does the poem occur here rather than elsewhere? Often physical reality remains so out of focus, with shifts in locale merely used for shifts in tone, that it's likely that the reader will be baffled. Again, I invoke Stevens's work to exemplify a wildly imagined series of overlapping places, yet each rendered precisely and appropriately.
- Overuse of meaningless references. Many contemporary poets insert perplexingly obscure literary, historical, and artistic allusions, seemingly to impress us with their cleverness and sophistication.
- Metaphors that obscure rather than illuminate. I. A. Richards distinguished between the metaphoric tenor (the thing actually under discussion, e.g., love in “My love is a red, red rose”) and the vehicle (the rose in the aforementioned metaphor). In decorative poetry the vehicle may stand clear—the star-studded letter, for instance, in Merrill's “Serenade”—but the tenor stays out of focus, or the relation between tenor and vehicle cannot be deduced. In fact, many poets fling their metaphors (including similes, synecdoches, etc.) about like so many rhinestones, simply to change tone and, therefore, to muddle key facts.
- Linguistic excess for no good reason. Polysyllables, archaic language, intricate syntax, yards of adjectives—these linguistic ornaments will slow a reader. Sometimes this needs to happen. In “Charles on Fire,” for example, the change in language used to describe a transforming moment works a kind of magic, one that should command our attention. Look, Merrill says, this person's world is changing. On the other hand, when Clampitt spends five lines saying that the sun rose or set while Keats took a walk, one wonders why she stopped at five. Why not six, or thirty-six?
Richman's anthology proves that a younger generation of writers has followed Merrill's lead in terms of ornament and obscurity. In Michael Blumenthal's “Inventors,” the metaphor serves to decorate a startlingly banal experience:
“Imagine being the first to say: surveillance,” the mouth taking in air like a swimmer, the tongue light as an astronaut, gliding across the roof of the mouth, the eyes burning like the eyes of Fleming looking at mold and thinking: penicillin.
Blumenthal uses metaphor the way certain bad cooks use garlic and oregano. He mixes “swimmer” with “astronaut” with “Fleming” with “mouth,” all to describe something finally trivial. And Rosanna Warren's “History as Decoration” provides an even more meaningless text in an idiom that sounds Victorian. In a very short space, Warren commits every decorative crime I could imagine:
Float over us, Florence, your banners of assassination, your most expensive reds: Brazil, Majorca, lichen, cochineal. Let the Neoplatonic Arno flow crocus yellow. Let palazzo walls flaunt quattrocentro dyes: “little monk” and “lion skin.” We pay for beauty; beautiful are gorgeous crimes we cannot feel—
they shone long ago. And those philosophies too pretty in spirit ever to be real. City of fashion, Leonardo chose the hanged Pazzi conspirator for a theme …
This sounds like an art history student, perhaps in a seminar entitled “Pigment and the Florentine Imagination,” rushing to answer a very long essay question to which we as readers were not privy. I cannot even say what this seeks to describe. Nor can I imagine the origin of the quotes, what this has to do with Leonardo, or how any river—even the Arno—can be Neoplatonic. Not all the poems in Richman's anthology are this bad, but I reserve the right, having plowed assiduously through fields of this kind of drivel, to choose the worst examples to make any point. If this is poetry, let us write prose.
SOME ISMS BEHIND THE ORNAMENTS
Some powerful “isms” lurk behind the current rage for ornamental poetry: neo-formalism I've mentioned, but I also want to consider the symbolist tolerance for obscurity, as well as the role of academic critics, who not only seem happy to take on the decorative poet's communicative burden, but whose post-structuralist theories have undermined the value of poetic clarity.
Since I've already taken a swipe at neo-formalism, I would like to start with it. I don't propose here to gauge the virtues or vices inherent in poetic forms. I agree with Coleridge when he described meter as the “yeast, worthless and disagreeable by itself … but giving vivacity and spirit to the liquor with which it is proportionately combined.” The key word here is proportionately, suggesting a need to balance formal concerns with others. Good poems, in fact, always assume the precise forms required. In truth, both meaning and feeling reside in sound. As a student, I read Walter Pater's famous injunction: “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music,” which I took to mean that form in poetry should finally be indistinguishable from content in the best work. A particular musical pitch in itself refers to no thing in the physical world, yet when we hear it in Schumann, it evokes a feeling in relation to the notes that come before and after it, so that it means something different in one concerto than in another.
So for me, sound always means something. Yeats haunts us when he writes that the heroes of the quelled Irish rebellion are not just dead but “are changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born.” Here's the roll call of heroes from that famous final stanza:
I write it out in a verse— MacDonagh and MacBride And Connolly and Pearse Now and in time to be, Wherever green is worn, Are changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.
(from “Easter 1916”)
These brief lines, like all good ones, prove the veracity of their form. Yeats plants the names in our minds with the pounding sound he's used throughout the poem. Then he challenges that expectation by varying the stanza's pattern of stresses. The caesura buried in the penultimate line lends force to the repeated word “changed”: “are changed, changed utterly:” The form of the line climbs toward the three stresses in the middle; the peak even holds an extra instant because of the comma. The peak then slides to unstressed syllables at the line's end. The sound mirrors, in a way, the revolutionary insurgence and decline of the heroes killed in the 1916 Irish rebellion. The final three-beat iambic line, however, arrives with a different noise, in part because of what's preceded it. Whereas the penultimate line peaked and then sagged, the final line hammers home Yeats's point with a tragic-sounding, dirge-like beat: “a terrible beauty is born.” The last word rings with the reverberating “n” sound like a gong being struck. The sound is the meaning. It's nearly impossible to imagine altering a syllable of this without ruining it.
One would think, then, that anyone who delighted in traditional formal verse (I do) would welcome the new, unless, as in Sadoff's case, you think that neo-formalism posits some offensive social agenda (I don't).
And a few of the poems in Richman's anthology—particularly the light verse pieces—work. Anthony Hecht's “The Ghost in the Martini” uses the same ironic diction I love in Larkin to render an elder poet seducing or being seduced by a literary groupie. Who can fail to be amused by the first stanza:
Over the rim of the glass Containing a good martini with a twist I eye her bosom and consider a pass, Certain we'd not be missed
In the general hubbub. …
The trouble with this kind of light verse, however successful, is that, like lite beer and lite salad dressing, it leaves one hungry for something more substantial. Hecht's poem may echo bouncingly through my head the next time a visiting writer swoops an attractive student away to the nearest Motel 6, but such poems do not achieve the grandeur that, say, the last section of Stevens's “Esthétique du Mal” does—a grandeur of music and meaning as well as of form.
The greatest poverty is not to live In a physical world, to feel that one's desire Is too difficult to tell from despair. Perhaps, After death, the non-physical people, in paradise, Itself non-physical, may, by chance, observe The green corn gleaming and experience The minor of what we feel. …
Once I read those lines, they returned and altered my perceptions. And they returned frequently. In fact, there have been whole years of my life during which, on a daily basis, I needed to imagine that the non-physical people, these blank-faced angels—whom I think of, because of Stevens's wonderful phrasing, as a string of slightly depressed clerical workers waiting for a subway—looked down and envied in me the very passions that caused me difficulty. Hecht's poem states a social and anecdotal truth of a lower order than the great emotional or metaphysical truths that can change one's life.
In unhappy fact, most of the people who embrace neo-formalism and are most closely identified with it (Merrill and Leithauser, say, rather than Kunitz) seem, unlike their putative ancestors (Keats, say), to see formal excellence as an aesthetic virtue in and of itself, betraying little emotional intention.
That said, let me iterate Richman's noble-sounding call for a revival of form. He says that neo-formalism will free us from “… two decades of obscure, linguistically flat poetry.” In place of this grim stuff, Richman offers poems with the “sheer sensuous appeal of language.” Only the most stiff-necked Anglo-Saxon farmer might shy away from the Francophile seduction of the phrase “sheer sensuous appeal”—it almost sounds like an ad for pantyhose. But behind Richman's seductive promise lurks a hoary dichotomy—linguistically flat poetry versus linguistically ornate verse. This dichotomy originates in part from a conflict in American poetry between free verse and formal.
In our memories, the free-verse advocates sought—among other things—to iron the aristocratic curlicues from poetic diction in order to make poetry sound more populist, less elitist, and, therefore, more American. Ralph Waldo Emerson first called for a purely American poet, and Whitman answered. The poets I think of as belonging to this free-verse lineage are Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, the Lowell of Life Studies, the Beats à la Allen Ginsberg with his jangling finger cymbals, the Black Mountain poets (in particular Robert Creeley), the Naked Poets of the famous anthology (Robert Bly, James Wright, Denise Levertov, et al.), and African-American poets (such as Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks). Common wisdom holds that the free-verse revolution in this country only follows the same path as other formal changes through history. But the revolution has not so much opposed strict form as strict form and a certain kind of idiom. Timothy Steele explains it best in Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt against Meter, claiming that the modern revolution
differed from the revolution Euripedes led against Aeschylean style and the revolution Horace led against the literary conservatism of the day; and it differed from—to refer to Eliot's favorite examples—the revolution which Dryden led against Cleveland and the metaphysicals and the revolution which Wordsworth led against the Augustans. … The Modern movement's leaders … identified the Victorian diction against which they were rebelling (and the subject matter associated with the diction) with metrical composition per se. Having made this identification, they felt that to dispose of objectionable Victorian idiom, they had to dispose of meter.
Shortly after the turn of the century, Steele goes on to note, T. E. Hulme equated meter with both rhetoric and stylistic excesses. And it was such meter that most annoyed Pound in the Victorians, and from which he catapulted into free verse.
It's no surprise then that by the late 1970s, when I went to school, free verse and plain diction came to predominate in the M.F.A. worksheets. When Donald Hall claims in an essay that the burgeoning number of M.F.A. programs produces something called “McPoem,” we who read little magazines know intuitively what he means—tone ironic, diction flat. And McPoem comes, I think, from the revolution against meter, rhetoric, and the stylistic gush that characterized the Victorian idiom. I can no more defend this line of free versers than I would seek to weigh the virtues of its form-producing siblings. I do think, however, that it's McPoem that Richman and many of the neo-formalists seek to overthrow.
And of course, there's a long and venerable tradition in America of working in meter. We think of them as sentimental and comically ornate now, but Edna St. Vincent Millay and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow used to be poetic monuments. Nor would anyone disagree that however innovative Emily Dickinson was, she drank deeply from the English wellspring. As final testimony to the powers of formal poetry, I contend that most readers can quote, if nothing else, a smidgen of Robert Frost—perhaps the formal poet in this century most adept at infusing measured lines and stanzas with colloquial diction, thereby satisfying both the formalists and the free versers.
Another tradition, though, that inspires much of new poetry's obliquity and lack of understandable feeling is the French symbolist tradition as it migrated here through Yeats and the High Moderns—Eliot and Stevens. Without rehashing the entire symbolist manifesto, we can say that it often suggested that poetry was, in moral and practical terms, somewhat useless. In positing this fundamental irrelevance, the symbolist idea of “art for art's sake” (Théophile Gautier's term) freed poets from many of the moral and religious imperatives that possessed, say, Milton, and haunted artists as late as the nineteenth century. It was then that John Ruskin's book Modern Painters held aesthetic sway. There Ruskin at one point complains that a certain painter inaccurately depicted the shape of leaves on a certain type of tree, an inaccuracy that violated painting's moral obligation to mimic the natural world. We find this notion laughable today in part because of the symbolist influence, which hinted—at times even screamed—that poetry was a purely linguistic rather than human or (to use a positivist term) synthetic experience. In fact, in this country, most formal—as opposed to moral or humanistic—criteria for judging poetry have grown directly from symbolist sources. From Rimbaud's position that poetry resulted from “a deliberate disordering of the senses,” to Mallarmé's call for “pure” poetry, to Verlaine's desire to “wring the neck of rhetoric” (again, rhetoric being subtly linked in this country with Victorian excesses), the symbolists suggested that poetry needn't make much sense in terms of rational or sensory experience.
I'm saying several things with this broad characterization of recent poetic history. First, as we all know, it's not news that poets write in form. Second, neither is it news that the pendulum has swung back toward form at this particular bend in history, after several decades of increasingly plain diction. Third, while our symbolist heirs freed poetry from moral agendas, they also permitted writers not to worry much about speaking clearly (in the rhetorical and synthetic senses) to a reader.
Finally, the trend toward ornament also mirrors the end of the last century. Back then, we could also see the verse growing purpler. Like most of the pre-Raphaelites, Swinburne was a champion embellisher: Hugh Kenner slyly notes in The Pound Era that Swinburne once translated a single line of Sappho into eight lines of “slow-motion re-enactment.” The Victorians not only embroidered language, but they managed to sentimentalize almost every subject, and to grow increasingly stern and corseted as the century drew to a close, as if anticipating the revolution in morals (prompted by Freud's Interpretation of Dreams) after 1900. Poets seemed to lurch away from the new century's uncertainty by looking to the art's historical roots, honoring Greek and Latin antiquities; as a way of keeping the old cultural flame alive, lots of poets sprinkled their work with heavy references. Robert Hass, who was one teacher I had in graduate school, urged me to read Browning's “Sordello”—an incredibly muddled wad of nonsense about the jongleur who brought the Provençal lyric to France—in part so I might understand why Pound roared so loudly against the Victorians. Even Pound, himself anthologized as a Victorian, grumbled that you needed to learn some dozen different languages (including five dead ones) in order to read poetry. So we see at the end of the last century a reactionary lunge back toward our poetic roots, and that lunge produced some perfectly respectable results.
Sadly, the only thing that is news about neo-formalism is bad news. Rarely before has form been championed as a virtue in and of itself, and poems judged formally good that in fact lack any relevance to human experience. Many of the poems in Richman's anthology seem like the husks of poems, forms with the life bled out, the assumption being that impeccably rhymed and metered verse will be good regardless of poetic content, or lack thereof. This new passion for prettiness opposes, I think, the huge body of formal work that values form only as a relative quality. By relative, I mean that in the past the poet asked, what kind of sound will best communicate my meaning, and vice versa. So while I defend formal verse and approve neo-formalist goals—a revival of rich language and a literary history all but ignored since the free-verse revolution—I abhor its current practice as the source of perhaps the most emotionally vacant work ever written. Moreover, the acceptance of that work has given unearned praise and canon status to writers such as Clampitt who work outside strict forms, but still homestead the realm of ornament.
Despite my wince at the assembling neo-formalist canon, I believe strongly that we as readers should not scapegoat the innocent, though Sadoff's essay in The American Poetry Review blames political conservatism, warning readers that
neo-formalists have a social as well as a linguistic agenda. When they link pseudo-populism (“the general reader”) to regular meter, they disguise their nostalgia for moral and linguistic certainty, for a universal (“everyone agrees”) and univocal way of conserving culture.
Although I suppose that, politically speaking, I stand beside Sadoff far left of center, his approach seems misconceived. His use of the word “agenda” implies a political conspiracy. And his tone almost makes me nostalgic for the political conviction (bordering on paranoia) that was the appropriate response to the evil figures of the Watergate era. While I don't doubt that Richard Nixon conspired with his pals to lower the quality of our lives, I do doubt that Merrill did, or Vendler does. When Sadoff applies this sanctimonious tone to a reading of a Merrill poem, I doubt his sociopolitical conclusions.
One cannot read a poem like James Merrill's “Clearing the Title” … and admire his fluent iambic pentameter, his complicated rhyme scheme, without acknowledging that the culminating experience of this poem involves the wealthy narrator sharing a beautiful sunset with a native “black girl with shaved skull.” This “transcendent” moment allows him to make a commitment to his lover, to buy—I swear—a condo in Key West. The inherent racism of the poem … points out the dangers of an esthetic that ignores what is seen in favor of the pure beauty of sound.
One can discern in Sadoff's reading the same dichotomy that Richman mentioned—word versus world. Sadoff's gloss also harks back to the massive body of moral criticism after Plato. We should not, I think, look to poets or their poems for moral or political guidance, because, quite frankly, they seem to behave badly at least as often as they behave well—Larkin's misogyny and Pound's anti-Semitism pose just two examples of moral irresponsibility in our century. Nor can we as readers judge, as Sadoff tries to do, Merrill's “privileged personal stand and his obvious ambivalence toward intimacy. …” Who isn't ambivalent about intimacy? And how many of us writing poetry in this country aren't privileged? Moreover, the artist judged as amoral in his or her time—William Burroughs or Oscar Wilde, for instance—usually just proposes an unconventional moral code.
However, at a time when our eviscerated national arts program must battle censors for its very life, when rap records are stripped from shelves (No, I don't like “Slap My Bitch Up” either, but I wouldn't ban it), we must take care with our moral outrage. The key argument is not, as Sadoff implies, a political one between a free-verse liberalism and a formalist conservatism. In fact, to all moral critics I suggest reading Graham Hough, who makes these distinctions between moral- and formal-based criticism:
It is quite possible to hold a formal theory and to hold also that literature should be subject to external control. … All that is necessary to form a formal theory is to hold that these moral controls are external and do not affect literary value. … [But] formal theories developed in isolation reduce literature to insignificance. Moral theories developed in isolation cease to be literary theories and become contributions to the social hygiene.
So if we can't blame form, or history, or a certain political or social position for decorative poetry, whom can we blame? I suggest that we blame criticism, so long as we're careful not to blame critics, for we still live, as Randall Jarrell told us back in the fifties, in the age of criticism. An inevitable consequence is that poets expect a critic to stand between the text and the reader.
Moreover, a new atmosphere of interplay between literary theory and poetic practice bears some responsibility. It's not hard to see the American rage for post-structuralist models of reading as furnishing covert manifestos for such poetries of surface as, say, Brad Leithauser's, much in the same way that the last century's social-Darwinist craze informed the naturalist movement in American fiction.
But unfortunately, poets tend to translate theoretical models into recipes for instant production. So post-structuralist theories about engagement with a text have frequently, I think, been misinterpreted by American avant-garde writers as a passport to fashionable literary chaos. Laypeople (like me) probably view a theoretician like Jacques Derrida as engaged in a creatively destructive enterprise—specifically, overturning post-Platonic separations between form and content, word and referent, in order to clear ground for new kinds of work. But in practice, working poets only receive Derrida's complex set of messages filtered obliquely through, say, articles in The New York Review of Books. Seldom can poets see past post-structuralism's dense surface of wordplay and a broad edict that the world itself is but text. Derrida's style, then, has probably had more effect than any of his theories, which are virtually indecipherable to most of us. In this way, post-structuralism endorses an over-baroque surface that's heavily allusive and unconcerned with communication.
Furthermore, if the world itself is but text, then—or so some writers mistakenly feel—that text is doomed to be a private one, a hermetic one. Again, the liberating symbolist protest against artistic conformity to social and religious mores has perhaps transformed obscurity from something to be tolerated occasionally in a poem into something required to prove the poet's seriousness. I think of Valéry's remark that symbolist poetry after Baudelaire wanted only to “tease the bourgeois reader with difficulty.” Since that injunction, the poet has learned to count on the critic to clarify and message, no matter how deeply buried. Harold Bloom stands at the ready to whisper myth and meaning into the reader's ear, and to justify said reference while scaring the hell out of the average reader with words like historicize. Rudolph Arnheim once warned against an art that generates chaotic forms under the guise of reflecting a chaotic world. It's that very chaos that I see in the ascendancy in much decorative poetry.
With a slight nod of culpability to Derrida and de Man, et al., none of whom I much understand, I do not hold deconstruction at fault in the decorative mishmash of contemporary poetry, any more than I would blame modernism for the literary confusion prompted by The Waste Land. But a fair measure of a theory's power is its breadth of influence, and a broad influence is doomed, in part, to be a shallow one. Deconstruction has permitted poets to be weak communicators. I'm thinking specifically of the glib meaninglessness in poets like Ashbery and his heirs, the Language Poets. It's ironic, though, that theories invented to collapse distinctions between form and content now provide writers with permission to ignore the referents of words, thereby elevating form to a communicative end in itself. As deconstructionist theories have begun blurrily appearing on our inner TV screens—part of the current Zeitgeist—poets have begun generating a kind of literary rubble, which cannot be built upon.
I would refute ornamental poetry—represented most obviously by the neo-formalists—on aesthetic, rather than theoretical, political, or social grounds. What I posit, and indeed, what Horace posited back in the first century B.C., is that poetry should be dulce et util: it should be sweet and useful, should delight and instruct; the linguistic and decorative experience of a poem should not outweigh the human or synthetic meanings.
We have collectively bemoaned how poetry's audience has dwindled to a tiny coterie, whose favor poets buy with a kind of literary jewelry. No one was wiser (or more wise-assed) about that shrinking audience than Jarrell, who wrote this almost fifty years before poetry reached the decorative zenith it holds today:
That the poetry of the first half of this century often was too difficult … is a truism that it would be absurd to deny. How our poetry got this way—how romanticism was purified and exaggerated and “corrected” into modernism … how poet and public stared at each other with righteous indignation, till the poet said, “Since you won't read me, I'll make sure you can't”—is one of the most complicated and interesting of stories.
Complicated the story still is, but I wonder if Jarrell would find the highbrow doily-making that passes for art today interesting. I scarcely do, except in the way that an exorcist might find certain demons interesting.
My opinion of ornament became cemented ten years back when I sat through a partial reading of Merrill's epic Changing Light at Sandover at Harvard. At the crowded reception after, I stood elbow to elbow with some friends—poets and critics whose opinions I respect and who were jubilant about the performance. I asked each in turn what he or she liked in the reading, which parts were moving, because I assumed that I had missed something. But their faces remained empty. No one seemed to remember much. Maybe my question seemed too bone-headed to warrant an answer, but no one seized upon an instant or quoted a line to support the consensus that the reading was a smash. Yet here stood, in my opinion, a fairly elite audience. I had heard these friends in the wee hours quote Hopkins by the yard, or rehash the details of Sir Philip Sidney's Defence of Poetry. Yet ten minutes after an allegedly brilliant reading, the poems had merely washed past the audience, leaving no traces except for some vague murmurings.
I drove home feeling awful, thinking that something terrible had happened to poetry, that a trick had been played on readers, and small wonder that the number of readers continued to decline. Somehow, the poetry that made our pulses race, that could flood us with conviction and alter our lives, had been replaced by decoration, which can only leave us nodding smugly to one another, as if privy to some inside joke.
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Mary Karr 1955-
(Born Mary Marlene Karr) American poet, memoirist, and essayist.
The following entry presents an overview of Karr's career through 2001.
With the publication of her memoir The Liars' Club: A Memoir in 1995, Karr, already a respected poet, became a critically acclaimed, best-selling author. The Liars' Club remained on the New York Times best-seller list for over a year and won Karr the 1996 PEN Martha Albrand Award for first nonfiction. The Liars' Club, which takes place in a small industrial East Texas town during the mid-1960s when Karr was eight years old, conveys a strong sense of place and effectively evokes the powerful emotional climate of a family circle characterized by alcoholism, mental illness, and strong passions. Critics applauded Karr's use of narrative voice, inflected with the colloquial speech of East Texas and the unique perspective of a precocious young girl. The Liars' Club inspired a spate of memoirs written in the confessional mode. Cherry: A Memoir (2000), Karr's sequel to The Liars' Club, portrays Karr's adolescent years of intellectual and sexual awakening. While Karr is best known for her memoirs, her body of publications includes three volumes of poetry—Abacus (1987), The Devil's Tour (1993), and Viper Rum (1998). Karr has won the Pushcart prize for both her poetry and essays.
Karr was born January 16, 1955, in Groves, a small town in East Texas located in the Port Arthur region, known for its oil refineries and chemical plants. Although she has given the town in her memoirs a fictional name, her writing clearly evokes the social and cultural milieu of this region. Karr's father worked in an oil refinery while her mother was an amateur artist and business owner. Karr's sister, two years her elder, is a key figure in her memoirs. Karr developed an early interest in literature; she told a Publishers Weekly interviewer that, at the age of eleven, she wrote in a notebook that her ambition was “to write poetry and autobiography.” Upon graduation from high school, she traveled with a group of friends to Los Angeles, where she immersed herself in the lifestyle of the California hippie and surfer counter-cultures. Later that year, she enrolled in Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, but left school after two years to travel. Her political involvement in the anti-apartheid movement led her to meet African American poet Ethridge Knight who became an important influence on the development of her poetry. Karr eventually entered graduate school to study creative writing, and earned an M.F.A. from Goddard College in 1979. Among her mentors at Goddard was Tobias Wolff, whose memoir This Boy's Life served as a major influence on Karr's own writing. She also studied with noted poets Robert Bly and Robert Hass. Her first publication was a poem that appeared in Mother Jones magazine. Karr moved to Boston in 1980, where she held various jobs in the computer and telecommunications industries while continuing to write and publish poetry. In 1983 she married poet Michael Milburn, with whom she had a son, but the couple divorced in 1991. Karr has worked as an assistant professor at several colleges and universities, including Tufts University, Emerson College, Harvard University, and Sarah Lawrence College. She teaches in the department of English at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York.
The Liars' Club and Cherry are set in the fictional town of Leechfield, Texas, based on Karr's home town. The events of The Liars' Club take place during the years 1961 to 1963, when Karr was seven and eight years old, recounting the traumatic events she experienced during that period in the context of her dysfunctional family life. The novel's title refers to the local American Legion pool room and bar, as well as the back room of a bait shop, where Karr's father and other local men socialized in their free time. Karr asserts that her father was the best storyteller, a skill Karr effectively developed in her own right. Karr's mother, an alcoholic and mentally unstable woman whose artistic and intellectual interests were stifled by small-town life, once burned all of the family's possessions and called the local police station to report that she had killed her two daughters, a confession that turned out to be untrue. Against this chaotic emotional backdrop, Karr reports being raped by a neighborhood boy at the age of seven and sexually assaulted by an adult male babysitter at the age of eight. The Liars' Club explores themes of truth, lies, memory, confession, and storytelling, a set of terms that overlap and merge as her memoir develops. The trope of the “liars' club” thus comes to encompass everyone who has ever told a story or recalled a personal memory, based on the idea that personal perspective belies the possibility of ever conveying objective truth. Cherry, the sequel to The Liars' Club, follows Karr's adolescent years. Cherry has been referred to as a bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story, in which Karr develops a sense of individuality distinct from her family. While some of the most powerful scenes in Cherry are concerned with Karr's sexual awakening, it is also a memoir of her intellectual awakening and development as a budding writer. The first half of Cherry is narrated by Karr in the first-person voice; the second half of the novel, however, switches to a second-person narrative address, thus suggesting that her own personal experiences as a teenager in the late 1960s and early 1970s were characteristic of an entire generation of adolescent girls.
Karr's poetry, like her memoirs, has been described as confessional, due to the frank revelations of self-doubt and dysfunctional family that are a common subject of her work. The settings of her poems are primarily of the same working-class East Texas milieu that is treated more extensively in her memoirs, and a number of the characters and incidents related in her poetry are revisited in her memoirs. Karr's erudite references to classic literature are worked into her poetry juxtaposed against personal experiences of a hardscrabble childhood in her blue-collar hometown. Her poetry is characterized by brevity, clarity, meticulous detail, and careful attention to metrical form. She has developed a personal style of using the three-line stanza in many of her poems. The poems of Abacus are introspective reflections on personal relationships, love, friendship, and self-questioning. The Devil's Tour grapples with broader struggles of human existence and consciousness, exploring themes of death, mortality, evolution, and existential angst, as well as parenting and family relationships. The recurring motif of skull imagery in Devil's Tour invokes the themes of mortality and introspection. The poems in Viper Rum include reflections on Karr's personal life, her relationship with her parents, her struggles with alcoholism, and an awakening to religious sentiment. Karr's polemical essay “Against Decoration,” originally published in 1990, is included at the end of Viper Rum. In “Against Decoration,” Karr launches a critique of the neo-formalist trend in contemporary poetry, which she faults for lacking in emotion and clarity. Karr argues that, “[t]o pay so little attention to the essentially human elements of a poem makes a monster of poetry's primary emotional self, its very reason for being, so that the art becomes exclusively decorative and at times grotesque.” Commentators have noted that Karr's own poetry generally lives up to the aesthetic standards she espouses in “Against Decoration.”
Karr has been lauded for her savvy storytelling, lyrical prose, vivid, sensual detail, emotional honesty, humor, and ability to capture the colloquial speech of small-town East Texas in her memoirs. She has been noted for her frank yet nonjudgmental portrayal of her father and mother, which effectively expresses both the love and the pain associated with each parent. Many reviewers have commented that themes of sexual abuse and dysfunctional family are handled by Karr without the bitterness, self-pity, melodrama, or sentimentality that characterizes many confessional memoirs. Cyra McFadden has observed that Karr “is blessed with a sense of humor that allows her to see whatever happens to her, good, bad or terrible, as just one more example of chaos theory at work.” The Liars' Club is undoubtedly Karr's most highly regarded work. Reviewers admired her use of narrative voice in The Liars' Club, which convincingly portrays the perspective of a young girl. M. Joy Gorence observed that Karr's narrative voice in The Liars' Club expresses “the innocence of a young child but with the understanding of an adult.” The Liars' Club also earned admiration for being skillfully written, powerfully expressive, and entertaining to read. Cherry, while generally liked, has been judged by a number of reviewers as flawed in its use of narrative voice. Such critics felt that the first-person voice in the first half of the story is effective, but the abrupt shift to second-person voice in latter half constitutes a serious flaw in the narrative. Karr's poetry, while not attracting a wide popular readership, is highly regarded by critics. Her use of language has been consistently praised, especially her formal meter capturing the rhythms of everyday speech, her evocative imagery, and her meticulous attention to detail. As with her memoirs, critics applauded Karr's ability to express strong emotions and describe poignant situations without lapsing into melodrama or sentimentality.
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SOURCE: McFadden, Cyra. “There's No Lie as Big as the Truth.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (16 July 1995): 1, 12.
[In the following review, McFadden discusses the themes of lies, truth, memory, and storytelling in The Liars' Club.]
Memoirs inhabit the middle ground between truth and fiction. They can't stick to the facts, and only the facts, because we don't remember past events as clearly as we remember how we felt about them, which is a different kind of truth. And sometimes, as in Mary Karr's memoir about her East Texas childhood, the events themselves are so bizarre, no novelist could get away with them. Who'd believe a grandmother so cruel that when she dies of cancer, 8-year-old Mary has to restrain herself from singing, “Ding, dong, the witch is dead”? An alcoholic mother who's been married seven times and as a hobby of sorts—she's bored to tears with small-town Texas—keeps trying to kill off her immediate relatives?
The Liars' Club is even more of a hybrid than most memoirs, in that it reads like a surrealist take on Little House on the Prairie. You don't always believe the narrator, in whose family lying was an art form. Sometimes a revelation seems too near or a remembered emotion rings false—though funny as hell—as when the 8-year-old Karr watches her mother set fire to her rocking horse, along with most of the family's other possessions, during a drunken rampage. What the author was thinking at the time, she'd have us believe, is “Bye-bye, old Paint … I'm a-leaving Cheyenne.” None of which, as we used to say in my part of the West, makes no nevermind. This is such a captivating book, at once hilarious and heartfelt, that you don't have to believe every word to love it. You need only prop your cowboy boots on the porch rail, open a cold longneck and listen to the voice of a born storyteller.
The Liars' Club begins with Karr's sharpest memory, “of a single instant surrounded by dark. I was seven, and our family doctor knelt before me where I sat on a mattress on the bare floor. … He was pulling at the hem of my favorite nightgown—a pattern of Texas bluebonnets bunched into nosegays tied with ribbon against a field of nappy white cotton. I had tucked my knees under it to make a tent. He could easily have yanked the thing over my head with one motion, but something made him gentle. ‘Show me the marks,’ he said. ‘Come on, now. I won't hurt you.’”
This is as much of the ominous scene that Karr could remember for three decades, along with the fact that “Mother had been taken Away … for being Nervous.” But once the writer has created the expectation of a horror story, a painful saga of childhood abuse, she shifts the tone. Even when she's writing about remembered trauma, and The Liars' Club is full of it, Karr's is the voice of a woman with no room for self-pity. “I should explain here that in East Texas parlance the term Nervous applied with equal accuracy to anything from chronic nail-biting to full-blown psychosis.” The way some people are born with perfect pitch, Karr, a prize-winning poet and essayist, is blessed with a sense of humor that allows her to see whatever happens to her, good, bad or terrible, as just one more example of chaos theory at work.
She also has a flawless ear for the salty, folksy East Texas dialect that she learned at her daddy's knee. The Liars' Club of the book's title is the local bait shop in her hometown, where her oil-worker father and his cronies gathered to drink, gamble and tell tall tales: “Of all the men in the Liars' Club, Daddy told the best stories. When he started one, the guys invariably fell quiet, studying their laps or their cards or the inner rims of their beer mugs like men in prayer.” None of his skill was wasted on his daughter, who grows up to write of him, fondly: “Some days he was spring-loaded on having a fight.” She reports that she and her older sister, Lecia, would “rather have chewed linoleum than gone to Sunday school” and describes her spankings as “a kind of family sporting event complete with rounds.”
The language of The Liars' Club crackles with energy and wit. Then Karr's tone will shift abruptly again; when called for, she can be tender. Near the end of the book, she reflects on the winding down of her adult relationship with her father, once close, now remote. Though neither of them really knows why, time and distance have loosened their bond. “So over the years, Daddy and I grew abstract to each other. We knew each other in theory and loved in theory. But if placed in proximity—when I came home, say—any room we sat in would eventually fall into a soul-sucking quiet I could hardly stand.”
The Liars' Club is a wild and woolly contribution to the annals of American childhood. Mary Karr was raped by a teenage boy when she was 8 and later sexually assaulted by a baby-sitter. She witnessed her parents' booze-fueled fights and her mother's flights into madness. By means of “fate or grace or pure … chance,” she uncovered family secrets so baroque they merit another memoir. Somehow, Karr has looked back at all this without blinking and written about it, as well, with unqualified emotional honesty. In a memoir or any other form of narrative, that's called spunk.
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Abacus (poetry) 1987
The Devil's Tour (poetry) 1993
The Liars' Club: A Memoir (memoir) 1995
Viper Rum (poetry and essays) 1998
Cherry: A Memoir (memoir) 2000
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SOURCE: Donaldson, Scott. “Mary Karr Recounts Her Tough East Texas Childhood.” Chicago Tribune Books (23 July 1995): 3.
[In the following review, Donaldson applauds Karr for her vivid storytelling and brilliant use of narrative voice in The Liars' Club.]
Getting students to write openly and honestly about their childhood isn't easy. Some of them simply back away. No, nothing has ever happened to make them feel deeply. They've never been angry or embarrassed or jealous or ecstatic. Solid Americans all, they even deny knowing about guilt. Others go in the opposite direction, and rather than simply recounting the tale that brings the emotion to life, they keep repeating how awful or wonderful it was when grandfather died or they won the French horn contest.
Mary Karr belongs to another category entirely. She neither shies away from the truth nor erects signposts to guide her readers' reactions [in The Liars' Club]. Instead, she lets her story speak for itself. It's one hell of a story, and she tells it vividly.
The bulk of her memoir covers the years 1962 and 1963, when she was 7 and 8 years old and growing up in Leechfield, a swampy East Texas town where the water moccasins flourished and the oil refineries and chemical plants gave off a rotten-egg smell.
Karr's daddy—he called her “Pokey”—worked in the refineries and was a strong union man who taught her to hate scabs and Republicans. He also let Pokey tag along to the Legion hall where he told outrageous tall tales between sips of Jack Daniels. Sometimes he got into fights, which were over fast: “Daddy hit people, and then they fell down.”
His fights with Mary's mother were more persistent, if physically less violent. A frustrated artist, Karr's mother had a weakness for drink and for men. She was also Nervous, a term which in East Texas covered everything “from chronic nail-biting to full-blown psychosis.” Charlie Marie Moore Karr's Nervousness took the form of trying to drive off bridges, burning everything in the house in a gigantic bonfire and taking a butcher knife to her daughters.
Mary's sister Lecia, two years older, bonded with her mother, and Pokey with her daddy. But they got lessons in cussing and irreverence from both parents.
From her daddy, for example, Pokey learned how to respond to criticism. When the neighbor ladies suggested she should have her mouth washed out with soap, she'd yell at them to kiss her rosy red behind and then run for the safety of her house. Death confronted the girls when Grandma Moore died, but Pokey knew her to be “a ring-tailed bitch” and could not bring herself to pretend grief. Nor was she upset when their surly dog Nipper disappeared in the wake of Hurricane Carla: That dog had nipped her more than once.
After Grandma Moore's death, Mary's mother came into some money, which she spent by moving to Colorado and buying a bar to drink in. In due course, her parents divorced. Daddy went back to Texas, and mother married a barkeep. Surprisingly, however, the dysfunctional Karrs got together again and stuck it out to the end.
In a kind of coda to her memoir, Pokey writes with moving restraint of her father's stroke and eventual death many years later. The cerebral hemorrhage reduced her yarn-spinning dad to baby talk, which Karr reproduces with terrible specificity to say that only the truth is good enough for those we love. For there is no question that this uninhibited and unsettlingly tough-talking book is driven by love.
Mary Karr writes of her sister Lecia, who was wiser than she in the ways of the world, with real affection. And she comes to an emotional accommodation with her mother, who after all did not choose to be Nervous and who had been damaged by an unjust past. But the love story is between Pokey and her daddy Jack Karr, the rock of the family and the lesson giver. When her parents separated and her father drove back to Texas, the 8-year-old Pokey tried to zip herself into his duffel bag. “Getouta there, Pokey,” he said, drawing the zipper down to her belly button. “God's sake, you'll break a fella's heart.”
One of the most difficult problems in childhood reminiscence involves voice. In order to render the experience of a 7-year-old with authenticity, Karr must assume the language, or at least the sensibility, of a very young girl. At the same time, however, she must occasionally impose the moral judgment of a mature adult.
This is a problem that she solves brilliantly when Karr matter-of-factly relates how at 7 she was assaulted by a 13-year-old boy and how at 8 she was instructed in fellatio by a grownup sitter. The phrase “sexual abuse” does not appear, nor does it need to. The tales themselves, rendered in close detail, make their accusations.
Yet something cries out to be said, and at least in the case of the 13-year-old who took her into a garage and laid her down on an empty concrete sack, Karr conjures up a scene of revenge. She imagines that boy now grown and married and changing his pretty wife's tire when she tells him that in some book Mary Karr wrote a boy from the neighborhood is accused of “diddling” her at 7.
“Maybe your head will click back a notch as this registers,” Karr writes. “Maybe you'll see your face's image spread across the hubcap like it's been flattened by a ball-peen hammer. Probably you'll think I forgot what you did, or figured it was no big deal. I say this now across decades and thousands of miles solely to remind you of the long memory my daddy always said I had.”
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SOURCE: Wood, Gaby. “What Did It Matter Who I Was?” London Review of Books 20, no. 19 (19 October 1995): 39.
[In the following review, Wood examines the characteristics of confessional memoirs, arguing that the lies told in The Liars' Club are primarily “tricks of memory.”]
Richard Rayner's The Blue Suit is a memoir, a work of non-fiction. In it his father dies several times: of cancer, in a car crash, missing presumed drowned and, finally, of a heart attack. He makes guest appearances in between, as a sick man in Scotland, as a diplomat in Australia, as a stepfather. These events all form part of a story, a sort of Arabian Nights of the confessional, in which Rayner admits his real life to his girlfriend (‘one confession veiling the next’), and the whole truth turns out to be a narration of the lies he has told.
The first of Rayner's untruths squirms into our heads like one of those children's stories which are intended to show how dangerously lies can escalate. He is at a boarding-school in North Wales when a friend mentions a newspaper headline. ‘The headline was WHERE IS JACK RAYNER? It said that lots of money was missing as well. Is that your dad?’ Rayner thinks for a minute about how he might stick up for his father then says: ‘No … That's not my dad. Must be someone else.’ But in all fairness, the first lie was cast by the father himself, when he precipitated that headline in a stunning act of desertion. Richard has the same panicked idea much later, when Jack Rayner rises from the dead of Richard's lies and turns up in Cambridge, anxious to meet his friends. ‘I'll fake my death,’ he thinks, ‘and leave my own pile of clothes next to a convenient body of water—the Cam would do.’
Apart from making up his family life (several stories about his father, an extra brother and sister he has invented for his girlfriend) Rayner confesses to stealing. He robs a neighbour's house in Yorkshire, a house in Hammersmith and another in Islington, he steals a Rolex watch from a friend and money from students in a carefully calculated chequebook fraud. First, and mainly, though, he steals books. The project starts out after a fellow student sniggers that Rayner must be ‘the only person in Cambridge without his shelves stuffed’. He suddenly remembers how much he enjoyed reading as a child—Wuthering Heights, The Great Gatsby, A Clockwork Orange—and opens an account in Heffers bookshop. In there one day, he writes: ‘I thought I'd try stealing a book, just one, to see if I had the nerve.’ But the adrenalin that comes from these literary crimes creates a whole other self—he becomes a book collector.
Walter Benjamin wrote of the different ways to acquire books: one could write them oneself, one could borrow them, ‘with its attendant non-returning’, one could buy them from catalogues, auctions or bookshops. He doesn't mention stealing as one of the options, or not in so many words: ‘You have all heard of people,’ he writes, ‘who in order to acquire [books] became criminals’. Richard Rayner has the passion of Benjamin's book collector, and his language floats into collectors' trance when writing of them. He steals ‘Heinemann firsts of Enderby Outside, Tremor of Intent and A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. The Collected Poems of A. E. Housman, Cape 1939, buckram bound. A cased Cassell edition of The Father Brown Stories … Black Mischief, another old Chapman & Hall first, no dj, but handsome mottled brown boards.’
We may choose to believe Richard Rayner, as he presents himself to us raw: ‘Perhaps we all have this dream, to tell everything and yet not forfeit love—the only sinner not to be roasted.’ What he's admitting to, though, is not a series of misdemeanours, but something like a pathology. The lies he tells are like tics, little stutters that throw stories off the tongue when he meets people. A few years ago he said to himself: ‘“You're not this person any more.” Obviously I still was that person.’ He may be cured, this may be his cure, but when potentially told with a lie-stammer, facts become irrelevant to the story.
The book is composed of what Rayner calls ‘other stories, other truths’. There have been times in his life and, before that, in his father's, when identities have slipped. It may be more useful to think of them as likenesses rather than lies, stories which approach fact, rather than jump away from it. Each story is something like what happened, Rayner is something like his father and each version of his father is something like other versions. In 1991, Rayner wrote The Elephant, ‘a novel, a re-imagining of my relationship with my father’. Here is a description from that book of his fictional father: ‘My father had a thin moustache and a flair for melodrama. Loved cricket, hated work. Cultivated an air of suave disinterest, borrowed from Fred Astaire and the musical comedies of the 1930s. Was interested in any woman who wasn't my mother.’ In The Blue Suit, he describes his real father: ‘As a child I'd soon realised that my father wasn't like other fathers. He loved cricket and worked the way people seemed to in the movies—not a lot. He had a thin moustache, an air of suave indifference borrowed from Fred Astaire or David Niven, and he was interested in any woman who wasn't my mother.’ Both fathers drive at 105 mph singing ‘Yes, we have no bananas, we have no bananas today,’ and both leave home to get some milk, returning weeks later with a bottle in each hand and saying: ‘I got two, just to be on the safe side.’ The relation of the fictional to the non-fictional account is something like that of Rayner's stories to what others might call the truth. And sometimes the likenesses are almost exactly the same. In The Elephant, the hero's mother tells him his father ‘wanted me always to be there when he came home from a hard day of being Jack Hamer, or an even harder day of Jack Hamer being someone else’. After the novel was published, Rayner's father died, and his name was misspelled on the coffin, ‘John Bertram Raynor’. Rayner writes in The Blue Suit: ‘he was cremated as he'd spent much of his life—with a name not exactly his own.’ There are more than two fathers here, more than just the real and the fictional or the two put together. They are re-runs of experience, mouldings of identity. There is no honesty or lack of—only different ways of finding something. Rayner writes that his father would ‘never let you find his edges’, and after seeing him on one occasion thinks: ‘I'd lied so often I'd lost sight of where the true lines were, and, when confronted with traces, I didn't know what to be.’ Then, later in the book: ‘What did it matter who I was, when I could be someone different so easily?’
One must, I suppose, have some notion of what the truth would be in order to feel the need to confess. But Rayner's mind seems too bright, too complicated, to believe in truth with the ease required for the straightforward confession he seems to want to give. Likenesses are his ‘other truths’ in a world where identity is elastic and the truth always has a double. Nevertheless, Rayner himself calls them lies. At one point he writes: ‘I would have confessed to everything, anything.’ Perhaps this is what Paul Valéry meant when he said ‘qui se confesse ment.’ The ‘anything’ topples over into untruth. Even in confessing to lies he's lying, using the excuse and genre of the confession to write a memoir, to relive his lies one more time.
Mary Karr's The Liars' Club is subtitled ‘a memoir’. It opens with a quote from R. D. Laing: ‘We have our secrets and our needs to confess. We may remember … what an accomplishment it was when we, in fear and trembling, could tell our first lie.’ But the story is one of incredible torment, told by the injured party. It is remembered as Karr saw it when she was eight, and then when she was coming to grips with that childhood in her twenties. She grew up in Leechfield, Texas (an invented name, I think, for a real place), which was once voted ‘one of the ten ugliest towns on the planet’ by Business Week. She and her sister Lecia moved from there to Colorado and back again. Their parents split up, their mother remarried a drunk called Hector. Karr is raped by an older boy after a group of them have been playing and the friends have gone home. Her adult babysitter forces her to give him a blow-job when she is at home with the flu. Her mother is an alcoholic, glamorous and seedy like some Hollywood legend. She wears silk nightdresses and conical bras, stays in bed all day in Texas and buys a bar to stay in all day in Colorado. She drives them to school sipping on a child's beaker of Bloody Mary. ‘She'd become the picture of somebody nuts.’ This all comes to a head when Karr's mother buys a pearl-handled gun, ‘a weapon like something a saloon girl might pull out of her velvet drawstring bag to waggle at some mouthy, card-playing cowpoke in a bad Western’, and aims it at Hector. The two girls finally decide to go back to their father. Before the sleaze, though, her mother was nuts (or ‘nervous’, as they say in Leechfield) in a different way. She was taken to a mental hospital when she set fire to her children's belongings in front of them and stood at the entrance to their room with a knife. She called the doctor to say she had killed them both—her hallucinations had saved them. Much later Karr finds out that her mother's first husband had left with their two children and that she had married several times in order to get her children back.
So what is there to confess to? Having remembered her life this way? Having forgotten? Even non-fiction has its unreliable narrators, and here the ‘lies’ are tricks of memory. ‘The missing story really begins …’ Karr writes; and: ‘My memory turns to smoke right there’; ‘In the next slide, dark finally comes’; ‘My memory comes back into focus’; ‘But I'm making this up.’
The Liars' Club was a group of people her father used to drink with at the American Legion Hall. They were so called because they used to tell their wives they were somewhere else, but for Karr the name is also connected to the stories her father used to tell there. ‘Of all the men in the Liars' Club, Daddy told the best stories … He had this gift: he knew how to be believed.’ He begins one: ‘I'll tell you just exactly how my daddy died … He hung hisself.’ And Karr writes: ‘This is easily the biggest lie Daddy ever told—that I heard, anyway. His daddy is alive and well and sitting on his porch in Kirbyville with his bird dogs.’ Much later, when Karr is back from university, her father has a stroke and loses his memory, although ‘whole chunks of brain function stayed intact’. He remembers Normandy when watching a programme about D-Day, but doesn't know the word for fork. Although the whole book is riddled with tough happenings, it is here, at the end, that a strange kind of bitterness emerges. Karr urges her father to remember the word ‘fork’, with an almost aggressive insistence, and when he finally replies ‘Bacon!’, she says, in her ‘best nursery school voice … bingo, Daddy.’ It is as if his stories, whether remembered or invented in the Liars' Club (where she had as a child been a clandestine member) were what had linked them. His inability to tell them now drew a feeling out of her similar to that provoked by an early birthday present, which ‘had drawn tears from some deep sour place way behind my eyes’. One evening she comes home to find him watching re-runs of old dog races. She tells him how depressing she finds it—other people already know the outcome, and the dogs are probably dead. That night the thing she wants most is to listen to her father ‘unreel a story in my head’. She finds him telling one on a tape she had made for an oral history project, shows it to him, and he remembers it, grinning ‘on half his face’. She plays it for both of them, plays him back the voice he no longer has.
Perhaps her confession is the other half of her father's lies, rounding off something he has not only left unfinished, but lost. Or perhaps it is confessing to a misplaced belief, to recognising only the lies that couldn't help her. Driving back with her mother after a final unburdening of truths, Karr writes: ‘All the black crimes we believed ourselves guilty of were myths, stories we'd cobbled together out of fear. Only the dark aspect of any story sank in. I never knew despair could lie.’
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Arguelles, Ivan. Review of Abacus, by Mary Karr. Library Journal 112, no. 15 (15 September 1987): 84.
Arguelles offers a mixed assessment of the poems collected in Abacus.
Barber, David. Review of The Devil's Tour, by Mary Karr. Poetry 164, no. 3 (June 1994): 164-67.
Barber commends Karr's lyrical craftsmanship, vivid description, and expressive language in The Devil's Tour.
Joughin, Sheena. “No Place Like Home.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5127 (6 July 2001): 25.
Joughin praises Karr's use of a first-person narrative voice in the opening half of Cherry, arguing that the technique evokes “the edgy displacement of adolescence.”
Pinsker, Sanford. “The Landscape of Contemporary American Memoir.” Sewanee Review 111, no. 2 (spring 2003): 311-20.
Pinsker offers a critical reading of contemporary memoir writing by American authors, citing The Liars' Club as one of his prime examples.
Yardley, Jonathan. “Hardscrabble Lives.” Washington Post Book World 25, no. 25 (18 June 1995): 3.
Yardley asserts that The Liars' Club is a strong and skillfully written confessional memoir, calling the work “the essential American story.”
Additional coverage of Karr's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 11; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 151; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 100; Literature Resource Center; and Nonfiction Classics for Students, Vol. 5.
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SOURCE: Young, Elizabeth. “Wrecked in Texas.” New Statesman and Society 8, no. 375 (20 October 1995): 39-40.
[In the following review, Young commends The Liars' Club as a “extraordinarily vivid and beautifully written” memoir, noting that the work transcends the traditionally “salacious” subject material of the American memoir.]
Intellectuals are as prurient as anyone else. They are just as interested in murder, sex and disease but they don't much like to admit it. They scorn tabloids and talk shows. Egg-head voyeurism is catered for in up-market biographies and films that focus on the scandals of the Bloomsbury Group, Anais Nin, Henry Miller and their like—or in books whose concern for the ecosystem, the homeless, the missing or addicted enables the educated to wallow guiltlessly in repulsive descriptions of Ebola disease, true-crime atrocities or appalling deprivations.
Mary Karr's memoir, [The Liars' Club,] which arrives accompanied by sheaves of ecstatic US reviews, is the American equivalent of this salacious material for high IQs. The themes of the book are those bloody chunks of blue collar confession that make up the Oprah Winfrey and Ricky Lake shows. The book is replete with insanity, violence, neglect, alcoholism, lost children, strokes, cancer, child sexual abuse (twice) and multiple marriage.
This intends no disrespect to Karr, who is merely chronicling the events of her tumultuous childhood. The book is extraordinarily vivid and beautifully written—so that it reads exactly like a novel. It has been constructed with the utmost care. Perhaps it is this very elegance that creates a faint sense of disunion between the tough, tormented child being described and the cool, prize-winning, poetry-writing academic pictured on the back cover.
It is not that Karr puts any sort of gloss on her smashed-up childhood. She takes great pains to convey the texture of every experience, however awful, and tries determinedly for emotional honesty. Karr and her elder sister Lecia grew up during the 1960s in the arsehole of the universe; Leechfield, East Texas. Pockmarked by heavy industry, Leechfield is up there with Chernobyl and Bhopal in the cancer stakes. Children play by chasing the DDT truck to see who will up-chuck first. The beach is covered with gunge, rotting shrimp and man-o'-war jellyfish. Karr's mother Charlie married their father, her fifth (and seventh) husband on impulse when her car broke down in Texas. She was an artistic bohemian, he a handsome, part-Indian oil refinery worker.
It was hopelessly ill-fated. They were both alcoholics. Stranded in this hell-hole with two kids, a crazy mother dying of cancer, and a husband constantly out shooting squirrels or drinking, Charlie becomes increasingly psychotic. She makes a confused attempt on her daughters' lives, is adjudged “nervous” and removed to the bin. A wrenching divorce follows and the girls endure a purgatory in Colorado. Although not yet in their teens, they manage to get themselves home to their much-loved father. Charlie finally rejoins them.
Karr narrates all this with great force, wit and vivacity. She is very funny about the awfulness of Leechfield and her own dysfunctional family. “It turned out to be impossible for me to ‘run away’ in the sense other American teenagers did,” she writes of leaving home at 15. “Any movement at all was taken for progress in my family.” At the same time she conveys the pain and fear that coloured her childhood and manages, with considerable skill and humanity, to produce affecting and affectionate portraits of both parents.
She describes the book as having been “scaldingly difficult to write”. Karr evidently understands the distancing quality that prose has on memory and emotion. The intervention of authorial language always renegotiates experience. As the critical theorist Paul de Man wrote, “A fundamental discrepancy always prevents the observer from coinciding fully with the consciousness he is observing.”
It must be for this reason—the impossibility of accurately re-presenting personal experience—that Karr chose her title. In the book, “The Liars' Club” is an informal gathering that Karr's father attends with his mates at the American Legion or Fisher's Bait Shop, where they drink, play pool and spin tall tales.
The book's rhythm is deceptively oral, seemingly circuitous when it is tightly structured. One's attention never flags. Karr's control of the drawling East Texas demotic—“drag-ass”, “from the git-go”, “a ring-tailed bitch”—is spectacular.
Karr skates narrowly past the pitfall of the feel-good factor, something Americans find irresistible and that must account for the major movie deal (and eventual saccharine film). Her story maintains its integrity partly by describing her adult distance from the father she so adored when a child. And that—a universal experience—is truly heartbreaking.
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SOURCE: Hubbard, Kate. “Unhappy in Its Own Way.” Spectator 275, no. 8730 (4 November 1995): 49-50.
[In the following review, Hubbard compliments the “extraordinary vividness” of Karr's writing in The Liars' Club.]
To say that The Liars' Club is a memoir of a dysfunctional Texan family is both true and also reductive. The facts are harrowing—madness, alcoholism, sexual abuse—yet their narration, which crackles with wry humour, affection and defiance, is not. It is fired by a kind of fierce honesty, a determination to shun the comforting lies of memory and the lies which shrouded Mary Karr's childhood. Eschewing self-pity and blame, she tells it straight.
Home was Leechfield, a swampy, evil-smelling Texan oil town. Karr's father was an oil-worker and hunter—‘the proper blend of outlaw and citizen’, free with his punches and his affection, the star-turn of the ‘Liars' Club’, the so-called group of oil-workers who gathered to spin tales and drink salted beer. Karr Senior's stories of his own childhood, which resonated through that of his daughter, are reproduced here, mannerisms and inflexions intact:
His mother wore an enormous bonnet like a big blue halo, so he'd always introduce her by fanning his hands behind his head, saying Here Comes Momma.
Later, inevitably, when bed-ridden and dying, his mythic status diminished, but not his daughter's affection. Yet she identifies a ‘low-lying meanness’ in him, and at critical moments, when, for example, his wife hovered on the brink of infanticide, he simply wasn't there.
‘My mother didn't date, she married,’ writes Karr, with typical laconic bluntness, seven times in total. She married Karr's father after bumping into him in a gas station:
His jug-eared grin reminded her of Clark Gable's. Since she fancied herself a sort of Bohemian Scarlett O'Hara, the attraction was sudden and deep.
The secret behind those serial marriages, and the explanation of her mother's demons, was finally unearthed by Karr, bringing unexpected absolution, but in the meantime ‘blank-eyed’ silence and bed alternated with drinking binges and psychotic rage. Born a Texan, but with a sophistication acquired in New York, her beauty, her glamorous clothes, her clouds of Shalimar and Salems, spelled danger to the Leechfield neighbours, not to mention Karr and her sister Lecia.
By her own account, Karr was a meanmouthed child who ‘never slouched off an ass-kicking,’ a belligerence which stood her in a good stead, but occasionally deserted her. Rape and assault, by a neighbourhood boy and a babysitter respectively, were silently accepted, by Karr the child, as part of the order of things, and extraordinarily, are made to seem, by Karr the adult, mere details within the larger picture.
Life in the Karr household was never conventional. Meals were consumed in the outsize marital bed, the four of them sitting back to back, facing opposite walls. But things took a turn for the worse when Karr's maternal grandmother ‘came to rot in the back room’. Deranged by cancer, minus one leg, anaesthetised by her daily case of beer, Grandma would glide silently about the house in her wheelchair, exhorting her daughter to beat the children. Her death left Karr's mother temporarily rich, but spiralling into darkness. Hospital, divorce and many a vodka followed. After she tried to shoot her new husband Hector, conveniently a barman, the children returned to their father, and so, soon after, did she.
The extraordinary vividness with which Karr recreates late Fifties Texas is due to both her use of physical and sensual detail, and language. She is a published poet and her poet's ear softens and re-orders her smart-assed Texan drawl, resulting in prose both gritty and luminous, out of which images stand with perfect clarity. Shrimps (in shrimp rémoulade, a Leechfield culinary treat) are,
hooked over the side of a sundae dish like the legs of so many young girls, hanging over the edge of a swimming pool.
The Liars' Club carries echoes of Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life (the resourcefulness required to negotiate a childhood where anything might happen) and of Blake Morrison's And When Did You Last See Your Father? (the reckoning that comes with a dying parent). But the vitality of Mary Karr's voice in this funny, moving, astonishing book, is very much her own and holds you to the last word.
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SOURCE: Harmon, William. “Mary Karr, Mary Karr, Mary Karr, Mary Karr.” Southern Review 33, no. 1 (winter 1997): 150-55.
[In the following review, Harmon discusses The Liars' Club in conjunction with Karr's poetry and literary criticism, arguing that The Liars' Club “may become a classic.”]
To get at the notion of four Mary Karrs—critic, poet, memoirist, and metacritic—let's start in 1991, when I was visiting the poet Robert Morgan near Ithaca, New York. Bob asked if I had seen an essay called “Against Decoration”—by a Mary Karr—in the current Parnassus. Smug with one-upsmanship, I crowed and barked simultaneously: “I've already written her a fan letter!” I had felt I could do such a thing because I also had an article in that Parnassus and had, in earlier issues of the journal, taken a few shots at the same targets she scored against. She was teaching at Syracuse, which isn't far from Ithaca, and for a minute we felt like doing something quixotic, such as calling her up and arranging to meet for a round of Evian and literary chat. But we had to be content to let a fan letter do the job.
I have just reread “Against Decoration” and can say that for me it has lost none of its liveliness or acuteness. The essay, striking hard against Amy Clampitt's preciousness and Helen Vendler's praise for Clampitt, travesties Old Testament diction to suggest a lineage of decorators:
Yet the affection for decorative poetry extends beyond Vendler to other powerful critics, poets, and publishers: Vendler begat Clampitt and others; Harold Bloom begat John Ashbery and the poetics of coy adorableness, which in turn begat Language Poetry; Merrill begat a string of ornament-spouting progeny through his service at Yale University Press and the Academy [of American Poets], as well as through his general pull with New York publishers (his blurbissimo on book jackets is famous); Alice Quinn, poetry editor for The New Yorker, begat the flowery, emotionally dim poems that one reads in that magazine; ad nauseam.
Although not perfect (Karr misquotes Robert Burns once), the essay possessed sufficient effervescence to send me in search of her other writings. Five years ago, all I could get my hands on was her first book of poetry, Abacus (Wesleyan, 1987), which introduced me to a different Mary Karr.
My own harshest criticism, I cede, is directed at the flaws I know best: mine. Having been stupid, insincere, sloppy, unkind, and much else, I can quickly spot the same failings in others. I have tried to treat such flaws as severely as when I see them in what I write. Looking back, you can see that Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Allen Tate, and Randall Jarrell did much the same thing: what Pound attacked was his own earlier idiom, and “Hamlet and His Problems” is essentially “J. Alfred Prufrock and His Problems.” So what do you find in the earliest poems by the author of “Against Decoration”? It's exactly like discovering that, before Against Interpretation, Susan Sontag wallowed in interpretation. Matthew Arnold confessed much the same thing when he repudiated Empedocles on Etna. That's the way you learn.
It's not as though Abacus is merely Merrilloid decorations varying Clampittesque themes, but only with difficulty can one ignore the dissonances and tensions between a fundamentally human voice and some fundamentally inhuman academic manners. The small book contains more than its share of poems derived from surveys of art history and philosophy of art, along with several Baedeker-Berlitz numbers set in Paris. Now, some poets have to deploy exotic or esoteric material as a stay against perplexity; I'm hearing Arnold again, in a profoundly emotional poem, straining to connect with someone: “Sophocles long ago. …” But I detect something different leaking into Karr's “Witnessing My Father's Will” like a whiff of chalk-dust:
I tell the only truth I know: that I'm helpless and sorry you're dying, that this planet will weigh no less when you are ash. I will continue speaking steadily, wearing black, whatever is necessary, and if, as Buddha says, life and death are illusory, I will be fooled and suffer your absence, and somewhere you'll always be rising from your oxygen tent, a modern Lazarus, or snapping open a Lone Star beer, or simply, too tired to talk, scraping mud from your black work boots onto the porch. And if, as Wittgenstein thinks, problems are grammatical, I confess I find no syntax to pull nails from a coffin …
And here, barely pausing to tip my hat to a pun lurking in the echoing nook between “syntax” and “nails,” I do what I did when a Jarrell poem backed itself into this corner: “Wisdom, said William James—” means learning when to quit reading.
Not everything in Abacus goes through such contortions, and you have to notice all the fine moments and details, especially in poems dealing with Karr's sister and their parents, projected as fascinating shadows.
We may have financial straits to thank for Karr's decision to turn her family dramas into a memoir. It's certain that The Liars' Club has enjoyed much greater success and sales than her poetry; and criticism, God knows, makes money or friends for nobody. My review copy of The Liars' Club arrived in the custody of a thousand-word blurbissimo and a schedule of cities where Karr was to be available for publicity interviews: Philadelphia, Washington, New York, Boston, Syracuse, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Chicago—but nothing in the Southeast (where Viking may think we don't read) and nothing even near Texas (where Viking may think they read but are sensitive about stories of serial divorce, boozing, and worse excesses).
The Liars' Club, vulgar hoopla notwithstanding, is as good as anything of its kind that I know of. It includes much that I can still be amused but at the same time shocked by, in a kind of Tex-Mex-Cajun-Cherokee Gothic with some colorful reckless endangerment, like the conduct we find in the lower precincts of Pat Conroy or the less grotesque passages of Harry Crews, with moments of narcosis from Jim Carroll or Kathy Acker, along with gestures toward intellectual respectability in the form of sizable epigraphs or quotations from R. D. Laing, Ezra Pound, W. B. Yeats, Cormac McCarthy, and Zbigniew Herbert.
The first-level Liars' Club is a group of East Texas workingmen who gather to drink and swap stories. At a second level, the Liars' Club is everybody in the book and, by a readily extended metaphor, everybody everywhere. The book focuses on the author's parents: a woman with a man's name and a man with no name but initials. Charlie was married seven times, twice to J. P., who fathered two of her children, Lecia (pronounced “Lisa”) and Mary Marlene, who were born in the 1950s and went through an upbringing that veered from numbing poverty to million-dollar comfort, from warm familial love to malice hard to believe except as a symptom of madness. The book starts in medias res, with Charlie being taken away for committal after a hair-raising episode involving delusion, alcohol, fire, and a butcher knife. The rest of the memoir unfolds the circumstances of this focal nightmare and comes to a close with the family temporarily reunited in a moribund twilight of fatigue and mortal illness.
Someone who has read Abacus will encounter much familiar material in The Liars' Club. Late in the book, the father has suffered a stroke and is hard to feed. Mary tries to dislodge a bolus that may cause him to choke: “Then he bit me. Even before his eyes creaked open to thin slits, he clamped down with his slick gums hard enough to hold me by that finger. Like some terrier who'd caught me snitching his biscuit. We stood that way a minute—my finger in his mouth, his black eyes glaring out with no glimmer of recognition.” Here, for comparison, is part of the poem “Home During a Tropical Snowstorm I Feed My Father Lunch”:
And when he choked I pried the leather jaw open, poked my finger past the slick gums to scoop an air passage till he bit down hard and glared, an animal dignity glowing in those bird-black eyes, which carried me past pity for once, for once all this terror twisting into joy.
The teacher who in a few years offers a seminar on Mary Karr's writing will find such moments a splendid way to illustrate the differences between prose and poetry.
Those quotations suggest another change when Karr moved from the poetry of Abacus to the prose of The Liars' Club. Readers do not handle poetry the way they handle prose or speech. If a poem says, “And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made,” I think, “Poetic inversion.” If a piece of prose said such a thing, I would think, “Stupid: why not say, ‘And build there a small cabin made of clay and wattles’?” Or try this: to be poetry and peculiar is to be poetry; to be prose and peculiar is to be peculiar. With a definite narrator, such as Huckleberry Finn or Holden Caulfield or Ellen Foster, a reader takes the voice, with its idiosyncratic vocabulary and spelling, as just another functional fiction, something you read through or read past, murmuring to yourself, “Well, I suppose some kids must talk like that.” I don't think Karr has quite solved this problem, or (and this may be what Mark Twain and J. D. Salinger and Kaye Gibbons accomplished) has made her peace with it. If you try to put yourself into the person of a seven-year-old girl (as Mary Marlene is at the beginning of The Liars' Club), you may benefit from the colorful language of childhood, but you may forfeit some distance, perspective, and proportion. Writers employing a juvenile narrator or at least a narrator with access to a juvenile perspective seem to settle for a degree of compromise that allows for irony and travesty. Karr now and then seems stuck on the horns of a dilemma. She writes sentences like these: “Tatting is an insane activity that involves an eensy shuttle, thin silk thread, and maniacal patience”; “They're going to make their webs somewheres else, so you think for a minute that Wilbur's gonna sink back into his porcine misery all over again.” You have to work very hard indeed to make a reader believe you are justified in using eensy, somewheres, and gonna in sentences that also contain maniacal and porcine. The outcome for me is a defiant retention of disbelief. It comes down to a question of husbanding your resources. A poet can just steal and be done with it: poets repeat, quote, echo, refer, and allude all the time, so much so that it seems that poems are made of other poems. That's part of their defining peculiarity. But prose is something else. Consider this description: “Gordon's being there embarrassed me. He had white girly hands. His skin was a mass of acne pits and scarring. Some poet wrote once about ‘the young man carbuncular,’ and that was Gordon.” That's so wrong-sounding that I want to hit it with my rubber stamp that says DECORATIVE. Not even “some poet” is invoked in a passage about Charlie's “very critical mother-in-law, whom we might describe metaphorically as a broomstick-wielding German housewife with a gaze merciless as the sun's.” Weirdly, Mary Marlene had, many pages earlier, viewed her other grandmother through the lens of Yeats's “The Second Coming”: “And the worst being full of passionate intensity always put me in mind of Grandma, who was nothing if not intense”; but the earlier quotation is overtly identified as something from “the famous Yeats poem about things falling apart.”
Style is also mismanaged here: “Mother had a book of them, one portrait more gray-faced than the next,” which I think ought to read “more gray-faced than the one before.” And there's the varmint The New Yorker used to call The Omnipotent Whom: “The next time Hector and Mother traveled, we stayed with his sister Alicia, whom I'd have guessed was too old and fat to fight with her husband, Ralph.”
But these are mere blemishes. I want to testify that Karr captures one part of childhood sublimely: the world of artificial smells that is one of the first things we know about people and one of the last things to go away. Today a whiff of bay rum or Arrid can take me back fifty years and more, and Karr has a genius for specifying just what essence was in attendance when something important happened: Shalimar, Old Spice, Jergens, Burma Shave, Lava.
I don't suggest that we get rid of seminars on the great canonical dead, but it won't do any harm if once in a while we let our students know that there are fascinating writers who are not dead, not even old. If I were to offer a Mary Karr seminar, I would include at least one session on her work as a metacritic, since she has followed The Liars' Club with “A Memoirist's Apology” (also in Parnassus), which goes into some of the same matters I have discussed here, and she has written further poems about the people whom the memoir makes important for us. In one new poem, “Four of the Horsemen (Hypertense and Stroke, Coronary Occlusion and Cerebral Insult),” we see Charlie, her bearing “still imperial”; but she is now attended by a grown-up Mary Marlene who has gone beyond the idiom of eensy and gonna.
Within a year of the publication of The Liars' Club, James Atlas, writing in the New York Times Magazine, called it “an American classic.” That's stretching things. I was reminded of the record set by Francis of Assisi, who was canonized within eleven days of his death. The Liars' Club may become a classic, and it is even more probable that Mary Karr will go on to write something else that will be a classic for sure. I'm looking forward to that.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3058
SOURCE: Powers, Elizabeth. “Doing Daddy Down.” Commentary 103, no. 6 (June 1997): 38-41.
[In the following essay, Powers examines The Liars' Club in conjunction with other contemporary American memoirs that focus on father-daughter relationships. Powers praises Karr for “grafting her story to our oldest literary roots.”]
When I was a child, there were times when I thought my mother should leave my father. Children only slowly get a feel for the limits on action: if, I reasoned, my parents still had checks in their checkbook, then why could they not write one to purchase a new car (or bike, etc.)? If my mother sometimes felt as much pain as she clearly did because of my father, then why could not she and I, and later my sister and brother, simply move to Anaheim (one of my dream destinations, home of Disneyland and near movie studios that I hoped to crack) and start over again? My mother, so I thought, would find a new husband (someone powerful, with connections to movie studios), and life could resume afresh. In pursuit of this goal I used to write letters to the Chamber of Commerce of Anaheim and Burbank concerning housing and jobs.
I am shocked now at how quickly I seized on divorce, on abandoning my father, as an escape-hatch from pain. Among my own kind—that is to say, white Southern Catholics—divorce was so uncommon that the closest I came to knowing about it was through the case of a friend of a neighbor, a pious woman who would not go against the sanctions of her religion to marry the divorced man with whom she was in love. Of course, I never imagined that one could actually do without fathers altogether, and my daydreams always featured a new father to replace my own. This sense of interchangeability I now regard as something of a moral failure, with all due consideration for my tender years.
But now the social forces that were subliminally affecting me so many years ago have come, as it were, to fruition. At the end of the 20th century, what with sperm donors, fertility specialists, selective abortion, and all the other proxies of reproduction, biological paternity has come to seem something almost quaint, and certainly tangential. To believe The Modernization of Fatherhood [by Ralph LaRossa], a recent academic study, the father of the future will be interchangeable with the mother of the future or, depending on your income level, with the modern nanny or social worker. In a bland, nonjudgmental tone, this book details the development and institutionalization of “parenting skills,” “household division of labor,” “caretaking,” and so on, quite as if actual biological fathers were a commodity we could do with, or do without, as we pleased and as circumstances allowed.
And if the notion of the father as more than an accidental link to our physical inheritance is rapidly disappearing, so too is any notion of the father as a link to our spiritual inheritance, to the cumulative consensus of the millennia—also known, by those hoping to usher it off the stage of history, as the patriarchy. For women in particular, the easy availability of birth control and abortion has meant a new freedom, not only from unwanted conception but, in some cases, from all the burdens and necessities represented so potently by the figure of the Father. Indeed, as a number of recent memoirs suggest, some contemporary women feel under no compulsion to make their peace either with their dads and what they represent or, more generally, with anything having to do with our cultural tradition and its claims. Their motto might be that of Mary Wollstonecraft: “Every obligation we receive from our fellow-creatures is a new shackle, takes from our native freedom, and debases the mind.”
Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss is by now a notorious book—notorious above all for the passages in which Harrison narrates the incestuous affair she conducted with her father. But even aside from the central subject of incest, The Kiss offers more compelling themes for contemplation than Aeschylus or Eugene O'Neill could handle in a dozen plays: self-mutilation, sadism, starvation, necrophilia, soul murder by one's nearest and (supposedly) dearest. Harrison's mother, as represented here, was a real Medea, who liked to discuss her sex life and past lovers with her daughter and took her to a gynecologist to be fitted for a diaphragm before she went off, still a virgin, to college. So Kathryn was a very confused individual when Dad, banned from the household since she was a baby, waltzed back into her life as a twentysomething and the two proceeded to engage in furtive trysts as they crisscrossed the country in their Lolita-like saga of turpitude.
At odds with the horrors Harrison narrates (the authenticity of which has been doubted by some reviewers) is a flatness of tone that is suggestive of someone merely going through the motions of her emotions. Harrison employs a postmodernist style—pastiche, sentence fragments, backtracking, fast-forwarding, a general lack of narrative momentum. This grab-bag style is about avoidance: the point, one might think, is that there is no point. Such dead-endedness also characterized Harrison's 1993 novel, Exposure, which mixed kleptomania, cocaine, pornography, classy exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, and suicide in about equal portions.
The bland, affectless presentation, however, fatally undercuts Harrison's desire (presuming she has such a desire) to make us appreciate her situation as the victim of a predatory father. More than that, by failing to set her story within the context of any larger repository of shared human experiences, Harrison effectively forestalls the reader from entering imaginatively into her life. Although from one point of view this lack of cultural resonance may seem purposeful—the author's break with the baggage of tradition cunningly replicating her break from the evil Father—most likely it simply indicates ignorance. Like many contemporary authors, Harrison does not appear to be very well or very deeply read: it is hard to tell from this memoir whether she is even familiar with the Oedipus story. And without cultural freight, without history, although there may be self-invention, there is no connection.
Toward the end of The Kiss, at a Jewish memorial service for her grandfather, Harrison finds herself healed of her unholy attachment to her father. Two other recent books, Mary Gordon's The Shadow Man: A Daughter's Search for Her Father and Nancy K. Miller's Bequest and Betrayal: Memoirs of a Parent's Death, similarly end at cemeteries. While such moments often force us to come to terms, however feebly and tentatively, with our past and our own place in the chain of transmission, both these artful memoirs remain suffused with undigested resentments and with a continuing and ultimately sterile refusal of family loyalty of any kind.
Mary Gordon's father died when she was seven years old; her book recounts her quest as a mature adult to discover and understand this “shadow man.” In the course of her search, which took her to archives and public-records offices from Massachusetts to Ohio, Gordon, who is also the author of such “Catholic” novels as Final Payments and Men and Angels, pieced together an American story of Gatsby-like transformations. Her father's life traced an arc from Lithuania, where he was born a Jew at the turn of the century, to emergence as a conservative Catholic in New York in the 1930's, with many a racy escapade in between.
Gordon represents herself as having been almost agonizingly in love with her father as a child. Thus, it was a shock to discover as an adult that he was less than God (the comparison is her own), that he was possessed of a vulgar side (he wrote for “humor” magazines), and that he may have been a Jewish anti-Semite. As a writer, Gordon might at least be expected to appreciate, however wryly, the fictions her father invented about himself—e.g., that he had gone to Harvard with T. S. Eliot. Instead, though her rage is to some extent disguised, censure inevitably follows on her declarations of love:
Everything he wrote or edited was patched together, cobbled together not very smoothly, not very well. I'm not even left with the pride of the daughter of a fine stylist. He was far from great; he wasn't even very good.
Does the fact that he is, by every standard, a failure, relieve me of the responsibility of exposing him? And the fact that he is dead?
This memoir gives new meaning to the sins of the ninth circle of hell. Even Lady Macbeth hesitated to kill Duncan, her benefactor, because he reminded her of her father. Shadow Man continually put me in mind of the East German children who revealed to the secret police their parents' reading habits or such mundane details as their choice of cigarette brands. Ultimately Gordon's father is even indicted by his daughter, on the most trumped-up evidence (one of her chapters is titled “Police Investigation”), for the Holocaust and the crimes of Hitler.
Somehow, I suspect that had he followed the really smart people of the 1930's and gone leftward rather than rightward, this man's daughter would be telling his story differently. But whatever he was in actuality, his example seems to serve a large purpose. In demonstrating the sham nature of her father's existence, Gordon not only extinguishes him and the tale he told about himself but exposes the spurious nature of other, even more resistant, patriarchal institutions, including God Himself and the Roman Catholic Church. The effect is to leave Mary Gordon standing alone—the author of this memoir, the one and only author of her own life. Amid so much else that arouses her displeasure, this, at least, is a prospect that appears to please her.
A similarly empty exercise in self-invention is Nancy K. Miller's Bequest and Betrayal. It too is narrated in the first person, though the “I” of the book is oddly decentered. (Miller, appropriately, is a professor of literature of pronounced deconstructionist sympathies.) The memoir takes the form of a kind of conversation, in which Miller's account of her father's progressive debility and death from Parkinson's disease is interspersed with the voices of writers like Philip Roth, Simone de Beauvoir, and Susan Cheever, the cartoonist Art Spiegelman, and others, all of whom have in one way or another given us their thoughts about their fathers.
It is ironic that men who daily stand on train platforms, in cold weather and hot, who worry if the pain in their chest means they will die before they get their children through college, should have produced a class of daughters like Nancy K. Miller. That her father worked for decades as a lawyer on Wall Street, which enabled her to attend Barnard College in the 1950's, elicits not the slightest hint of retrospective gratitude. (“[H]e rented space in the glorious Woolworth building,” she comments tartly, “an address his practice never quite lived up to.”) Instead, after going on to earn a Ph.D. from Columbia, and to become a professor, Miller took her mother's maiden name. So shadowy is her father's existence that I had to go back through this book and search for his given name.
In writing about the intimate details of her father's sickness, Miller declines to refer to her own feelings or to examine her conscience concerning the propriety of what she is revealing. Instead, she hides behind the work of her chosen interlocutors who, she suggests, have committed “betrayals” of their own. Her betrayal, at any rate, comes not from writing about her father but from her inability to honor him. It is chilling to contemplate her lack of pity—of fellow feeling—for his weaknesses during his final year, when there seems to have been no one, including her, who cared whether he lived or died:
One day when his fingers had grown so rigid that he couldn't, as he put it, “snare” his penis, he wanted to get up and go to the bathroom. It was late and I wanted to go home. So looking and not looking, I fished his penis out from behind the fly of his shorts and stuck it in the urinal. It felt soft and clammy.
In passages like this one Miller shows just how far she is from, say, Philip Roth, one of her interlocutors, who in Patrimony (1991) similarly stooped to exposing some of the most shaming episodes of his father Herman's last year but who at the same time gratefully accepted not only his father's inheritance but his own responsibility for guarding and transmitting it. Blocked by the ideology of self-invention from acknowledging the sacrifices her father made for her, Miller is ill-equipped to deal either with his dying or with his legacy. Precisely because she is one of those professors who have done so much to kill off the pleasure people used to get from literature, I am tempted to nominate her as a main character in the novel of human disconnectedness (by Philip Roth?) that is screaming to emerge from this bloodless memoir.
Is there a connection between the loss or repudiation of the figure of the father and the failure of authors like these to create compelling works of the imagination? It is almost as if, in severing themselves from their patrimony, Harrison, Gordon, and Miller have committed an act of impiety for which the Furies have taken just revenge: they write very bad books. But perhaps the question should be asked in a different way: is there a positive connection between spiritual and literary procreation, such that a writer's progeny—her books—owes something crucial to the attitude she takes toward her inheritance?
Mary Karr's The Liars' Club, which won a PEN award for nonfiction in 1996 and has been on the paperback best-seller list for over a year, vividly links a family's epic struggle to raise its children with the evolution of the daughter into a writer, and in doing so points up what is missing from the books I have discussed so far. The memoir takes its name from a group that included Karr's father and several other men who cleaned the rigs in the oil fields of East Texas, and who would spin tales as young Mary sat and listened:
“I'll tell you just exactly how my daddy died,” Daddy says. “He hung hisself.” This is easily the biggest lie Daddy ever told—that I heard, anyway. His daddy is alive and well and sitting on his porch in Kirbyville with his bird dogs. I gawk at Daddy's audacity, while the men in the room shift around at his seriousness. … They twist around on their folding chairs like they would rather corkscrew holes in the floor and drop out of sight than hear about somebody's daddy hanging hisself. Daddy unfolds the blade of his pocketknife—dragging out their squirming for them—and cuts a circle from a log of pepperoni. He lifts it to his mouth on the blade edge, then chews, “This is kind of tough, ain't it?”
The year in which these events took place was 1961, when Mary Karr was seven years old. The events she relates in the second half of the book occurred when she was nine. Even allowing for poetic license, the immensity of detail and the display of nearly total recall suggest that Karr learned well the art of lying from her father. And, like him, she can draw out a story: the scene above takes place in Chapter 6 of The Liars' Club, which is about when it finally dawns on the reader that the child's mother was an alcoholic, a realization that in other books would be the main point, and perhaps the only point.
Unlike Harrison, Karr links her own story to our oldest stories, thereby allowing readers much deeper access to the inner life of human beings than can be gleaned from the usual confessional mode of contemporary memoirs about incest or alcoholism:
It was during one of those [college] visits that I found the Thibideauxs' burned-out house, and also stumbled on the Greek term até. In ancient epics, when somebody boffs a girl or slays somebody or just generally gets heated up, he can usually blame até, a kind of raging passion, pseudo-demonic, that banishes reason. So Agamemnon, having robbed Achilles of his girlfriend, said, “I was blinded by até and Zeus took away my understanding.” … When neighbors tried to explain the whole murder-suicide of the Thibideaux clan after 30 years of grass-cutting and garbage-taking-out and dutiful church-service attendance, they did so with one adjective, which I have since traced to the Homeric idea of até: Mr. Thibideaux was Nervous.
All this is embedded in the opening scene of the memoir, in which we also learn that Karr's own mother was taken away because of being Nervous. Not until 145 pages later do we finally get to witness the actual precipitating attack of the mother's até, a drunken rage during which she destroyed everything of value in the house, including her own paintings and books and the children's toys and clothes.
Beyond being a well-told tale of troubles endured and troubles overcome, Karr's memoir constantly leads one to think afresh about families and the complicated ways in which children, even in the most trying and imperfect circumstances, become moral beings. And to be a moral being, one is reminded by The Liars' Club, means among other things to be imbued with a sense of one's ties to others, including preeminently one's parents and, beyond them, to the generations that recede far into the past.
In Book II of The Aeneid, Virgil's epic poem, Aeneas flees burning Troy carrying on his shoulders his aged father, who in turn carries the ancestral gods. Educated women with even modest means today have libraries much larger than Virgil's, or Newton's, or Goethe's, and certainly have better kitchens. Emancipation also means that women can indulge all the opportunities for good and bad behavior, for skullduggery and rectitude, that participation in the widest range of public life offers. But it takes a writer like Mary Karr, grafting her story to our oldest literary roots, to remind us that women also have a stake in the transmission of our common spiritual inheritance, and to demonstrate what is lost when they repudiate it.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 671
SOURCE: Gorence, M. Joy. “Growing up in America.” English Journal 86, no. 5 (September 1997): 98-9.
[In the following review of The Liars' Club, Gorence commends Karr for her vibrantly descriptive language, candid storytelling, and adept handling of sensitive issues.]
Perhaps the cover or the title on the book attracted my attention to The Liars' Club. Perhaps it was the compact size of the book or the size of the letters on the page. Perhaps it was the opening lines, “My sharpest memory is of a single instant surrounded by dark. I was seven …” Whatever it is that makes us decide to read a book, The Liars' Club enticed me to take it along on my vacation.
On the first page Mary Karr takes us with her on that fateful night when the sheriff rescues her and her older sister, Lecia, from the chaos of her mother's breakdown. Through a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards, Karr gently reveals her life as the youngest of two daughters barely surviving in a Texas town on the Gulf Coast. Despite the drinking of her parents and the unconventional home life she experiences until her grandmother appears on the scene, she accepts and loves both of her parents with their frailties and faults.
As Karr unveils her life as a young child in the 1960s, she does so with the innocence of a young child but with the understanding of an adult.
As Karr looks back on her life, she comes to terms with who she is and forgives her mother for her threats, her abandonment, her inconsistencies, and her pain. Her father, however, seems to dominate Mary Karr's life when we first meet her family. When he is crossed, he is a man with a fierce temperament, but he is loved by his fellow workers. At the same time he is respected by the members of the Liars' Club, a group of friends who often tell tall tales, drink, and play pool at the local American Legion hall.
After Karr's father suffers a stroke, she is in the attic looking for any record indicating that an old Army wound might have led to his stroke. If she could find the records, she might be able to get financial help. While in the attic she discovers a trunk that hints at her mother's enigmatic past. When she confronts her mother about its contents she realizes that “Mother's particular devils had remained mysterious to me for decades. So had her past. Few born liars ever intentionally embark in truth's direction, even those who believe that such a journey might axiomatically set them free.” It is then that Mary Karr realizes the far-reaching implications of the Liars' Club.
Karr's manipulation of language guides her readers through emotional upheavals and prosaic episodes as if they know her. Although some of the episodes make even the most liberal readers uncomfortable, her descriptions are vibrant. Where one description evokes empathy, another evokes admiration for her ability to titillate the writer in all of us. She offers us a feast of “shrimp [that] are blanched pink, peeled and deveined, then hooked over the side of a sundae dish like the legs of so many young girls hanging over the edge of a swimming pool.” Her descriptions and candid retellings often leave one with a need to digest what she has written and to come back to the tale with the knowledge and ability to continue.
Her story, which targets our hearts and minds, is not only the story of a woman who has survived a domineering grandmother, a distraught mother, a demonstrative father, a sodomizing caretaker, and a young rapist, but one who has come to accept and to forgive those she loves. As readers we become witnesses of her power by her ability to manipulate our emotions through her words.
Truly no one ever knows what goes on behind closed doors, but Mary Karr opens the doors for us to see that we are not alone in how we have learned to survive.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1508
SOURCE: Jordan, Barbara. Review of Viper Rum, by Mary Karr. Chicago Review 44, nos. 3-4 (1998): 213-17.
[In the following review, Jordan applauds the level of detail and complex imagery in Viper Rum, characterizing Karr as “an exceptionally fine poet.”]
The cover of Mary Karr's recent Viper Rum—a dead snake coiled in formaldehyde—gives clear warning to anyone looking to find rhapsodies on butterflies or the vagaries of autumn. This poetry eats that kind of poetry, Karr might say. Her last book of poems, The Devil's Tour, featured a medieval scene where two skeletons hold, above the head of a coy maiden, a mirror that reflects a skull; beneath, a caption reads, “Hither you come, behold what you are, what you will be, or were. … ‘Know thyself.’” In Viper Rum, Karr looks deeply into that mirror from a new perspective; however, that skull—ubiquitous in all her poems—continues to function as memento mori and as an imaginative space in which Lucifer's soliloquy about the mind as its own place (one of Karr's favorite passages) resounds like a protective charm that's kept the world at bay.
Fans of Karr's best-selling memoir, The Liars' Club, might expect that Karr's poetry would be a grim business, having read of her Texas childhood at the mercy of adults who were themselves buffeted by madness and alcoholism—her adored father who taught her to shoot from the hip and not to suffer fools, and her artistic, flirtatious mother with Chanel suits and perfect diction, gone lonely in her drinking. Many of the poems here chronicle that past, and Karr's own despairing drinking days. Others are memorials to friends, many of whom died from alcoholism or addiction. Some are prayers. As a collection, Viper Rum finds its feet somewhere between the in-your-face stance of Karr's earlier work, and a new, what, openness? Largesse? Karr prompts the comparison, declaring in many poems how bitter and isolated she'd once felt. “I was blind to flowers for one thing. / … just fixed on my own death, sat on the sofa / ingesting poison,” she admits in “Chosen Blindness.” In the title poem “Viper Rum,” Karr confronts the ghost of that former self in a scene out of a nightmare, on a tropical night, when she and her friends are offered a drink from a gallon jar of liquor in which a python is floating:
The lid unscrewed let out some whiff of Caribbean herb
that promised untold mystery unfolding in your head. The python's lidless eyes were white, mouth O-shaped, perfect for a cocktail straw, I thought.
Then naturally, I cast back to those last years I drank, alone nights at the kitchen sink, bathrobed, my head hatching snakes,
while my baby slept in his upstairs cage and my marriage choked to death. I should have wound up in a fetal coil
eyes scalded of sight, staring out at the warped and vacant world. What plucked me from that fate
can't yet be named, but I do reverence to it every day. So with my untouched shotglass still flipped upside down. I said goodnight. Outside,
the moon was a smoky dish, the path to my hut loaded with white magnolias petals. …
I quote at length because the passage above gives some indication of Karr's style, and because it focuses tensions central to her work. Note first the complexity she wrings from her images. The snake, for instance, signifies temptation and poison. Karr transforms its head into a monstrous parody of an alcoholic's, and then gazes into its vacant, venomous stare, the person there but “Away,” as Karr has said of her mother elsewhere. The image resurfaces again in “fetal coil,” before dispersing into echo at the poem's end, “a fragrant mist / that wound up filling my circular / thatched hut. …” The color white is similarly redeemed from an association with bloodlessness and death to the softness of magnolia petals and moonlight. One finds in Karr's work a constant shift between the seductive and the destructive, the benign and the dangerous. Line or tone may point one way and then swerve sharply, as when her lyrical-sounding declaration of fishing through memory (“Then naturally, I cast back to those last years …”) hauls up, not the expected nostalgic moment, but rather a scene that defies nostalgia utterly.
You could say Karr is a poet who refuses to flinch, even if the landscape of memory and experience resembles a particularly gruesome Bosch canvas, and who, for the most part, refuses to be consoled by any comfort art or metaphysics might offer. Having read The Liars' Club, I see her as a kind of Annie Oakley gone bird-hunting in a bayou: she takes aim at her subjects as if the purpose of art were to shoot to kill. For consolation, if she needs it, she turns to the Stoics:
I study each death hard that death not catch me unprepared. For help I read Aurelius, that Stoic emperor who composed fine meditations in his battle tent.
Surely he overheard at night the surgeons chopping through his wounded soldiers' bones. …
Strangely enough—or in keeping with the transitional nature of her beliefs—the poem from which this section comes, “The Last of the Brooding Miserables” (dedicated to James Laughlin), begins and ends with a prayer to a more forgiving God. “Lord, let me enter now / your world,” Karr pleads,
Let me rise
to your unfamiliar light, love, without which the dying wouldn't bother me one whit.
Other poems vacillate between doubt and faith. In “The Grand Miracle,” Karr comments on Christ's empty tomb, saying, “History is rife / with such hoaxes,” but she ends the poem noting that for two thousand years people have come to various altars, “so dumbly I open this mouth for bread and song.” This recalcitrance and surrender contribute to the power of Viper Rum, for Karr is a feisty penitent who leaves her tracks for all to see—the record of an anguished search to “find the pattern emerging, feel the light / that glows in our chests, keep it going” (“Chosen Blindness”).
At the end of Viper Rum, Karr reprints her essay “Against Decoration,” which appeared in Parnassus like a red flag to a certain segment of poets—mainly those in Robert Richman's anthology, The Direction of Poetry: Rhymed and Metered Verse Written in the English Language since 1975. In this piece, she rails against poets who do not make their meaning clear, or who drown it out with embellishments that seem ends in themselves. She chooses Clampitt as the prime example of expression on overdrive, and indeed the poem she quotes demonstrates considerable excess. Oddly enough though, I feel Karr has philosophical affinities with Clampitt. I think of “The Sun Underfoot among the Sundews,” in which Clampitt contemplates the treacherous beauty of carnivorous bog plants and then asks, with a humor and irony similar to Karr's, whether God or natural selection is to blame. Clampitt's “Good Friday” begins, “Think of the Serengeti lions looking up, / their bloody faces no more culpable / than the acacia's claw,” and goes on to describe “the wildebeest's ribcage picked clean as a crucifix.” Both poets come at religious belief with language usually unheard in that context. However, it is Larkin and Heaney who provide Karr with models of excellence; in fact, Larkin has long been one of Karr's poetic heroes. Like him, she has an unwavering eye for detail, and an ability to make that detail betray its circumstance.
Years ago I heard Mary Karr read her poems in Boston at a place called the Trident Cafe, and that day she mentioned an experience—later recounted in her poem “Post-Larkin Triste” from The Devil's Tour—that's stayed with me through every poem I've read by her. It's this: as a young poet, Karr “hitched the length of England under thunderclouds” one night to watch Larkin at length, from behind his bushes. She saw the old poet dry his dishes and sometime later carry a milk bottle out to the stoop, at which point he glanced her way, as if knowing she “crouched there in the garden mud.” Then Karr hitched back, leaving the distance between them intact, although she wrote,
… I had wanted to hold your large white hands in mine and say I understood until you yielded all your pent-up hurt and wept
as you once said you did alone safe in the bubble of your car hearing Wordsworth read on the radio.
I think Heaney would admire the pressure put on “wept,” because the verb takes either subject equally—Karr or Larkin—and so joins them in their loneliness. This passage and that image—the loner Karr keeping vigil in the yard of the loner Larkin—say much about a poet who knows what it is to suffer alone and respects that in another. Maybe that's why Lucifer's soliloquy has offered consolation, for the mind is a place nothing enters unless you let it. In these new poems, an exceptionally fine poet relinquishes that stoic isolation to find her place in “this forest of forms.”
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2252
SOURCE: Kitchen, Judith. “Against.” Georgia Review 52, no. 4 (winter 1998): 755-72.
[In the following essay, Kitchen contrasts Viper Rum with several recent poetry collections, asserting that Karr's verse stands up favorably to the literary values she presented in her critical essay “Against Decoration.”]
For the past week, I've seemed—even to myself—to be against everything. Well, not quite everything, but a lot more than usual. I've been against little things: the way you can never—ever—get a real human on the phone when a company has voice mail; the people who don't like the color of the new lampposts where I work; the way the bank can't give me an answer because the computer is down; a student who told me to please print my comments on his papers because he can't read cursive. I've been against bigger things: the other side of the “argument” I've had with a university press about “gender neutral” language; the fact that not one of my students has read, or will be asked to read, Moby-Dick; the rudeness that has crept into ordinary conversations. And I've been against really important things: lying under oath; our country's failure to act when innocent people are being massacred in Kosovo. It's not that I'm going through a cantankerous period; I've been a bit cantankerous all of my life. But the accumulated effrontery of contemporary life seems to have caught up with me.
In all of this, I have realized something about the nature of being against. In most instances, it implies something else I am for. I have a position—one I've come to through thought and contemplation—so that I cannot remain neutral (though if I didn't really quite like those bright red lampposts, I might be neutral in that small battle). The quality of opposition presupposes an alternative—except concerning things so awful you have no idea what to do, and even then you have the option of speaking out. “Against” is not always contrary. Sometimes it's truly resistant, sometimes only pointing up a contrast, sometimes, even, in anticipation of … and it's occurred to me that all this is not unrelated to art, including poetry. Being “against” is, after all, one mind set out of which art gets made. And I don't just mean subversive, political art, but the kind of art that defines itself as necessary precisely because it views itself as an antidote to the tired, the outmoded, the superficial, the false. The kind of art—and the kind of criticism—that is, in its own right, an alternative.
Mary Karr offers both art and criticism. At the end of Viper Rum, her third collection of poetry, is a twenty-three-page critical essay on the aesthetics of contemporary poetry. Entitled “Against Decoration,” this courageous and provocative essay first appeared in Parnassus. That such an essay should be termed “courageous” says something of the state of the art of criticism. By all rights, “Against Decoration” should be part of an ongoing dialogue, one more challenging voice in a vigorous larger discussion. Instead, it proffers a somewhat lonely sanity, asking the hard questions that others have seemed content to leave unasked.
Anyone who has read Karr's memoir, The Liars' Club, knows that she does not pull her punches. In “Against Decoration,” she dismantles some of the poems of the “new formalists,” risks criticism by taking on such people as Helen Vendler, Anthony Hecht, and others. Karr pointedly critiques some of the poetic practices (and their practitioners) in the contemporary canon, talking of “the highbrow doily-making that passes for art today.” Referring to Amy Clampitt's “purple vocabulary” and to the “glib meaninglessness” of Ashbery and the language poets, Karr examines ornamentation and formalism “as an aesthetic value in and of itself”—and finds it wanting. In addition, she questions Vendler's enthusiasm for poetry as a kind of academic “game,” a puzzle to be solved. Karr calls for clarity rather than obscurity, depth rather than surface. She wants a poem that does not shy away from its emotions, is not afraid to be memorable, acts as though its content matters.
Indicting much of what she finds to be excessive, even evasive, Karr does not blame individual critics, but rather laments the state of criticism—or the lack thereof. She raises the age-old question of why poets write, and for whom. If too much power has devolved into the hands of too few reviewers, we need to think about venue and about audience. Who reads reviews? If they are only for poets, then why do we not have the lively interchange of ideas that characterized the not-too-distant past? If they are for readers of poetry, why do we hear no murmurs of concurrence, no growls of dissent?
“Against Decoration” is important not only for its message, but for its informed and astute logic. Karr examines the work of the “new formalists” not in the light of free verse, but against other formal poems such as Yeats's “Easter 1916” or Seamus Heaney's third sonnet in the sequence, “Clearances” (The Haw Lantern). In doing so, she exposes the soft belly of large parts of the movement. (At one point, she even pits James Merrill against himself.) And by refusing to equate form per se with a political stance, she interrogates not only the formalists, but Ira Sadoff's leftist outrage at form itself as well as whole schools of critical theory. No poet writing today should proceed without at least noting Karr's legitimate misgivings and taking them into account.
Karr's list of what she is against (obscurity of character, foggy physical world, overuse of meaningless references, metaphors that obscure rather than illuminate, and linguistic excess for no good reason) can be translated into a positive list of what she is for: clarity of character, a strong sense of the physical world, clear references, metaphors that illuminate rather than obscure—and linguistic moves that enhance a poem's meanings. Referring to what sounds suspiciously like good old-fashioned “authorial intention,” she invites us to explore the reasons for a poet's choices.
We cannot help reading one book against another, one poem against another, one idea against another. It's how we make distinctions. So, in exposing others, Mary Karr naturally exposes herself. To include such a challenging “manifesto” at the end of a book of poems is to invite its application to the work at hand. The poems of Viper Rum stand up well under her self-imposed critical scrutiny. Using Karr's standards of evaluation, it would be safe to say there is very little linguistic excess here. These poems intend to be hard-hitting, toughly iconoclastic, blunt, and unflinching almost to the point of repulsion. If they are excessive at all, they are excessively blunt. They look hard at the effects of alcohol, a failed marriage, an impulse toward suicide and self-destruction. The speaker of the title poem toys with temptation and turns aside. “The Last of the Brooding Miserables” calls up a litany of other deaths:
Lord, you maybe know me best by my odd laments: My friend drew the garage door tight, lay flat on the cold cement, then sucked off the family muffler to stop the voices in his head. And Logan stabbed in a fight, and Coleman shot, and the bright girl who pulled a blade the width of her own soft throat, and Tom from the virus and Dad from drink—Lord, these many-headed hurts I mind.
Unrelenting, the list unreels a not-so-pretty picture, ending close to home. The intimate voice says “Dad,” refusing to let the reader hide behind the formalities of “my father.” Karr does not recoil from the truth. She goes on to give her reason for compiling the list: “I study each death / hard that death not catch me / unprepared.” Taking its cue from its invocation, the poem ends speaking directly and intimately: “Let me rise // to your unfamiliar light, / love, without which the dying / wouldn't bother me one whit.” The tone is both prayerful and belligerent until, in a final gesture, the speaker bows her head.
In Viper Rum, Karr returns to the themes that haunted The Liars' Club—her parents' drinking and dependence, her sister's forced and cheerful practicality, her own troubled loving. In her urgent need to claim the life she's led in its own stark terms, Karr not only faces it head-on, she almost rubs her own face in it. Calling funeral homes “for the best cremation deal” from her father's hospital room, noting her son in his Dracula cape as her friend phones with news of a cancer diagnosis, remembering the “dead space” only alcohol could fill, recounting the night fears that call up fields of skulls (she knows they're there—think of “Adolf and Uncle Joe”) that envy the very flesh covering her head, Karr almost hurls these moments at her readers, daring us to avert our gaze. Daring us to ask for decoration, something to redeem the moment, clean it up for public consumption. But Karr refuses. In doing so, she runs the risk of elevating her bluntness to the alternative status of high impoverishment—a dark negative space that forms its own misshapen doily. This rarely happens. Karr's intelligent—and reasoned—portrayal of life as she knows it shapes the collection.
The poems of Viper Rum may be blunt for bluntness' sake, but they are not exploitative. Karr stares hard in the face of hard fact. There must be a place in poetry for the honesty that knows what it's after, and what it's after here is the tough, gritty, physical world in all its inarticulate confusion. These poems make something of what we've been handed, not something of whole cloth. They rip up the Hallmark card and replace it with the difficult, demanding claims of love in an imperfect world. Her ear is part of this. The staccato, onomatopoeic music of the middle of “The Pallbearer,” for example, accentuates, rather than masks, the stark realities of a burial:
The cherrywood cover got pittered with rain, glossy with swirls in the grain
as with great red rivers risen to flood. I too was flooded. My eyes brimmed the green world blurry, though my face stayed flat.
The rhythm of walking took all my thought. Later the shovels of dirt fell splat on the cover, and they left a nice mound
like the start of a rose garden.
A hard-won religious impulse runs throughout the collection; any sense of redemption comes after Karr has refused all easy answers. In “The Wife of Jesus Speaks,” an unnamed woman faces Christ's denial and her own eventual suicide. From hell, she announces herself:
In these rosy caverns, you worship what you want. I have chosen that time
in time's initial measure, history's virgin parchment, when with his hard stalk of flesh rocking inside me, I was unwrit.
“Christ's Passion” opens with a cocky, almost-strident voice (“Sure we're trained to his suffering, sure / the nine-inch nails, and so forth”) before it gives imaginative space to the nature of the suffering, the taking-on of everyone's fears and sorrows, the burden of human doubt. And “The Grand Miracle” continues in this vein (“Jesus wound up with his body nailed to a tree—a torment he practically begged for, / or at least did nothing to stop”), calling his resurrection one of a long line of hoaxes, and then ending with the gospel of the “prospect of love”—a shared space where humans learn to trust in faith and in each other.
For 2000-near years my tribe has lined up at various altars, so dumbly I open this mouth for bread and song.
Dumbly. At the heart of the book is the speechless awe at a world that must be taken on faith, the wordless acceptance of someone who has contemplated its opposite—the noisy clamor of death—and come back to make the best of those moments of grace (basketballs swishing through the air at a family picnic, bumper cars at the county fair, a chorus of voices rising in unison) that only this world can give us.
Writing against decoration, Karr has made her case for the emotive voice, for a poetry of feeling. She has not shunned form; many of her poems find stanzaic structures that enhance their meanings, call subtle attention to slant rhymes and the cadence of the spoken voice. Karr has found a form in which she can explore the qualities of language—its sounds and its metaphors—that will lead toward clarity. Her final message—and there is one—is so simple that only simplicity could convey it. “Chosen Blindness” depicts a time when she noticed nothing, not even fields of dandelions gone to seed. She herself had gone to seed, paralyzed by drink, sucking smoke into her lungs, waiting for death to catch her unprepared. That was the past, the chosen blindness. The second section shifts to the present: “Now I go to church. Who'd think it?” The third section ends with mother and son holding a hymnal, matching their voices. Written for her son, the poem attests to her willed survival and the strengths of those people we know to be America's promise:
My forebears forbore this way, in company. Bread fed them, and they had to practice hope to keep
plowing up the Dust Bowl's starved earth in rows, year after fruitless year, till the cotton came back.
To say something this true and this moving in anything but the plainest of language would be to do it—and them—a disservice.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4709
SOURCE: McDowell, Robert. “Expansive Poetry.” Hudson Review 51, no. 4 (winter 1999): 792-802.
[In the following essay, McDowell discusses the emergence of the “Expansive poetry” or “neo-formalist” style in a selection of poetry volumes, analyzing Viper Rum within the context of Karr's critical essay “Against Decoration.”]
More than a decade has passed since the anthologies Ecstatic Occasions, Expedient Forms, edited by David Lehman, and The Direction of Poetry, edited by Robert Richman, made the first ensemble attempts to recognize a change in our poetry: the renewed interest in form. It has been ten years since the special issue of Crosscurrents (1989), edited by Dick Allen, gave the name Expansive poetry to the writing of a number of poets, most of them in their thirties, who argued for more accessible poetries, including the use of form and story, and honest, clear, critical prose that illuminated texts for general readers.
Since then the early Expansive poets, and others of their generation with whom they share common ground, have published more than a hundred books of poetry and criticism, and hundreds of magazine and newspaper essays and reviews. All of this work has served many useful purposes, not the least of which was giving the lie to the claims of some critics (who seldom bothered to read the writers they were criticizing) that Expansive poets could not back up their goals with their own poems. Like it or not, the poems, essays, and reviews by Expansive poets have done much of the work that needed to be done in order to open up the field, making the appreciation of poetry outside writing programs and the academy possible once more. Expansive poets created an atmosphere of greater tolerance for poetry written in traditional meters, for poetry that rhymes, for poetry that tells stories. One need only look at the latest issue of one's favorite literary quarterly to witness more and more established free verse poets suddenly writing in form and narrative.
“Do you get the feeling you've won?” Donald Hall said to me at the Associated Writing Program convention two years ago in Washington, D.C. I was standing outside a room where more than two hundred people had crowded in to hear a panel built around Rebel Angels: 25 Poets of the New Formalism, the first anthology to represent the Expansive poets. Of course, Hall knows, as I do, that poets who get caught up in winning as they attempt to revise the canon stride through dangerous brush. Poets who get carried away with winning prizes are equally misguided. In the poetry business, the prize-giving process is usually so tainted by conflicts of interest that only the uninitiated and the naive can possibly be impressed. Winning is not the point. Having something artful and important to say, and having an opportunity to say it, is really all that matters. Like the successful writers before them, Expansive poets have had to fight for the opportunity to be heard, and I suppose that is a kind of winning—the right to address an audience at large.
But even as Expansive poets and their concerns have become a significant part of our poetry landscape, strange disappointments shadow them. One is that many of their critics still have not read their work. Another is the odd attitude recently adopted, it seems, by some older, established poets, that Expansive poetry never really happened, that it doesn't mean a thing. In a recent American Book Review article, the reviewer claims that Expansive poets can't be taken seriously until they write as well as John Ashbery, Jorie Graham, and Robert Pinsky. One might be puzzled by the list, for Pinsky has himself been linked to Expansive poetry. And one can summon up a growing legion of readers who would argue that many Expansive poets do write as well as, or better than, Ashbery and Graham. Such an assertion, in such a review, is confusing, but only until one recognizes the embarrassing attempt at favor-trading, the smack-smack-smack of lips kissing up, kissing up. Still, the ABR writer finds an ally in a recent Parnassus writer's opinion that Expansive poets are bad because they are Populists. Dozens of urban and ethnic Expansive poets are no doubt grateful to be instructed in their populist roots. Others might ask, with Mark Twain, “Is Populism bad?”
If this type of shrill name-calling is sad to see, the other development is even worse. At that AWP panel, Henry Taylor surprisingly attacked Expansive poetry. As far as most of us could make out, he was just tired of it all. In the introduction to the latest volume of Best American Poetry, editor John Hollander dismisses new formalism, which is to say Expansive poetry, as just silly. These reactions by an older guard remind me of the envy and regret felt by some who loiter on the dock as a ship they would like to be on sails out to sea.
The world of poetry has always had its moments of generosity. Some, no matter how busy, will write jacket comments for new books if they possibly can; some donate money to favorite literary organizations, or to writer-friends in need. But today, it seems that acknowledgement and attribution are in short supply. Some older poets appear to be genuinely surprised, even caught off guard, by the success and growing influence of Expansive poetry. What else but fear can possibly be at work here, fear concerning who or what will have the last word? I have noticed a deer-in-the-headlights look to much of the dismissive protest waged against Expansive poetry. It is the most banal of desperate, historical revisions. Where fifteen years ago the status quo held that free verse was good, formal verse was bad, and Expansive poets hardly existed, today their argument holds that free verse and form are good, but Expansive poets are evil.
The practice of criticizing work you have not read, and the attitude that a thing does not exist when in fact it does, are as goofy as the Disney character himself. Through their talent and diligence, Expansive poets are most responsible for the sea change in American poetry. They have opened up more possibilities, more terrain, for all poets. Only the small-minded, the running scared, persist in denying the truth.
The poets whose new books are discussed here have all been influenced by Expansive poetry, and have benefited by the more tolerant climate brought about by its poets. Mary Karr's Viper Rum ends, for example, with an essay, “Against Decoration.” Originally appearing in Parnassus, the essay's tone and format are similar to some of the polemical essays from The Reaper magazine, especially The Reaper's non-negotiable demands, which appeared in its third issue almost twenty years ago. Karr has a lot to say with which Expansive poets agree. When she warns against obscurity of character, metaphor, and place, meaningless references, and overwriting, she lines up with Mary Jo Salter, Dana Gioia, David Mason, and dozens of other Expansive poets. So it is strange to watch her jump back and forth, as if weaving from lane to lane, to attack what she calls the neo-formalists (yet another variation on the name given to Expansive poets). “All too many contemporary poems,” Karr writes, “particularly those in the burgeoning neo-formalist canon, shy away from passion.” She cites “the vast majority of New Yorker poems” as evidence, and challenges Robert Richman's anthology, The Direction of Poetry: Rhymed and Metered Verse Written in the English Language since 1975.
It will come as a shock to many that The New Yorker is, or ever was, a bastion of Expansive poetry. It will also surprise thousands of readers that their favorite contemporary poems lack passion. In putting together his anthology, Richman had no intention of representing Expansive (or neo-formalist) poetry. In fact, his book contains much more work by an older generation that is not always in sync on a number of issues with Expansive poets. Unfortunately, in drawing her conclusions, Karr misses that key point: “Sadly, the only thing that is news about neo-formalism is bad news. Rarely before has form been championed as a virtue in and of itself, and poems judged formally good that in fact lack any relevance to human experience.”
The history of the last ten years has already proved this contention dead wrong, but Karr's mistake was an honest one. At the time she composed her essay, she did not fully understand the issues of Expansive poetry, and she had not read enough of the work before going on the attack. The only “neo-formalist” texts she refers to are Richman's anthology, and, briefly, Timothy Steele's Missing Measures. She pummels Michael Blumenthal and the late Amy Clampitt, because for Karr they are primary examples of neo-formalism. This comes as another surprise, for most Expansive poets share Karr's dislike for the work of both of these writers. It is not a bad idea to conclude a short book of poems with an essay, and there is much that is clear, honest, and valuable in “Against Decoration.” I just wish Karr had revised it, because the essay now seems dated, historically inaccurate.
Luckily, that is not the case with the poetry. Karr's grim wit and compressed, charged language seldom fail in Viper Rum's twenty-nine poems. The details of Karr's life are well known, so one might expect the current of post-alcoholic elegy running throughout the collection:
At the end we prayed for death … Each white second was knit into a sheet that settled over his features like a snowfield. Forgive me, Father, this terrible face. I was the patient one. I got what I wanted.
That white second, a unit of time becoming a sheet that settles over the father's face like a snowfield, is surprising, appropriate metaphor-making. At the same time, Karr's poems contain abundant formal echoes. She is fond of tercets, and makes able use of internal rhyme. The poems about her mother—“Four of the Horsemen (Hypertense and Stroke, Coronary Occlusion and Cerebral Insult),” “Beauty and the Shoe Sluts,” “The Invention of God in a Mouthful of Milk,” and “Belongings”—her addled, spunky addresses to God—“The Wife of Jesus Speaks,” “The Last of the Brooding Miserables,” “The Grand Miracle,” and “Christ's Passion”—and short narratives like “Hubris” and “Adieu” are especially rewarding. Karr can also be the life of any party, as the wicked poem, “Revenge of the Ex-Mistress” makes hilariously clear. In this third volume, Karr's poems set her apart from her ornamental mentors, her ornamental peers.
I look forward to any new book of poetry or prose by Wendell Berry. A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems, 1979-1997 is especially uplifting. The poems originate in Berry's Sunday morning walks through the Kentucky countryside. As he explains in his preface, they were “written in silence, in solitude, mainly out of doors.” We have begun to see a resurgence in religious writing—or at least writing about religious matters—in poetry, and these one hundred twenty-four formal meditations are part of that. This is restorative, a welcome development that will bring more readers to poetry. It may even play a part in elevating from pettiness the discourse of so much contemporary poetry.
There is, of course, none of that in anything that Berry turns his hand to. A Timbered Choir includes the poet's familiar meditations on farming and the land itself, remembrances of old friends and elegies for friends and neighbors who have moved on, and love poems to his wife, Tanya. There is, in fact, the quality of the love poem in all of Berry's verse, as well as the unmistakable note of gentle instruction.
The best reward in going to the woods Is being lost to other people, and Lost sometimes to myself. I'm at the end Of no bespeaking wire to spoil my goods;
I send no letter back I do not bring. Whoever wants me now must hunt me down Like something wild, and wild is anything Beyond the reach of purpose not its own.
Wild is anything that's not at home In something else's place. This good white oak Is not an orchard tree, is unbespoke, And it can live here by its will alone,
Lost to all other wills but Heaven's—wild. So where I most am found I'm lost to you, Presuming friend, and only can be called Or answered by a certain one, or two.
One may hear an echo of Frost's way of saying things; one may even think of Jeffers' uncompromising morality. The expression of Berry's artful, rural life walks us, clear-headed, onto the emotional bridge that still exists between America's pastoral past and its urban, mechanized present. Berry is able to do this because his traditional faith is not troubled by the doubts and out and out revolts that rock many of the spiritual revivalists among us. If this makes Berry our perfect Parson of Poetry, then so be it. God knows we can benefit from more writers showing us new ways to talk about God.
Before leaving this book, I wish to commend its very handsome production—it is the most beautiful book of the thirty or so I considered for this chronicle—and to salute the work of David Bullen, who since the early days of North Point Press has created legendary designs.
The story that drives Donald Hall's thirteenth collection of verse, Without, is familiar even to many casual readers who do not pay much attention to poetry. In January 1994, Hall's wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, was diagnosed with leukemia. In April 1995, she died in their bed at Hall's ancestral farm outside Wilmot, New Hampshire. These are only the facts. The poems in this book offer up all of the intense living and dying that filled those last sixteen months. They also help us to understand the extraordinary partnership, based on work, sex, and an abiding mutual respect and kinship, that endured for twenty years. The title poem is really a sequence of poems that mark the progress of Kenyon's illness and the heroic, desperate attempts to save her.
Daybreak until nightfall, he sat by his wife at the hospital while chemotherapy dripped through the catheter into her heart. He drank coffee and read the Globe. He paced; he worked on poems; he rubbed her back and read aloud. Overcome with dread, they wept and affirmed their love for each other, witlessly, over and over again.
The book concludes with a series of letters Hall wrote to Kenyon in the year after her death. This chronicle of goodbyes, of grief and survival, cannot fail to move readers. Yet despite its universal themes, the artistic success of Without was no sure thing. In fact, to publish such a book at all amounts to taking a great chance. I have heard, on occasion, the book dismissed by some who have not read it on grounds that it must be sentimental. They are wrong. There are times, akin to walking out of a dark room into blinding sunlight, when we meet a true fellowship of art and life. I think of van Gogh's paintings, and try to imagine my response to them if I were ignorant of the details of his sorry life. Something essential would, for me (and I am sure for others, too) be lost. Very little art successfully risks sentimentality and self-pity to portray what George Crabbe called “the life itself.” Without is art stripped of all artifice, which is to say stripped of all opportunities for dishonesty. Perhaps because these poems are so clearly life-in-art, and art-in-life, we cannot put them away, even though we might wish to.
If Expansive poetry calls for greater accessibility and a wide-open, historical eye, then Karl Kirchwey's place in that movement is assured. His third book is a collection of formal invention and allusive delight. Taking its title from book one, chapter 21 in the book of James, The Engrafted Word covers a lot of territory, ranging from ancient Rome to contemporary Italy, to our current world of sonograms, barium x-rays, and casts for broken bones. In five balanced sections, Kirchwey grafts the past onto our present time, our presence onto the past, asserting by his practice that the key to such travel is poetry itself.
Birth, and the rearing of children, launch and drive these poems from beginning to end. The poet-father's learning, his poise and his craft, are marshaled to explain the details, and evoke the mysteries, of a seamless world unfractured by the passage of time. To Kirchwey, the citizens of the ancient and modern worlds are one and the same. The fact that he explores ancient myths, meditates on great works of art, and moves under the surface of contemporary life aligns him with many diligent, post-modern poets. But the fact that he does so with unerring clarity, with intelligent astonishment, and with what one might even call reverence makes Kirchwey, and his verses, unusual. All parents should be concerned with how their children understand and relate to their world. Kirchwey's children, and readers, are lucky, for through a poetry of humility and grace he grounds their view in a sensibility that sees past and future as One, with the present an unobstructed highway between them. “Down such an avenue of red you came / three weeks ago today / … O rainy rose-gold prince, / lead us to kindness through the unaltered / kingdoms of innocence.”
Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red is the author's first novel in verse. If Karl Kirchwey wears lightly his knowledge of mythology, classical art, and the antique world, then Carson wears her similar interests like a heavy winter coat. Carson, perhaps more than any other writer discussed here, believes in the author's presence asserting itself, alternating as character and stage manager, in the text. Some will detect in this strategy a certain genius, while others will be bored by the self-conscious intrusions on the story being told. Readers in this last category will be irritated by apparatus—Appendix A and B, for example, and the brief interview concluding the book.
In an introductory section, Carson delivers background on Stesichoros, a poet born about 650 B.C., and one of his characters, Geryon: “Geryon is the name of a character in ancient Greek myth about whom Stesichoros wrote a very long lyric poem in the dactylo-epitrite meter and triadic structure. Some eighty-four papyrus fragments and a half dozen citations survive … They tell of a strange winged red monster who lived on an island called Erytheia quietly tending a herd of magical red cattle, until one day the hero Herakles came across the sea and killed him to get the cattle.” Carson speculates on ways that Stesichoros, and now herself, might tell this story. Evoking Gertrude Stein, Carson argues that the fragments of Geryon's story can be arranged in many ways. Embracing this familiar modernist strategy, she chooses to update the myth, setting our winged, red character and his associates down in urban modern life.
The story of the sensitive monster, the outcast without a home doomed to wander the world in search of love, has been told most often in our time on television and in cinema. So the reader may be excused if memories of Rod Serling's “Twilight Zone,” or the tortured image of Montgomery Clift as Geryon come to mind. But there are numerous literary precursors as well. Mary Shelley's famous monster, and Shakespeare's Caliban, are examples. More recently, one might think of Thomas M. Disch's protagonist in his novel, The M.D. The closest parallel, however, may be the character of Robinson Jeffers' Hoult in Part One (subtitled “The Love and the Hate”) of his 1948 book, The Double Axe. In that landmark poem the lead character is literally a battlefield corpse returned to the living to bear witness against the hypocrisy of war and to take revenge against his corrupt parents.
Consistent with our own time, Carson's Geryon is not so dynamic. His crisis is all interior as he struggles to embrace his homosexuality and find a balance between his tenderness and the fact of his frightful physical appearance. The poem's greatest tension arises in those segments when Geryon and Herakles, almost always in competitive conflict, dance around the lust and ultimate meaning of their love affair.
There are many memorable incidents and inspired passages in Autobiography of Red. “She was standing before him now / smiling hard and rummaging in his face with her eyes” is one example; “Up on the overpass / the night was wide open / and blowing headlights like a sea. He stood against the wind and let it peel him / clean” is another. These lines are just right, outnumbering the occasional strained metaphor, as in “The sound of horses like roses being burned alive.” When Carson breaks free of her weighty apparatus, and before the closing interview destroys the mood, her modern coming-of-age fable of urban angst and gay love is well worth reading.
Billy Collins' sixth collection, Picnic, Lightning, contains forty-five poems that will be familiar in content and execution to his growing number of readers. “I like writing about where I am, / where I happen to be sitting,” he says at one point. A random list of the poems' titles suggests the poet's point of view: “A Portrait of the Reader with a Bowl of Cereal,” “I Chop Some Parsley While Listening to Art Blakey's Version of ‘Three Blind Mice,’” “Shoveling Snow with Buddha,” “Victoria's Secret,” “Lines Composed Over Three Thousand Miles from Tintern Abbey,” “Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes,” “The Death of the Hat.” Irreverent, certainly. And for the most part, the poems deliver the goods.
Give the rabbit the eye, And the duck waddles off the folio. Say, these could be our mascots, you and I— I could look at you forever And never see the two of us together.
Collins' domain is the lyric, his gifts an ability to recognize and put into poetry appropriate anecdotes that suggest a larger context, and a charming sense of humor. Like the early James Tate, Collins' poems seem to be almost effortless. No subject or launch point is beyond him, and he is not above turning a poem inside out for a laugh. “Victoria's Secret,” for example, and “Paradelle for Susan” are reading pieces, poems likely to get big laughs on the lecture circuit. Like the Expansive poets, Collins writes in traditional and free forms for an audience that extends beyond the academy. For him the shadow is just as substantial as the object casting the shadow. The challenge for Collins now will be to avoid merely repeating himself, to eschew the instant gratification of an audience's cheers for the greater reward that comes from a poem like the marvelous “After the Storm.” In this poem a party is interrupted by a power outage. The revelers retire, only to be awakened in the early morning hours when the lights and music come back on. “So the party resumed without us, / the room again aglow with a life of its own. …” Someone finally gets out of bed and goes downstairs to turn everything off. At that point, Collins makes the sort of leap that suits him, and for which we are grateful:
even the ghosts of ourselves had to break up their party, snub out their cigarettes, carry their wineglasses to the kitchen,
where they kissed each other good night, and with nowhere else to go, floated vaguely upstairs to lie down beside us in our dark and quiet beds.
Ten Commandments is J. D. McClatchy's fourth book of poetry, and his first since 1990. This beautifully produced volume is organized into ten sections—corresponding to the Commandments—of three poems each, plus brief introductory verses that set the tone of the poet's response to the highlighted commandment in the following poems. It is a strict, intriguing plan, though for all its regimentation the book's concerns are more worldly than spiritual. McClatchy takes us on wide-ranging journeys that show us just how remote, in our daily lives, the voice and instruction of God, or any gods, can be. It is a poignant experience, witnessing McClatchy's success in creating an atmosphere in which one is willing to be amazed, to be guided by a greater good.
Like many Expansive poets, McClatchy's agility is most apparent in his range of subjects. In the fine “My Mammogram,” the poet takes an experience mostly exclusive to women and opens it up to involve men—all of us who must face the fact of our own mortality:
In the shower, at the shaving mirror or beach, For years I'd led … the unexamined life? When all along and so easily within reach (Closer even than the nonexistent wife)
Lay the trouble—naturally enough Lurking in a useless, overlooked Mass of fat and old newspaper stuff About matters I regularly mistook
As a horror story for the opposite sex, Nothing to do with what at my downtown gym Are furtively ogled as The Guy's Pecs.
But one side is swollen, the too tender skin Discolored. So the doctor orders an X- Ray, and nervously frowns at my nervous grin.
Section I, “My Mammogram”
In the tough “Lullaby,” McClatchy turns an often sentimental form on its ear: “Sleep, old baby, / Sleep your fill. / Sleep, old baby, / Sleep until / The dancers shout, / Sleep until / The stars burn out, / Sleep until / Tonight's boy scout / Gives you a hand, gives you a pill, / Lugs you up the flight of stairs.” And in “Sniper,” we observe a professional killer's rebuffed attempt at mercy in a Far Eastern jungle. With these and other equally surprising subjects, Ten Commandments is a more interesting read than most volumes of today's poetry.
The poems should also be admired for the formal skill that has gone into their making. If, on occasion, McClatchy describes too many of the mundane circumstances surrounding insight, as in the opening of “Tea with the Local Saint,” in most situations the rigor imposed by the form he is working in, and his own high standards, produce delightful results. McClatchy's rhymes, especially, deserve special attention. It is unusual to go almost nine years between books. In McClatchy's case, it has been well worth the wait.
The same can be said about William Logan's new book, also his fourth, Vain Empires. In fact, Logan has waited almost eleven years between book publications. This fact might, in part, have a lot to do with his status as a high-profile, honest reviewer of poetry. I have heard writers refer to him as “the most hated man in American poetry,” a title one could be proud of in this time of fawning and favor-trading.
This collection, as its title implies, will not make his detractors more comfortable. Much of Logan's poetry is driven by his wit and intelligence, and he seldom hesitates to direct them at our follies, our vanities.
The crickets in the bind weed chirp like broken pipes. Stiffly we sit to pose for a late daguerreotype,
but darkness now has stolen the light we need to see the lines upon our faces and guilts of property.
“A Version of Pastoral”
But noting Logan's acerbic wit now almost amounts to a pat response to his verse. There is heart in these poems, a tenderness for which he is seldom credited. I encourage readers to spend time in the long poem, “Keats in India” (in which the doomed poet survives his illness), with “Van Gogh in the Pulpit,” and with the dense sequence that opens the book, “The Secession of Science from Christian Europe.” Logan understands the transforming power of traditional form, and is familiar with the profound insights that crystalize when personal experience is filtered through subjects—historical, or of-the-moment—that transcend the mere confession. Logan's command alone of his favored quatrains and other verse forms makes Vain Empires a rewarding experience.
I've implied throughout this chronicle that the detractors of Expansive poetry should read more of the work before wailing, and they could start with Logan's new book or, in fact, with all of the books I've discussed. Like it or not, the fact alone suggests a serious literary movement. The proof is in the written record, which already exists and is growing, and which only need be read.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 889
SOURCE: Ullman, Leslie. Review of Viper Rum, by Mary Karr. Poetry 173, no. 4 (February 1999): 314-16.
[In the following review, Ullman asserts that the poems in Karr's Viper Rum effectively address “the persistent and unanswerable questions of the human condition” through themes of family, religion, faith, and death.]
Mary Karr's third collection [Viper Rum] probes, without sentimentality or loss of vitality, autobiographical material she has handled in previous collections and in her celebrated memoir, The Liars' Club—a hard-drinking father whom she holds close ten years after his death, a once-volatile mother now subdued by disease and the ravages of too many party nights, and her own failed loves and difficult passage into and out of the realm of drink. The matrix from which her poems arise, even though many of them deal with places and people from the present, is flavored by references to her hardscrabble origins in a Texas refinery town on the Gulf and to the colorful, self-destructive forbears whose demons she has inherited.
Like the “sinus-opening chile” her father taught her to make, Karr's poems work with strong stuff, juxtaposing faith in family and God, at best a “chosen blindness,” against the unavoidable and sometimes grotesque aspects of carnal life. Unflinchingly, many of the poems reveal people in states of utter ruin from which some of them, including herself, manage to surface to a “gravitas” that somehow steadies them without guaranteeing redemption.
The tension between the mysteries of faith and the hard facts of mortal life is further explored in numerous poems which refer to the physical details of Christ's sacrifice and its attendant agonies—the tearing of bones, the splitting of skin, gut dangling from the abdomen. One of the most powerful poems, “The Wife of Jesus Speaks,” depicts him boldly as a sexual being through the voice of the silenced woman who once knew his “hard / stalk of flesh rocking inside me.” Karr's intent seems not to deny Christ's force as a savior or the miracle of his resurrection, but to hold beside them the human burden he bore, living “in carne, the Latin poets say, in meat.”
Her poems evoke mental torments as well, in the form of voices to be silenced, “bad news piped steady from your head,” a frightening energy which drives or has driven several figures in this book to suicide or drink. The inner hell Karr depicts is not, however, something to be pitied or condemned, but resonates as a symptom of the longing that arises within anyone who, like Christ, strives towards the sacred, sometimes hopelessly, through the profanities inherent in emotional as well as bodily existence.
Karr's no-nonsense contemplation of ultimate stakes is consistent with her controversial essay, “Against Decoration,” in which she argues against the neo-formalists' preoccupation with baroque surfaces and the post-structuralists' theory-driven embrace of “an art that generates chaotic forms under the guise of reflecting a chaotic world,” all of which she feels has resulted in a great deal of contemporary poetry so caught up in surfaces that it “ceases to perform its primary function: to move the reader.” Originally published in Parnassus, this astringent and outspoken essay provides an appropriate afterward to her poems.
Karr objects to decorative gestures only when they override the emotional core, “the essentially human elements” of a poem. Her own poems offer agile images and flashes of regional diction that make them vivid, musical and accessible, through the force of personality as well as vision. In an acerbic poem called “Beauty and the Shoe Sluts,” she describes her mother's glitzy old dancing shoes as “all wicked run down,” and remarks that one of them, “a black patent ankle strap // like a shackle on a spike heel / … must've been teetering hell to wear.” Reflecting on her drinking days in the poem, “Limbo: Altered States,” she remarks bluntly, “I don't miss drinking, don't miss / driving into shit with more molecular density / than myself.”
She can be lyrical when she chooses, as in the opening lines of “The Invention of God in a Mouthful of Milk”: “As the violin's body shudders with the tree's / last song, so my mother's soul longs / to rise from its fleshy husk.” She can render metaphysical moments through earthy, downright redneck imagery, as she does in the poem, “Mr. D. Refuses the Blessing”: “like one of those willful boneheads / who backs a swiveling truck / wildly the wrong way up the road, / he reversed himself against all flows.” Writing of an abortion in a third-person poem titled “Terminus,” she observes, in keeping with premonition that the fetus will be replaced by more intrusive emptiness, “The table she slid on rattled with parchment, as if / at procedure's end some unrolled scroll / might be issued.”
Just as good chili is not simply hot, neither are these poems, for all their willingness to probe the “dark meat” of bodily existence, simply stoic. They affirm human gestures towards life by highlighting them as gestures, the noble if involuntary strokes one might make to stay afloat if thrown off the side of a boat. Like Albert Camus, who begins his famous Existentialist essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” by presenting as a “serious philosophical problem” the question of whether or not one should commit suicide, Karr peers beyond illusions of safety and is energized by the shadows out there, the persistent and unanswerable questions.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 14226
SOURCE: Selinger, Eric Murphy. “This Personal Maze Is Not the Prize.” Parnassus 24, no. 2 (2000): 77-116.
[In the following essay, Selinger offers a critical reading of The Liars' Club within the context of the prose memoir genre and in conjunction with Karr's poetry volume Viper Rum and her literary essay “Against Decoration.”]
Five years ago, with The Liars' Club still reeling at the view from its lofty perch on the Times bestseller list, Mary Karr offered the readers of Parnassus “A Memoirist's Apology.” What was she apologizing for? Not the book's success—it could scarcely have been published when the essay was composed. Nor, Lord knows, did she need our forgiveness for anything in the book: the portraits of her haunted mother, or her rough and tender father, or herself. Rather, like John Henry Newman facing his Anglican past in Apologia Pro Vita Sua, Karr needed to explain to her first audience, lovers of poetry, the course of a conversion. How had she turned from a would-be poet of history (however ill-known), of philosophy (however vague), and of cities she had rarely seen (we'll always have Paris) into an autobiographer? Given the Great Awakening afoot in poets' memoirs—nearly thirty, by my rough count, have appeared since 1994—her testimony bears a closer look.
Karr opens with the usual charges against taking oneself as a subject. The penny-ante vanity of it! The picayune limits that life can set on the poet's work and, worse, on her imagination! Such scruples put you in good company, Apollo's own “liars' club.” Here old-timers like Chaucer and Browning join Eliot, Stevens, and Pound for a round of darts and a draught of vintage served up by Shakespeare, the Man of a Thousand Masks. Dickinson has a favorite table, she who insisted the “I” of her poems was “a supposed person,” though no one quite believes her. And taped to the mirror behind the bar is a postcard from Karr's fortysomething contemporary, Thylias Moss. “I have just watched Eyes on the Prize / twenty years after the contest,” it reads:
I am looking at my winnings: a husband who is not literary, a baby from a teen-ager's body, a daughter from a sister-in-law declared unfit. I've had both kinds of abortions, the voluntary, the involuntary. Stop. This personal maze is not the prize. Stop. Writers, my class believes, must write about what they know, restrict themselves to expertise That rule leaves me no province.
(“A Catcher for an Atomic Bouquet”)
As those clenched, embittered “Stops” suggest, Moss knows the railroad momentum of confession. To win yourself a “province,” though—Keats called it a “desmene”—you have to leave the local stations of the “personal maze” behind. Or, given the documentary Moss claims to be watching as the poem begins, Eyes on the Prize, let's put the case in more heroic terms. “Restrict yourself to expertise” and you forfeit the hardest won of poetic Civil Rights, marched for in the streets of Plato's Republic: the right to make it up, to feign, to lie.
Karr knows the glamour of a well-told lie. “I've plumb forgot where I am for an instant, which is how a good lie should take you,” she writes in the memoir, listening as her father details his own father's grisly demise. “At the same time, I'm more where I was inside myself than before Daddy started talking, which is how lies can tell you the truth.” Not a bad defense of poesy; Moss and the boys would approve. The fact that this lie “stayed built between him and the other men like a fence,” however, sounds an abrupt last call to its appeal. Feigning may mean freedom for the poet, especially the “greater freedom … not to be oneself” that James Merrill hymns in his own memoir, A Different Person (1993). But in Karr's account this freedom mostly fences you off: from friends, from hope, and even from your own tools as a poet. “The best language, the most interesting syntax” in her early work, she reports in the “Apology,” came when versions of her dying father “invaded” it. The memoir yields an oddly similar revelation. “As to why she [her mother] hadn't told us all this before,” the poet notes, “—about the marriages and the lost children—her exact sentence stays lodged in my head, for it's one of the more pathetic sentences a sixty-year-old woman can be caught uttering: ‘I thought you wouldn't like me anymore.’” Pathos, yes—but confession supplies a fine pentameter, too.
A poet may have reasons, then, to trudge through the personal maze, especially if it has a minotaur lurking inside. Why, though, would she map her journey in prose? Speaking from experience, Karr builds a solid case for autobiography tout court. First of all, she argues, to figure out a mother's life, or a father's, or your own, simply takes more room than most lyric poems provide. You need space for “exposition, hedging, explanation” and “character development,” the fluster and miscellany of fact. In a poem, by contrast, such information plays second fiddle to music: the repetitions and variations, in sound and image and trope, that make verse both shapely and memorable. Prose invites you to cast your lot with “psychological rigor,” promising both an inward prize—absolution, wholeness, that sort of thing—and the chance to tear down a wall between you and the reading world. (Good memoirs, Karr explains elsewhere, “reassure the same way belonging to a community reassures.”) In poetry, though, as William Carlos Williams writes in Paterson, “rigor of beauty is the quest.” And even if you refuse, with halakhic precision, to fudge for the sake of a line, how is the reader to know? The genre makes no promises. No lawyers are standing by.
As I scan the bumper crop of new memoirs by poets, Karr's “Apology” helps me understand why the bulk of them got planted. It can't, though, answer the fundamental question: Why on earth should I read one? What does a poet's memoir offer the reader of poetry? Or—since this is the sort of question best answered in specifics—how can I, as a fellow who keeps a candle burning for Gunmoll Jean, the woman who hankers to hear “real stories, but not real, I mean / Not just dumb things people did” in Merrill's “Days of 1935”; how can I put a poet's memoir to use, as an instrument of my own pleasure? What in a poet's memoir beckons me back to the poems quickened and more curious, more delighted, more at home?
GO-BEFORES AND EMBRYONS
The trail of poets writing memoirs, in English at least, leads back to a familiar cottage in Grasmere. There, in early December 1799, William and Dorothy Wordsworth transcribed the 514-line, two-part personal poem he had been writing for a over a year, for all that he had his heart set on penning a philosophical epic. “Of genius, power, / Creation and divinity itself / I have been speaking,” Wordsworth would insist in a later draft of The Prelude, for the topic of “what passed within me” as a boy and a young man turns out to be, in its own right, “heroic argument.” In private, though, he sometimes had his doubts. “That a man should talk so much about himself,” the poet sighed in a letter of 1805, was “a thing unprecedented in Literary history.” A bit abashed, he kept the book unpublished until his death, sure that it needed The Recluse, the epic that kept never coming, to justify the ways of a poet's autobiography.
Although a poem, The Prelude sets forth the central concerns of later poets' work in memoir. Particularly influential, I suspect, has been its notion that childhood “spots of time” could be the sources, not just of a poet's character, but of his subsequent poetics. To borrow a phrase from Whitman's memoir Specimen Days, these moments are the “go-befores and embryons” of the real work elsewhere. The fistful of autobiographies by Yeats, from Reveries over Childhood and Youth (1916) to Dramatis Personae: 1896-1902 (1935), offer us similar vistas of the poet's parents, his youth in Sligo, countryside excursions and revelations, and encounters with nature (or spirits) and society—literary society, in this case, with all those marvellous tales of Synge and the Nineties, Madame Blavatsky and so on—all presented as the foundation of Yeats's “systems” and obsessions, his personal myth. Even the brittle, abortive “91 Revere Street” by Robert Lowell, the thirty-five page shard of memoir that serves as Part Two of Life Studies, finds a late place in this tradition. “Young Bob,” his mother, and his awkward crew of father figures stand offstage for the rest of the volume, whispering etiological hints (perhaps a bit too loudly) about the speakers' mental and marital predicaments.
By including “91 Revere Street” alongside the poems of Life Studies, Lowell suggested a second way to read poets' memoirs. Not only do they work in retrospect, filling in facts and offering us an autobiographical myth in the making, they also work prospectively, as available sources for poems: invitations for us to spot local allusions, poem to prose, and through their comparison to take a welcome gander at the transformation of life (or something ostensibly closer to it) into finished art. What's in? What's left out? What emphasis, interpretation, and tone do the genre-specific resources of poetry bring to the … well, it's not raw material exactly, all those scenes, relations, images, and old loves. The act of writing can't but set them in order. On the other hand, they're not quite cooked: The onions, freshly chopped, still draw a tear. Memoir serves, in this case, as a prep chef for the imagination, a first response to some psychic or vocational crisis which the haute cuisine of verse might well smother in béchamel. As Mark Doty more recently told Publishers Weekly, looking back on the writing of his AIDS memoir, Heaven's Coast, “I think that it would have felt in some way dishonest to the gravity and intensity of this time of grief to attempt to order it, to shape it in that very controlled way that poems are shaped.” Where memoir was, this motto runs, poetry will be—but not yet, and never without leaving a trail back to where it began.
The pair of texts, memoir and poetry, that I savor most in this mode are H. D.'s End to Torment (1958), written in response to the mostly joyful crisis of Ezra Pound's release from St. Elizabeth's, and the lovely sequence “Winter Love,” composed the following year. H. D. is hardly the only modernist to write memoir. William Carlos Williams, Langston Hughes, Robert Graves, Louise Bogan, and even Pound himself left behind a scree of autobiographies, from which one gawks at the poetry in still-puzzled admiration. None pleases or teaches me quite so much as H. D.'s, however, in part because I was farther from her poems at the start (they'd always felt too theatrical, too Isadora Duncan-ish), in part because none of those memoirs feels quite as intimately woven into particular subsequent poems, the warp of anecdote and woof of art linking each to each, as H. D.'s memoir of Pound does with the subsequent poème-à-clef. Rather than present us with an autobiographical myth, End to Torment shows a poet trying to shake off myth, or get past it, in the process regressing to some original fact, some cocoon of response from which a new self might emerge, or from whose silk new myths could be spun. On the one hand, then, you have this:
We were curled up together in an armchair when my father found us. I was “gone.” I wasn't there. I disentangled myself. I stood up; Ezra stood beside me. It seems we must have swayed, trembling. But I don't think we did. “Mr. Pound, I don't say there was anything wrong. …” Mr. Pound, it was all wrong. You turn into a Satyr, a Lynx, and the girl in your arms (Dryad, you called her), for all her fragile, not yet lost virginity, is Maenad, bassarid.
“What are you hiding?” Erich Heydt [her doctor] insisted. I was hiding myself and Ezra, standing before my father, caught “in the very act” you might say. For no “act” afterwards, though biologically fulfilled, had had the significance of the first demi-vierge embraces.
Young lovers, circa 1905, interrupted by Mr. Doolittle but even before that “caught in the act” of elevating their unconsummated desire into the stuff of Pre-Raphaelite poesy. That “act,” imprinted on the mind by those “demi-vierge embraces,” supplied enough “significance” to fuel Pound's later musings on “Psychology and the Troubadours” and (on H. D.'s reading) several scraps of the Pisan Cantos. From the memory of that in flagrante scene and the gasp that “it was all wrong”—not the sex but the mythologizing, the girl in the arms transformed to the Maenad in mind—the poet herself would soon make passages such as this, from “Winter Love”:
there is something left over, the first unsatisfied desire— the first time, that first kiss,
the rough stones of a wall the fragrance of honey-flowers, the bees, and how I would have fallen but for a voice,
calling through the brambles and tangle of bay-berry and rough broom,
Helen, Helen, come home; there was a Helen before there was a War, but who remembers her?
Everything important has been invented: the outdoor setting, the stones, the brambles, the bees, the name Helen, all demanded by the logic of “Winter Love,” not by memory. And yet, the triggering realization of the poem—“there is something left over, / the first unsatisfied desire— / the first time, that first kiss”—comes right from the prose, and so does the wistful recollection of the girl before the War, before the song. The prose scene hovers above the poem, its guardian angel, its ghost, its second mind. When you turn back to the memoir, the poem takes that role. Each text glosses the other, and though you can take pleasure in each alone, there's something profoundly and appropriately erotic about the play between them: an ever-unsatisfied “demi-vierge embrace” in its own right.
Life Studies, End to Torment, and “Winter Love” all appeared in the late Fifties (1958-9, to be exact). No doubt the Freudian climate of the time shaped the ways Lowell and H. D. used memoir, and how their memoirs offer themselves, in turn, for our readerly use. Setting that question aside—it's worth exploring, but not here—two other matters bear mention. First, both of these memoirs offer a keyhole glimpse of the way a poet's scattered breakfast-table self becomes, in Yeats's words, “re-born as an idea, something intended, complete” as it enters the world of the poem. Second, although they come shortly before the rise of “confessional poetry” (après Lowell, the deluge), at which point you might expect to find a wealth of memoir, in fact they mark the start of a dry spell. Perhaps the “very controlled way that poems are shaped,” as Doty put it, loosened up so much in the Sixties that memoir-like material could make its way within the poem itself. (Think of Ginsberg's “Kaddish,” whose long, detailed “release of particulars” could easily have been notes toward a memoir of his mother Naomi.) Perhaps the need for poets to reach a broader community of readers—hinted at as a motive for memoir, as we saw, by Mary Karr—got satisfied in other ways, through poems and poets' work in political, Civil Rights, anti-war, and Feminist movements.
In any case, only a steady trickle of poets' memoir flows through the 1970s: Nikki Giovanni's Gemini and Gwendolyn Brooks' Report from Part 1 at the start of the decade; Donald Hall's String Too Short to be Saved at its close. The trickle continues, at about the same pace, through the 1980s, where Audre Lorde's grand “biomythography” Zami: A New Spelling of My Name starts us off, along with the fugitive Tell Me Again (1982) by Alice Notley, and autobiographies from Karl Shapiro and David Ignatow to cap things off in 1988. In the 1990s, however, those trickle-drops swell into a flood. A chart will help you track the rising waters:
- 1990: Karl Shapiro, Reports of My Death; also the Memoir and Biography issue of Parnassus (16:2), featuring memoirs by Harold Beaver, Wendy Gimbel, Melissa Green, and Michael Heller
- 1992: Paul Monette, Becoming a Man; David Mura, Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei
- 1993: Donald Hall, Life Work; James Merrill, A Different Person; Ron Padgett, Ted [a memoir of Ted Berrigan]
- 1994: William Corbett, Philip Guston's Late Work: A Memoir; Melissa Green, Color Is the Suffering of Light; Philip Levine, The Bread of Time; Paul Monette, Last Watch of the Night: Essays Too Personal and Otherwise
- 1995: Eavan Boland, Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time; Garrett Hongo, Volcano: A Memoir of Hawai'i; Mary Karr, The Liars' Club; James Laughlin, Remembering William Carlos Williams (in verse); Li-Young Lee, The Winged Seed; Denise Levertov, Tesserae: Memories and Suppositions; Michael Ryan, Secret Life: An Autobiography
- 1996: David Mura, Where the Body Meets Memory: An Odyssey of Race, Sexuality, and Identity; Alan Shapiro, The Last Happy Occasion
- 1997: Peter Balakian, Black Dog of Fate; William Corbett, Furthering My Education; Toi Derricotte, The Black Notebooks; Mark Doty, Heaven's Coast; Kinereth Gensler, Journey Fruit: Poems and a Memoir; Jonathan Holden, Guns and Boyhood in America: A Memoir of Growing Up in the Fifties; William Kloefkorn, This Death by Drowning; Colleen McElroy, A Long Way from St. Louie; Pat Mora, House of Houses; Robert Peters, Feather: A Child's Death and Life; Alan Shapiro, Vigil
- 1998: Hayden Carruth, Reluctantly; Thylias Moss, Tale of a Sky-Blue Dress; Molly Peacock, Paradise, Piece by Piece; Charles Simic, Orphan Factory: Essays and Memoirs; Lewis Turco, Shaking the Family Tree: A Remembrance
- 1999: Hayden Carruth, Beside the Shadblow Tree: A Memoir of James Laughlin; Mark Doty, Firebird; Rodger Kamenetz, Terra Infirma: A Memoir of My Mother's Life in Mine; W. D. Snodgrass, After-Images
Forgive me if I've missed a few: I've set works that call themselves fiction, like Ray A. Young Bear's Black Eagle Child (1992), in another pile, along with reprint editions of old texts (William Stafford's Down in My Heart, from 1947, has just been reissued) and essays and prefaces like those by Susan Howe and Julia Alvarez, though they're certainly marbled with memoir. And of course, by the time you read this a new flurry will have arrived. In and Out of Dislocation, C. S. Giscombe's book of travel pieces, will be out shortly, and Bruce Weigl's The Circle of Hanh, and I keep an ear to the ground for the full midrashic revelation of Living Root by Michael Heller, which has appeared in scattered excerpts for the last ten years.
Reading this list, you may have one (or more) of three responses. The first is to grimace, and gird your loins, and prophesy unto the Kingdom of Poetry, saying—as critics did unto the Kingdom of Fiction a few years back—watch out! (As it is written by Jill Ker Conway, “readers of fiction” now “refuse to surrender disbelief” and turn to autobiographies; and again by Annie Dillard, “Other literary genres are shrinking”; and by James Atlas, in the New York Times Magazine special issue on “The Age of the Literary Memoir,” “Fiction isn't delivering the news. Memoir is.”) But memoirs don't compete with poetry, as they seem to with novels. No one would sputter to find that, say, Molly Peacock really did marry a long-lost sweetheart, or that Colleen McElroy had a travelling jones.
The next instinct, just as wrongheaded, would be to shrug these books off as a gimmick: a bid by poets to reach a market that thinks of poetry as autobiography anyway, and might be glad to take a look, if only it weren't in lines. But even if a few of these were written at the behest of Lady Poverty, that means they were indited with an eye to being read by folks who probably don't already know the author's work in verse. That's a new twist to this old genre, certainly not true of Whitman, Yeats, H. D., and Lowell. And it gives us a new way to read them as well. These new poets' memoirs may primarily focus on childhood secrets, racial headaches, sex-addiction, a beloved's death, the work of an artist friend, or even the flickering, newsreel ghosts of a far-off genocide. But they also implicitly serve as letters of introduction. The autobiographer, an upright, believable character, writes to us on behalf of his or her shady, marginal second self, the poet. What figure, we now get to ask, does this memoir sketch of its author's other, less reputable identity, its quirks, its obsessions, its sources in early reading or in family romance? What lessons in poetics does the memoir teach, and when you turn to the poems, do they pay off? Does the memoir make you want to read that other work? (Peter Balakian's Mad Dog of Fate left me breathless, but drew me to study Armenia, not Balakian's verse per se.) Those are exciting questions to ask—and you can do worse than to put them first to The Liars' Club.
A WASHRAG AND A JUG OF ALCOHOL
Although The Liars' Club made quite a splash in 1995, I took my time towelling off and changing clothes (or at least hats) before I read it. My eyes were still stinging, I suspect, from Karr's essay “Against Decoration,” which appeared in Parnassus back in 1990. “To spark emotion,” she told me there, “a poet must strive to attain what Aristotle called simple clarity,” and she therefore took up arms against the “new passion for prettiness,” the “emotional obliquity” of poems that “mystify facts by draping them in veil after veil of metaphor.” The pieces she dispatched included James Merrill's “Serenade” and “History as Decoration” by Rosanna Warren, both of which she seemed willfully unable to read. (Why, for example, would she mistake an allusion to Pan and Syrinx, which helps “Serenade” make emotional sense, for a reference to Apollo and Marsyas, which doesn't?) Looking to poems for “the great emotional or metaphysical truths that can change one's life,” she seemed Puritanically short with the value of linguistic play (or “mere amusement”). Short? She was downright peremptory. “If this is poetry,” she says of the Warren, “let us write prose.”
If only I had known, as they say, where she was coming from. When I got around to The Liars' Club, what struck me—well, not first (the plot did that, and the characters, and Karr's harrowing, snappy prose), but a solid second—was how well the book made sense of her short fuse years before. Let me explain. For most readers, the fact that Karr was a “poet” provided an easy way to praise her and her work. “To have a poet's precision of language and a poet's gift for understanding emotion and a poet's insight into people applied to one of the roughest, toughest, ugliest places in America,” Molly Ivins gushed in The Nation, “is an astounding event.” But when you read the book not as a memoir-by-a-poet, but as a poet's memoir, such praise seems put precisely backwards. In her autobiography, Karr applies the test of the rough, tough uglies to poetry as an art and to her vision of “the poet” as well.
We meet Karr's test of poetry a few pages into the book. “I was in my twenties when Mr. Thibideaux killed his family,” the passage begins:
I liked to call myself a poet and had affected a habit of reading classical texts (in translation, of course—I was a lazy student). I would ride the Greyhound for thirty-six hours down from the Midwest to Leechfield, then spend days dressed in black in the scalding heat of my mother's front porch reading Homer (or Ovid or Virgil) and waiting for someone to ask me what I was reading. No one ever did. People asked me what I was drinking, how much I weighted, where I was living, and if I had married yet, but no one gave me a chance to deliver my lecture on Great Literature. It was during one of those visits that I found the Thibideauxs' burned-out house, and also stumbled on the Greek term ate.
Karr sets up a tidy contrast between her affectations as “a poet”—a reading list and a costume change, a gesture and a pose—and the heat, nosy questions, and front-porch life back home. Between this awkward pair stand Homer and Ovid and Virgil—not as names to be dropped, but as authors who understood things like ate, “a kind of raging passion, pseudo-demonic, that banishes reason,” as Karr explains, that you don't have to import from the littered beaches of Troy to those of Leechfield, Texas. And though the poet doesn't call herself a poet again for nearly two-hundred pages, she makes damned sure you know she's learned that lesson about her art. Reading Rilke's “The Panther” as a grown-up, she tells us, she saw again the “sorry-looking cats” she saw as a girl in the Houston zoo. The “close to perfect” trout she caught as a girl brings up a line from Bishop's “The Fish.” And even “The Second Coming” turns out to have some home truths tucked up its apocalyptic sleeves. “In school when I stumbled on the famous Yeats poem about things falling apart,” she writes, “it was the spin of those spankings I thought back to, where the falcon breaks loose from its tether and from the guy who's supposed to be holding it.” No wonder she snapped, in “Against Decoration,” at poems like “Serenade.” Leechfield had ate by the bucket-full. No room there for the obliquities Merrill cut his teeth on, whether in his broken home or in Tin Pan Alley songs, with their “Byronic elite of fox-trotters classy enough to crack jokes while their hearts are breaking.” (Where Karr hears “brittle cleverness supplanting emotion, wit elevated above clarity,” Merrill's singing “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”)
Real poetry, then, for Karr, is work that stands the test, not just of time, but of life in Leechfield: a mirror, an answer, even a rebuke, but never an evasion. That insight alone would help you turn from the memoir back to her poems with a challenge in hand and a particular pleasure in mind. But The Liars' Club also supplies you, like so many poets' memoirs before it, with a myth of ancestry. I've often thought the best modern translation of “Sing to me, O Muse” is “Mom? Dad? Could you give me a call?” and although the parents in Karr's memoir stay quite stubbornly and memorably real, full-blown novelistic characters, you can't help but also think of them as the charged poles of her imagination, too. On one side, there's her mother, the artist, who told bedtime stories about “Van Gogh's lopped-off ear; Gauguin's native girls; the humpbacked Degas mad for love of his dancers; how Pollack once paid a fortune for a Picasso drawing, then erased it in order to see how it was made.” Such stories show, again, that learning need not be affected, and they tune us in to Karr's earliest lessons in what it means to be an artist, too. “The whole idea of erecting a person—from tinted oil and from whatever swirled inside my mother's skull—filled me with a slack-jawed wonder,” she writes. “Stories of Artists / Erecting a person” I jot in my mental list of things to look for in the poems. Though I know scenes like these don't really unveil the Origins of the Poet, they're oddly comforting, and a story to tell.
For the fountainhead of Karr's own interest in telling stories, look to her father. The man who taught her how to spin a tale, he draws a number of loving tributes not just to his “extravagance of heart,” but to his artistry. I've already quoted her Aristotelian defense, in her father's name, of how “a good lie can tell you the truth.” Here are a few more: “No matter how many tangents he took,” she writes, “or how far the tale flew from its starting point before he reeled it back, he had this gift: he knew how to be believed.” Will her poems work that way? my margin-note reads. “Like most people, he lied best by omission, and what he didn't want you to know there was no point asking about”: What will her poems omit, and what will she lie about? This, after her father's stroke: “I wanted nothing so much as to hear Daddy tell a story, to unreel a story in my head like so much sheer, strong fishing line casting me back to times I'd never lived through and places I'd never been except courtesy of his voice.” Her memoir has done that; how will the poems? Finally, and best of all, Karr lays bare her father's poetics: “The first night he slept with her [my mother],” Karr recalls, “he took a washrag and a jug of wood alcohol to get rid of her makeup, saying he wanted to see what he was getting into.” If only Karr had told that story at the start of “Against Decoration”! I wouldn't have waited so long to read her memoir, or Viper Rum.
On the cover of Viper Rum, in admirably small type, New Directions beckons with the inevitable pitch: “By the Author of The Liars' Club, The New York Times Bestseller.” Yet more than marketing is at work: These poems really do follow up on the memoir, which, we now realize, constituted a step in Karr's development as a poet. Read the books in succession and a family poem like “Lifecycle Stairmaster” feels homey and heartening. You know the “white-haired mom,” who, now widowed, “squints at Cloud of Unknowing,” just as (in the memoir) she pored over “books by guys with more and more unpronounceable names,” teaching her daughter to say “Camus” without sounding like a hick. You recognize the poet's sister, Lecia, whose “cornbread / with sinus-opening chile—volcanic red, / burbling on the stove, rich with smashed garlic, // hacked onion, like Dad taught us to make” summons up vicarious memories shared with us in The Liars' Club. (Even that chile sounds familiar.) Most of all, though, you're at home with Karr's salty, pose-me-no-pose erudition. “If Sisyphus shoved his rock for eternity up / the mountain said rock always toppled down again,” she drawls near the start of the piece, “so I must daily hike my middle-aged ass // north off the back of my leg, get my pulse / to pump. …” Her mother would be proud.
Karr does well by her mother in Viper Rum. According to the “Apology,” her earlier “failure” to “write the central tragedy in my mother's life through poetry … drove me to the memoir.” Writing that tragedy—the abduction, by her ex-husband, of her mother's two children from a former marriage—properly, in the prose it demanded, paid off. “Now it's your turn,” she whispers to her first art, then loosens the reins and lets the horse take flight. The poem “Four of the Horsemen (Hypertense and Stroke, Coronary Occlusion and Cerebral Insult)” shows this newfound confidence at its best. “Mother's on the sofa with her channel-changer raised, / aimed like a wrist-rocket at the last reality / she can alter,” it begins. The chatty falling rhythm of that first line drops expertly into the dense surprise of the second, and the pivot point comes at a repeated vowel that enacts Karr's impulse to take a second look at the scene—“was it raised? No, aimed …”—and then let an awful-but-cheerful simile twist her mother's gesture into focus. Readers of the memoir know there's nothing “decorative” about that armed and ready channel-changer; we've seen the rocket go off. The figures in the poem's central stanzas—wordplay, allusion, more simile, close-wrought sound—also win high marks on Karr's hard-boiled test of poetry:
Death lodged in her rib cage, which they'd pried open. Actual staples
held halves of my mother's chest fast to the scarlet scalpel line. Such meat hunks we are, such heavy corpses
born up by frail breath, as Epictetus said according to Heraclitus, for some dim wisdom does filter down. Tell that to Mother, though,
on the sofa chain-smoking Mores. She scorns delivered wisdom: Ashtrays stud the room, so unsquashed cigarettes she forgot she lit
send up curls of smoke like altar offerings, steam from the entrails of sacred butchered birds. Please don't die, I say. She rolls her eyes.
To find Epictetus, Heraclitus, and Mother set off in three successive lines, and “filter down” used, silently, to invoke the filters of Mother's Mores, and the wish for more wisdom, more life, and so forth sponsoring the cigarette's name, and even the word “alter,” from the poem's first stanza, remembered and transformed into the “altar offerings” that keep those ancient Greeks in mind—to find all this is to remember Karr's faith that “intricate surface and form” can be, when handled right, “paths to or from human experience” (“Against Decoration”). The symmetry of sound in my excerpt's last line—long e, long o, long i, then the repeat, with a long a in between—clinches the point. To double back for a moment to the “Memoirist's Apology,” here we see Karr focusing on music, not information, as a poet must. And when the personal maze becomes a maze of sound and pattern, who'd bother to ask whether Mores was really her mother's brand?
In Viper Rum, Karr shifts effortlessly between presenting her mother as a realist character and as a figure worthy of Great Literature. When, in “Beauty and the Shoe Sluts,” Karr thinks back, momentarily, to when her mother “towered” over her “with red hair / brushed back into flame points,” we thus see her in quick stereoscopy. The woman from “A Game of Chess” in The Waste Land, “her hair / Spread out in fiery points,” momentarily mirrors the nervous woman from The Liars' Club, who stood over her little girl “with a wild corona of hair and no face but a shadow. She has lifted her arms and broadened the stance of her feet, so her shadow turns from a long thin line into a giant X. And swooping down from one hand is the twelve-inch shine of a butcher knife, not unlike the knife that crazy guy had in Psycho for the shower scene. …” The poems here about Karr's father, by contrast, never quite measure up to his memoir portrait. There, his “extravagance of heart” came to life in the cast and reel of her prose. Here, Karr has trouble chipping a life-sized poem from her father's “monolithic shadow” (“Requiem for the New Year”). The short lines of “The Patient,” for example, leave him little room, and they don't do justice to Karr's gift for remembrance, either:
At the end we prayed for death, even phoned funeral homes from his room for the best cremation deal. But back when he was tall, he once put my ailing cat to sleep, or helped the vet and me hold it flat to the table while we felt all muscles tighten for escape then freeze that way. Later in my father's truck, I held the heavy shoebox on my lap. He said, I ever git like that you do the same. I remember the slight weight of my ten-year-old head nodding without a pause. We peeled from the gravel lot onto the rain- blurred road. What did I know of patience then? Or my dad for that matter, shifting gears. …
I like plenty in this poem: the sudden rhythmic heft of that “heavy shoebox,” for example, and the way the father's “git” echoes in “slight” and “weight.” The question “What did I know / of patience then?” makes a graceful bow to the close of Robert Hayden's great working-class-father poem, “Those Winter Sundays”: “What did I know, what did I know / Of love's austere and lonely offices?” In the memoir, though, Karr would never need to make the phrase “when he was tall” carry so much tottering emotional freight. And as for whether her father put the cat to sleep or simply held it, we've seen her worry the gristle of questions like that for patient paragraphs, hashing out the difference it would make.
The deepest pleasure in turning from Karr's memoir to her new book comes from watching how Viper Rum builds on the nervous longing for grace that closes The Liars' Club. In the earlier book, Karr and her mother drive woozily home from the Mexican café where the latter's tragedy has finally been disclosed. “We should have glowed,” Karr writes. “The clear light of truth should have filled us, like the legendary grace that carries a broken body past all manner of monsters. I'm thinking of the cool tunnel of white light the spirit might fly into at death, or so some have reported after coming back from various car wrecks and heart failures and drownings, courtesy of defib paddles and electricity. …” Said white light may well turn out, she adds, to be nothing but “death's neurological fireworks, the brain's last light show.” No matter: Unlike the dark and silent lies she grew up wounded by, this hope is “a lie I can live with.”
To call the saving “light of truth” a “lie I can live with” is Karr's first toss in the wary game of name-that-Grace she plays throughout Viper Rum. She has reason to be on her toes. Walking a narrow bridge between the smarmy piety of her Leechfield neighbors and her mother's crisp “Fuck that God,” Karr has to imagine a savior who's neither the absent-minded sadist who presided over her own two sexual assaults, nor simply a “mewling dipshit.” In some poems, then, she just keeps her mouth shut: “What plucked me from that fate [death by drink] can't yet be named, / but I do reverence to it / every day” she explains in the title poem. In other pieces, more daring, Karr names names. She tries her hand at the old argument from design (“Field of Skulls,” “Mr. D. Refuses the Blessing”), narrates moments or acts of grace (“The Century's Worst Blizzard,” “Dead Drunk (or the Monster Maker at Work)”), and mulls over just what it is that she finds redemptive about church-going (“The Grand Miracle,” “Chosen Blindness”). Inter alia, Karr makes sure to toss a dash of sex or controversy into the mix, as in “The Wife of Jesus” and “Terminus,” a poem about abortion. Such gestures reassure us and, more important, the poet herself that the road to redemption won't lead back to Vacation Bible School.
The best of these religious poems is also my favorite piece in the book, “The Last of the Brooding Miserables,” dedicated to the late James Laughlin. “Lord,” it begins
you maybe know me best by my odd laments: My friend drew the garage door tight, lay flat on the cold cement, then sucked off the family muffler to stop the voices in his head. And Logan stabbed in a fight, and Coleman shot, and the bright girl who pulled a blade the width of her own soft throat, and Tom from the virus and Dad from drink—Lord, these many-headed hurts I mind.
As best I can remember, only the last of these hurts, the death of Dad, is touched on in the memoir. The virtues of these lines, though, call to mind the particular virtues of Karr's voice there, notably the range of diction and syntax, from “Lord” down to “sucked off the family muffler,” then up an aching stair of polysyndeton (and, and, and) back to the inversion at the end of the stanza. The poem plays off the memoir in two other ways as well. First, because you feel that you know the author of a memoir, you can't help responding to this poem as a later missive from her. God damn, you think, after everything she went through in that other book, she had to deal with all the rest of this, too? And, second, Karr seizes the chance in this poem to revise the “lie I can live with” that closed The Liars' Club: the hope that, as the trashy paperbacks promise, we go into the light. In “The Last of the Brooding Miserables,” as in most of Viper Rum, Karr turns the earlier book's image of the “clear light of truth” into at once a new light and a new name (for her) for the Lord. “Let me rise,” the poem ends,
to your unfamiliar light, love, without which the dying wouldn't bother me one whit. Please, if you will, bless also this thick head I finally bow. In thanks.
The perfect pacing of that close—the hesitant commas, the rush of relief that leads to that “bow,” then the second thought, adding a beat, of what the bow was for—all this is native to the poem, part of its music, needing no extra information to make it sing. But “finally”? Read with the memoir in mind, it's a whole different word.
A BEAUTIFUL INTIMIDATION
Talking with my neighbors who had read The Liars' Club, I learned how shaky, how perverse my interest seemed in reading that book as a prose Prelude. With Tale of a Sky-Blue Dress, by Thylias Moss, I'm on safer ground. One of many recent autobiographies of abuse and recovery—in this case the abuse Moss suffered as a girl at the hands of her babysitter, Lytta, running the gamut from ladylike pinches to mental torment to rape—Tale of a Sky-Blue Dress is also one of the most ambitious of poets' memoirs, one that aspires to be an essential companion book to the poet's work so far. To trace the Growth of a Poet's Mind along with her sexual healing demands some serious chutzpah. But as anyone familiar with her poetry knows, Moss has nerve to spare. “Self-esteem that wouldn't quit,” she calls it with winning humor at the end of “Congregations.” But the brag of the poem's dedication shows how seriously she means it: “—for everybody that wanted me to get religion,” it reads, “I got something better.”
Where does this blessed assurance come from? The memoir draws our eye first to Moe-lay, the father Moss extols even more reverently than Karr does her beloved Daddy. “When my father named me,” she writes, “he said that I needed a name that had not previously existed because no one like me had previously existed, so he had a responsibility to this new presence in the world to honor it appropriately, the way that scientists name their discoveries.” To be a Thylias, the Thylias, was something to live up to—but also a “beautiful intimidation.” Intimidation, however, is hardly her father's stock in trade. Rather, he's a homegrown Socrates. When he settles down with his daughter to watch hours of Saturday-afternoon science-fiction movies—“Attack of the Crab Monsters, Kronos, The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Giant Behemoth, Them!, The Attack of the Fifty-Foot Woman,” and so on, for Moss lists a dozen more—he uses their plots for a bedtime catechism: “Where was the soul in that movie? my father asked. I liked his tests.”
Moe-lay's thoughtful confidence that “Hell … does not make sense,” like his “vague and loose sense of God,” set him at odds sometimes with his born-again wife. If he supplied the “profane afternoons” of Moss's education, she insisted on the “sacred mornings” at church to balance them out. The preaching took, but not exactly as planned. “For me, what made Sundays exceptional,” Moss confides, “was the man elevated in the front of the sanctuary. And I was mesmerized, shocked by what a voice could command, the force of words that could touch, hammer, catapult, and bring down joy like rain. I wanted to do that too.” She didn't take long to try. Home from church, the five-year-old Moss “formed words for the first time. More words the next day. Every day. Well into the night.”
By this point, thirty pages into Tale of a Sky-Blue Dress, the differences between Moss's deliberate effort to write a poet's memoir and Karr's indirect, even unconscious approach to that job are already clear. Karr plays the realist, her eyes on the prize of verisimilitude. Moss, by contrast, misses no chance to endow her parents and neighbors with shaping force in her later life as a writer, even recalling a “golden pen” with which, at age five, “in Mrs. Feldman's kitchen, I have printed my name.” Karr talks about her earliest verse with wry, engaging wit: “Here's a bona fide excerpt,” she tells us: “Grandma used to wear a scarf / Upon her silvery head / I thought that she would wear it / Till she rolled over dead.” Moss, though, spikes her primal scenes as a writer with adult intellectual drama. In that first night's work of writing, she recalls, “I wrote, not of what I really saw, but of the worlds I could not see but that were real once words revealed them. […] For me, this was tenaciousness; this was fierceness. I made the world I wanted; I was perhaps a better maker of worlds than the maker(s) of this one.” (Try to picture, as you read that, the actual page in question: a piece of heavy paper that her mother's stockings had come wrapped around, now covered with a five-year-old's lettering.) As for the story of her first poem, it's almost too good to be true. “Bible verses, I lied when the choir director caught me writing,” Moss smiles. “I thought it strange that he did not intercept especially that first note, opting to trust and believe me. A poem immediately had power.”
The first section of Tale of a Sky-Blue Dress stands on the rock of Romanticism, the old-time religion. The fair seed-time of a poet's soul, her work a substitute scripture, and so on: Such articles of faith are simply grand to read in their new guise, with Moss and Moe-lay as their prophets. They offer plenty of vistas onto the later poetry as well. Take, for example, the memoir's heathen-humanist faith in “the force of words”—from preacher or poet—as the true source of salvation. Moss has long made this a central theme in her work; but themes alone butter no parsnips. What sets Moss's religious poems apart is their swagger. And why not? With her mother supplying Biblical themes and Moe-lay the variations, Moss grew up with theological daring as her birthright. How she loves to talk that God-talk, and how one loves to hear it. I've never forgotten my shiver of assent, flipping through At Redbones, when I hit her redefinition of the Christian God as “not love at all. / He is longing. // He is what he became those three days / that one third of himself was dead” (“Spilled Sugar”). She mulls her way through to a more hopeful, more encouraging doctrine in “A Man,” from her latest collection of poems, Last Chance for the Tarzan Holler. “And he was a man; never forget he was a man,” Moss reminds herself,
that being a man improved him. Before the mothering, He was a solo act ramming omnipotence down the throats of Ramses, Job, all the sinning nobodies of Sodom. He was feared before he was born a triplet of flesh completing the one vaporous, the other heavy and strict; how he's desirable, vulnerable; in the mother he visited stages of: fig, fish, pig, chicken, chimp before settling irrevocably on a form more able to strive. This was a more significant time in darkness, gestation of forty weeks, than three days in a hillside morgue; he learned maternal heartbeat and circulation of her blood so well they became dependency, and so he learned that some radiance is not his, hers
came in large part just from being Mary. …
The jazzy, casual diction—“solo act,” “sinning nobodies,” “a hillside morgue,” and so on—keeps “A Man” from sagging under the honest theological weight of its argument. So does the quick recap of fetal development Moss indulges near the center of the stanza, reminding you (if you've read the memoir) of the lessons she learned from Moe-lay, about “the boost to imagination that a dose of (pseudo) science added” to any “discussion on the soul.” As the poem continues, the diction modulates for a while into a less successful didactic key I associate more with her mother: “He was a man / when he began to understand love, erasing the lines between / Gentile, Jew, and invited any who wanted to come to his father's house for bottomless milk, / honey, ripe fruit, baskets of warm bread and eggs, wine, live angels singing.” The end of “A Man,” though, stages a superb recovery, this time sustained less by particular words or phrases than by the drama of Moss working a thought through, comma to comma, from quirk of syntax to flash of clarity:
He knows the distance a man is from his father, how likely it increases till the deathbed; he knows
what a man knows
the now and here, and can be called by name, and can be wounded, and must struggle, and must be proud every now and then or could not continue, must be worth something, must be precious to himself and preferably to at least one other, must be, in these thousands of post-Neandertal years, improving, must have more potential, becoming not only more like God, but more like what God needs to become, so moves also, so God moves also
because a man moves.
Tale of a Sky-Blue Dress doesn't end with those exultant first fifty pages. What follows is Lytta, the babysitter, a girl who, as Moss reports, “seemed somewhat offended by my pretty idea of the world.” Steadily building cruelties ensue, first from Lytta, and then from a series of abusive boyfriends (if they deserve the name) and second-rate teachers (the same), all suffered without protest by the scarred, divided poet. With them, the memoir discovers its plot, its narrative tension. How will this young woman recover her faith in language, in the imagination, in “splendor”? What will she learn in the process about their polar opposites, the anti-trinity of silence, stunted thought, and humiliation? How much good can she afford to win from these assaults and their aftermath before she turns them, God forbid, into a fortunate fall?
Such are the questions that propel your reading. Their answers play out in an odd chimera of a book: its head a poetic Bildungsroman, its body a martial love story, its awkward wings a fairy-tale romance. Moss encounters the dramatic monologues of Cruelty, by Ai: poems which “made the cruel point of view seem essential and inevitable,” she recalls; “poems Lytta would write.” Under Ai's spell, she wins prizes, makes her way to graduate school, and finally writes a life-changing seminar essay (!) for Charles Simic on Ai and Sylvia Plath. “More for my own sake than for any actual shortcoming in the work,” Moss reports, she found their poetry “ultimately unsatisfying, because it was dishonest in denying the existence of joy.” Joy, in the meantime—here comes the love story—the poet has learned from her husband Wesley, the man who replaces Moe-lay, in the book and in Moss's life, as an embodiment of tenderness. They meet when she is sixteen, not long after she has been raped, then pressured into aborting the pregnancy, then hit with the loss of her father, “no doubt terribly disappointed” at the life his Thylias has led so far. Hardened, ready to embark on one more pass through cruelty, the poet finds herself courted instead. Even now, thirty years later, Moss's prose grows dreamy at the thought: “My mouth was open, but he said, no; not to kiss him like that. … So I closed my mouth and he lifted my chin and kissed my lips gently. It was simple; it was extraordinary. All surprises.” He brings her “books, charts, diagrams,” to teach her what sex ought to be, pages her through an illustrated Kama Sutra at the library, and, just as important, refuses to make love to her “unless I told him what I wanted.” His patience carries her back to the days before her assaults by Lytta, days when she could still see herself as her father saw her, a “Goose Princess” in a world of wonders. “Intimacy remade me,” Moss recalls contentedly. “My faith was re-outfitted with both wings and a crown.” (Pardon the thousand and one strings, dear Reader: They're the memoir's soundtrack, not mine.)
You don't have to be Plath to find the scenario here ripe, indeed overripe, for Freudian plucking. Ai, too, would surely cast a debunking eye on the missing Daddy that Moss recovers in her husband's absent clothes. To Moss, though, sometimes a fairy tale is just a fairy tale, damn it—which is to say, she must have chosen, quite deliberately, both her swoony prose and her adamant refusal to play analyst to her own life. The logic isn't hard to trace. Both choices place her memoir at the farthest possible remove, in style and substance, from the clenched, unflinching mode Moss once made her own but now abjures. Both make the poet vulnerable (“How embarrassing!” we might say, as much of her language as of her affections). And, finally, both invite the reader to cradle that vulnerability, to play gentle, patient Wesley to the wide-eyed Thylias before us. Does Moss ask too much? I'm always ready to try a little tenderness, but unlike Karr—whose rock-n-rye narration never grows desperate, gooey, or flummoxed, no matter what it describes—this poet gets awfully breathless when love comes to town. Listen to what happens when she looks back on the days when her father put Wildroot Cream Oil on his hair and records on the phonograph—“I Want to Thank You, Pretty Baby,” “Unforgettable,” “Wonderful World”—as a musical invitation to his wife. He said, Moss reminisces, “to turn up the keen, and I did until the knob was at its limit, but Moe-lay wanted in the music even more treble sounds that trembled as much as they did secretly when near each other even with me in the room, my fingers coaxing the knob even though it had no more keen to give.” Just thinking of her parents' desire makes Moss coax the knob of that sentence until you want to push her hand away. And when she finally takes her father's place as Master of the Erotic Revels, the prose grows steamier still. After a dozen endless pages on “splendor” and its poetics—the weakest part of the book, sagging under the weight of abstract pieties—Moss slips into a more comfortable present tense to invite her husband home for lunch. Like her father, she dresses for success: The blackness of Moe-lay's raveny hair tonic finds a distant but recognizable reflection in his daughter's short black skirt and sheer black hose (“altered,” she coyly observes, for her husband's pleasure) and (surprise) black high heels. His jazzy phonograph, meanwhile, becomes the CD player, where “I set ‘I Like’ by Kut Klose to play over and over.” When her husband notices, and asks why, “Because, I respond, his timing of question perfect, (I'm singing the refrain with Kut Klose), I like the way you sex me.” The narrative logic of the book all builds to this last embrace, the joyful poet and her savior husband bumping and grinding “as if the world will end if we don't. As if ours is the only love left.” If only the words on Moss's page were as startling and memorable as the glimpse she gives at her peekaboo wardrobe or the image of that coupling on the couch.
Given its limitations in style and vision, however deliberate, how can Tale of a Sky-Blue Dress help you read Moss's dense, elusive poetry? The bitter facts it teaches us—the abuse, the abortions, and so on—have shown up in poems for a while now, as have references to Anne Frank, science, and science fiction movies. It certainly makes these passages feel less strange, less deliberately spun into the realms of obsession or quirk, to know their autobiographical sources, but I can't say this has changed my sense of any poem as a whole. Moss herself takes the chance of the memoir to point out shifts in her work, especially the recovery of joy between her third collection, At Redbones, and her fourth, Rainbow Remnants in Rock Bottom Ghetto Sky, but that shift (if not the reasons for it) was pretty dramatic all along. Indeed, the more Moss consciously tries to teach you about her work, the less helpful the memoir becomes. I found it less embarrassing to picture her giving her husband a look at her cleavage over the broccoli—how's that for “the figure of the poet”!—than to find myself handed three stuffy, ponderous categories for the poet's work: “poetry of blessing, in which I endorse delight and celebrate wonder, for what seemingly contradicts wonder, doesn't; poetry of necessity, in which I acknowledge my obligation to humanity, in which I witness (I believe I am responsible for information; that awareness of something impels a response); and poetry of struggle in which I seek to discover meaning—perhaps by creating it.” Those proved useless as I read Last Chance for the Tarzan Holler, cracking no nuts and sorting verses; and their creaky phrasing makes me long for a little breathlessness. (“I acknowledge my obligation to humanity” doesn't hold a candle to “coaxing the knob,” or even to “I like the way you sex me.”)
No, in the end, the most helpful clues that Tale of a Sky-Blue Dress has given me—the golden threads I can use to track Moss, and not just through a “personal maze”—come when the poet seems least concerned with shaping my reading. As she describes her first elementary school, for example, Moss calls it “my natural habitat where language swelled and swirled cyclonically, careened and dazzled as words made sense of concepts and allowed me to put them into practice, linking everything, the roads infinite, the destinations accessed by those roads infinite.” That's a better description of the method of her work than any of her three categories, and one whose giddy, invincible tone reminds me that Moss is never better than when she is back at school, delighting herself and her reader not just with book-learning (easy to come by), but with cyclonic twists in her language: from a single compressed, surprising trope, for example, into an elaborate lecture sparkling with flashes of come-on, wit, or braggadocio. When I turned from Tale of a Sky-Blue Dress to Last Chance for the Tarzan Holler, I kept on the lookout not only for Moss the secret sentimentalist, but also for Moss the adult poet with a child's desire to dazzle. In “Ear,” I spot them both—and, more important, find them put to the uses of a memorable poem, rather than a therapeutic plan. “It is called the incomplete human flower,” the poem begins:
… I know because I have called it that, usually right before sex, when everything looks good. You keep bringing me flowers, my tongue says sliding down the fossae of his right ear's helix and anti-helix shown at left without my tongue. Lacking one of those pretty and slim proboscides of certain avuncular bugs (you know, the men keeping company with never-married mamas, too familiar not to have a family title but most definitely not anybody's fathers) crushing the flower beds needing a dose of hepatica or burst of the stench of rotting fish and burnt sugar that the eight-feet tall lily Amorphophallus tianum of the Sumatran jungle emits in a strength to knock a man flat out and take from carrion beetles that last drop of resistance that was their whole blood, I can't get in
the internal ear's labyrinth, neither the osseous nor the membranous labyrinth within the other, yet here is where sound happens, where that which means to be heard must travel. …
The wink that closes the first stanza of “Ear,” inviting us to consult a non-existent diagram, tells us that no matter how far Moss goes on her scholastic field-trip, word-bag in tow, she'll keep our less-than-scholarly (not to say prurient) interests in mind. That's a reassuring thought, a tether we can clutch as the poem's tornado of language sweeps “proboscides” and “avuncular” and “never-married mamas” into its mix, and then takes seven clamoring lines to reach an actual subject and predicate, only to tumble into yet another stanza's swirl. Hold the main clause up to the light and the poem gets a bit clearer. “I can't get in // the internal ear's labyrinth … / … where that which means / to be heard must travel”: That's what she's told us so far. But why the profession of failure? And what does all this dazzle have to do with the moment “right before sex” where we began? Before we find out, another long stanza has swept yet another flower (which is like an ear, remember—that is where we began) into the poem: a lily “as fetid as a well-matured sheep-sized corpse,” in which blowflies enter and mate, only to find themselves trapped:
Naturally, maggots hatch, such is the intensity and odor, but perish without real meat, real decomposition although for the parents, there is nectar of the flower besides nectar of their erotic throes, and they are helpless to it, suck it up without the howling my man likes to hear from me as a continually updated status report
on his work. The morning after or morning after that, male flowers give the pollen bath that releases those flies that have not suffocated to Sardinian sunlight bright as approval so into the next lily inflorescence they rush before this palace is shut down by an agricultural vice squad
just as sometimes he is deaf to all but Dow Jones, NASDAQ, the numbers getting in deep, but I can add, multiply, divide and divide endlessly; I can fuck with the numbers.
I'm not sure that I've entirely teased out the bait-and-switch tactics of “Ear”—but I already know that I like them, and like how they play off the moves of the memoir. To make it through to the end of the poem, after all, you've had to let Moss win. Her lines have had to become, in your mind's ear, the “pretty and slim proboscides” that “get in” past your best defenses. Her sotto voce revelations (“the howling my man likes to hear”) have served as the erotic decoys all those bugs could not resist. Even the prosy, hammer-and-tongs insistence of the verse takes its place in Moss's strategy: How better to highlight the sudden turn to poetic “numbers” at the close, that surging trimeter boast? Where Tale of a Sky-Blue Dress ends by letting us watch Moss stage a seduction, “Ear” turns the full force of those attentions on its readers, so that we pity the man who would choose Dow Jones over this elaborate flirtation. I doubt that I'd enjoy the poem quite as much if I hadn't read the memoir—but knowing how well this poet can “fuck with the numbers” also makes me look back on Tale of a Sky-Blue Dress a bit dissatisfied. Pursuing vulnerability, in persona and in style, Moss sells herself a little short by the time the book is done.
TO BE SLOW TO BE WHOLE
Thylias Moss is the sort of jittery, ravenous, passionately intellectual poet I love to have a memoir from, especially since I still feel (even after several years of reading her) some distance from the work. William Corbett, by contrast, I've never felt much puzzled by—not least, I suspect, because I lucked into his section of freshman composition some sixteen years ago. We haven't stayed in touch, I'm sad to say. But my copy of his old Collected Poems (1984) stares up at me, stained with bathwater splashes and coffee, as amiably as the poet's own round-faced mug—unstained, caught between gentle bemusement and a tart remark—regards future readers of his New & Selected (1995). “You see I'm on this / cover,” Corbett explains in his latest book, Boston Vermont,
… a bowl of peonies beside me. It's Vermont, the study, my favorite room in the world where I sit on wicker, fireplace before me, lake behind and always dear Basil sleeps in the grass as I write this, and the peonies Anne laughed, “I thought they were mashed potatoes!”
Vermont, just to fill you in, is where Corbett spends his summers writing. Basil is “Basilus / The Baz / Marquis of Mutts / Count of Curs / Duke of Dogdom / King of Canines / The Bosstown Hound”: the poet's much-missed dog, who died in 1993 of a “heart attack / after a peppy walk” and who was probably named after Basil Bunting, as his new puppy Schuyler is named for Corbett's beloved James Schuyler, “our poet of is / who loved to point / and declare.” Anne, though, I don't know. I thought I did, but when I flipped to the poem that came to mind, someone named “Kate Bluestein” was there instead.
Let me follow this thread a moment longer. As it happens, you see, the poem “For Kate Bluestein” centers on her complaint that Corbett's poems are “too / specific, private, / life-bound, too many / Marni's and Arden's. / You feel left out.” (Marni and Arden are his daughters. Just for future reference, Beverly is his wife.) His answer?
If the poems do not tell you what you need to know then I've written lousy poems and no one will care who they name. But, Kate, if they are diamonds from carbon all will know their names.
Fair enough. But then why should the man whose poems so hungrily “tell you what you / need to know”—and every detail I've given comes from a poem, not from my days in class with the poet—why should this man need to write even one memoir, let alone two, Philip Guston's Late Work (1994) and Furthering My Education (1997)? Aren't they, well, redundant? What can they teach us to match the mysteries solved and permission granted by The Liars' Club and Tale of a Sky-Blue Dress?
If you want to learn more about Corbett as a poet—his ear, his obsessions, his eye—put the Guston book first on your list. Poet and painter met in 1972, when they were thirty and fifty-nine, respectively. About five years before, Guston, “a hero who became a friend,” had found his work veering unpredictably between abstract “pure drawings,” lines on the page, and the “ebullient and crude figures” that would mark his late paintings: “a shoe, a jalopy, or an open book, common ordinary things,” Corbett shrugs in appreciation. “As Guston drew,” the memoir explains, “he fought the shoes and books that it gave him such pleasure to draw. The pure drawings seemed right, and they had twenty years of his history as a painter to back them up. They came from somewhere he knew.” The shoes won, but what Corbett loves as much as the work itself is the mix of emotions it meant for the artist: pleasure and devotion to the work at hand, tension and baffled self-doubt, doubt rediscovered, for all its tension, as the engine that could tug him back to the canvas to see what would happen, what failure or gift would come next.
Guston and Corbett both love food, talk, and work; and talk about work; and eating or smoking while working and talking. And, perhaps most of all, they love finding a way to get those overlapping joys into their art. Guston drew shaggy, caressable covers for two of Corbett's early books, Columbus Square Journal and the Collected Poems, and surprised the poet by lettering his poems into thirteen drawings. In the memoir, Corbett returns the favor. “These pictures inspire talk,” he writes, “and not just, not even primarily, art talk. […] You want—this writer emphatically does—to enjoy the physical pleasure of getting a word and more around Guston's images.” The words and phrases he comes up with—cars that turn to “roadsters, runabouts, and jalopies”; painters who “look like death warmed over”—remind you of their shared affection for American vulgarity. And, of course, they could come out of any number of Corbett's own pieces. I've savored these lines, from “Runaway Pond,” for years: “No appetite for lamb patties / I want ‘Wooly Burgers!’ / served up by Ernie the singing butcher.” And in “For Beverly,” from Boston Vermont, Corbett reminds you how the vulgar word and common phrase can prove the tenderest of gestures:
Emma's puppy bark more duck than dog she quacks at crows three cracking air there shaking those birch leave their ruckus marital like ours last night that shrill and repetitive monotonous as love words all of a sudden, uncalled for, never are.
Listen how “ruckus,” halfway through, anchors the poem in sound and clinches its first tone, jovial appreciation, summing up all the k's. Lacking that jocular moniker—simply “ours,” that is to say—the ostensibly parallel marital argument takes on a more rueful tone. Corbett gets similar mileage out of “all of a sudden,” which is just the sort of cliché I'd usually want a poet to yank out by the roots. Here, though, it's the one safe spot in the last four lines, a resting place from which to sort out the hesitant, turbulent close.
As you might expect, this memoir is chock-full of remarks that tell us as much about Corbett's poetics as they do about Guston's painting. Take, for example, his observation that the artist “knew that what he called the ‘information’ of his paintings could be quickly taken in, but that the paint slowed the mind down and let it grasp the light and feel the specific gravity of the images.” The moment you read a passage like that, you know to keep an eye out for whatever the poet will use as his “paint.” What thick verbal material (sudden linebreaks, doubled syntax, spotty punctuation) will Corbett use to slow the mind and awaken its desire to “take the outside in”? Yet even as it poses these aesthetic questions, the Guston memoir hints at personal matters beyond its purview. Why, for example, does Corbett suffer an anxiety attack on a visit to Guston's studio, and why does he feel compelled, not just to write about it, but to tell us he had censored it through four drafts of the book? Why tell us, flat out, that “I wanted Philip to be my father in art” and “was desperate for some sort of acknowledgment from him”?
Three years after Philip Guston's Late Work, Zoland Press published a second memoir by Corbett, Furthering My Education, which fills in a few of those blanks. The title of this book cuts two ways. On the one hand, it's a paraphrase of the note Corbett's fifty-year-old doctor father left tacked to his office door the day he fled his family in 1965. The title also points to Corbett's hope, as the memoir unfolds, to figure out, once and for all, what the hell happened that day. What did the father's disappearance say, in retrospect, about the family's past? What did it do to the poet-son's future?
Read back-to-back with the Guston memoir, the Tale of a Sky-Blue Dress, and especially The Liars' Club, Furthering My Education strikes you first with what it lacks. Gone, by and large, are Corbett's characteristic gusto for language, his passion for looking, his knack for bringing anecdotes to life. Unlike Moss, he stages no recurring images, links between sections that weave the book into a quasi-lyrical whole. Unlike Karr, he does not try to draw you into a scene with cinematographic sleights, prefacing a paragraph with “my memory of that day drifts into focus …” or pulling back with “the memory turns to smoke right there.” Instead, Corbett displays the studied restraint of an author keeping his cool. “I have gone to further my education,” the memoir begins:
In 1965 my fifty-year-old father wrote these words, in a legible hand for once, on a green prescription form and tacked this to the locked door of his office in a Connecticut shopping mall. For those who knew some of the reasons for his going, there was a rueful humor in his words, a humor that was surely lost on his patients who read them in dumbfounded surprise.
My father published this epitaph on a Thursday, his day off, and by Saturday he was in Rome. This was his first stop on a three-month vacation that eventually carried him and Gloria, the woman he went with, to a new life in Baghdad. …
The crisp, journalistic, efficient prose here tells us just enough to puzzle and lead us onward. What was the “rueful humor”? Who was Gloria? Why Baghdad? By the end of the four-page preface, the only question that has been answered is that about the humor—but the answer that the married, twenty-something-year-old Corbett gives makes you shake your head and frown. Surely this explanation of the disappearance can't be right:
Sidney, an acquaintance of my father's and business partner of Louis's, leaned on a car smoking a cigar. We shook hands and watched the smoke we were both sending into the air.
“Do you know why the doc went with her?”
“No. Until Louis told me a minute ago I didn't even know there was a her. He told me he was going alone.”
“She gave him a blow job,” Sidney said with no more expression than he might have put into a remark about the weather.
“The doc left because she gave him a blow job. Some men … it's as simple as that.”
Corbett clearly knows how much he's relying on a sparse account of the facts—the precipitous slope from Baghdad to blow-job, for example—to keep the “irreducible mystery” of his father's departure alive. Several previous attempts to tell the story had all failed, he explains late in the memoir, in part because they had been too self-indulgent and self-pitying in tone and in part because, like Sidney, they tried to pin the slippery event to some “all-encompassing truth.” He tells us of a pompous, bewildered letter to his father, of mocking, smart-alecky monologues, and of a pair of novels whose unreadable formlessness was the point, he insisted to friends and publishers before abandoning them. As for his poems about the father, they “lacked shape and force.” “I could not seem to get my true feelings into them because, in part, I did not seem certain about what these feelings actually were.” After a few years, in fact, Corbett consciously tried to let the subject drop. “Now and then I wrote a poem about him,” he writes. “These came unbidden, and when they did, I tried to suppress them. If I was to tell even the smallest fragment of this story again, it had to prove its right to exist.”
As it fills in the years before and after the father's disappearance, mulling its way through a variety of “true feelings,” Furthering My Education sketches the story of Corbett the poet as well. We see him at sixteen, proudly packed off to boarding school, discover the Chinese poems of Ezra Pound and decide to take up the art. We get twin scenes of humiliation, as he encounters first “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (“How could I pass myself off as a poet, even as someone interested in poetry, if I could not accept and aspire to the standard set before me?”) and then, in his hometown paper, his own first poems, ferreted by his mother from a drawer and published as a surprise. (“Bill's mother says he looks more like a football player than a poet,” a chummy caption reads.) Most important, perhaps, we hear a word of advice from a college professor who heard the young man put down his own bad taste: “Be true to your vulgarities.” Philip Guston would counsel the same.
Paradoxically, though, you finish this memoir with less sense of what sort of poet Corbett will turn out to be than you do when finishing Moss's or Karr's. Why? In part, I suspect, this is simply because Corbett did that job already in Philip Guston's Late Work; he knows who he is by now, and trusts that those of his readers who want to know him primarily as a poet can find what they need elsewhere. On some deeper level, though, the difference arises because Corbett has neither the impulse nor the chance to turn his parents into the resonant figures—the Mother, the Father—that open the window of memoir to vistas of autobiographical myth. The more he stares down the “irreducible mystery” of his father's departure, the more Corbett finds himself faced with the bleak realization that William Sr. didn't much like his life at home, had failed at too many projects, and never really loved his son. And, finally, it stems from Corbett's choice of a narrative voice that stands at odds with his native gifts as a poet. Consider his discussion in the memoir of Runaway Pond, the long diary poem into which, as Corbett explains, “my father unexpectedly entered, not as remembered or imagined but the real man, returned.” The story itself is certainly striking:
On a glorious June morning, the air so alive it tingled, I walked down the driveway to the blacktop where the mailbox stood. The only thoughts in my head had to do with the beautifully arranged curves of the hill landscape down the valley from me and how I might evoke it all. That day I had a letter from my mother, and standing by the mailbox I opened it. I saw the newspaper clipping first. On a torn page from a Eureka, California, weekly paper, my father.
The photograph showed him in a white hospital coat standing on the front lawn of a single-story building the caption identified as the refurbished town medical center. My stolid father stared past the shoulder of a much taller man, selectman or mayor, in the act of turning over the building to the town's new doctor, who, the caption continued, spoke several languages.
The corresponding portion of Runaway Pond arrives quite late in the piece, long after we have encountered Corbett's multiple drafts of a letter-poem to his father—he just can't get it right, and he knows it, but he lets the failed efforts remain—and a number of casual anecdotes that bear on the father's flight, including the disappearance of the poet's Irish fisherman's sweater (“My poet's sweater! Dylan Thomas / Sean Connery sweater! Gone!”) and the geological history of Runaway Pond itself. We've also (at least on first reading) long since lost track of these threads in the rich, quotidian weave of the poem, which calls no more attention to them than to the fate of the Red Sox that summer. Corbett sets us up nicely, that is to say, for the surprise of this:
The newspaper photograph of my white-bearded father taken March 19, 1975 in Ontario, California is the first time I have ‘seen’ him in fourteen years. He stands woodenly, this veteran of many small town newspaper photographs, hands in pants' pockets, posed as if talking to the doctor across from him in front of a family health clinic my father will head. “The medical staff is headed by Dr. William T. Corbett, a general practice physician, who speaks several languages.” The clipping reached me through the daughter I have never met of the only uncle I have but have not seen in over thirty years. She came across the photograph on vacation, sent it to her father who gave it to my mother who sent it on to me.
arriving on this day there are schools of cottony clouds reaching down the valley and everywhere overtop and distant to where the sky is pale blue.
The farthest hills beyond Lyndonville like veils I want to say but what would they be suspended from or hold them up? Flimsy anyway or like clothing casually tossed that is the impression a backdrop for all the valley's pocket landscapes, one housetop, the road lines organize the hollows and hills curve together. The sparkle of a tin rooftop. Rusted barn roof. A frost this late in June forecast for this valley tonight. My father had ten years to learn “several languages.” He knew Hungarian, some Italian and bedside Polish I think when he left and the note on his office door read: “I have gone to further my education.”
In the poem, Corbett's native impulse to look and look and name lets him play off the two “arrivals” of the day, the clipping and the “cottony clouds.” The harder he looks at the second, or the “flimsy” landscape emerging below them, the more we sense him looking away from the newspaper photograph, yet still shocked and preoccupied with it. Every visual detail he turns to, therefore, begs to be allegorized. It's a tribute to Corbett as a faithful looker, a devotee of the eye, that we can't quite hustle those hills, “like clothing / casually tossed,” into figures for the casual way the father left, or for his “flimsy” explanation—at least, not without feeling a bit queasy. But even as we set that effort aside, we glimpse the emotional chaos that all the poet's discipline of observation holds at bay. (He wants, the last line of the poem tells us, “To be slow to be whole,” and that careful eye struggles to slow the mind long enough for some healing to start.) The memoir, by contrast, simply interrupts the desire to describe “the beautifully arranged curves of the hill landscape” to bring us a report on the clipping. It gives us no chance to see how that desire might, deep down, connect to the poet's need to pin something down in words, once and for all: if not the inner world, or the family one, then the landscape—and for now let that suffice.
I don't want to be hard on Furthering My Education. It's quite a story, certainly, and Corbett wins your trust by refusing to make the book end on a happy or absolving note. (“My father had to get out of town. He had a second act to live, his education to further, and I had been left to find my own way,” the poet shrugs in the end. That's better than “she gave him a blow-job,” but it's not a cuddle on the couch or a chance to go into the light.) In the end, though, the book teaches you most about Corbett when you leave it behind and turn either back to the older poems or onward to the new book. “I find this memoir writing makes me feel clean,” Yeats once wrote to Olivia Shakespear, “as if I had bathed and put on clean linen. It rids me of something and I shall return to poetry with a renewed simplicity.” That's the effect that Furthering My Education seems to have had on Corbett, at least if the poem “At Last,” from Boston Vermont, is any indication. “Thirty years writing / this book / and now it comes fast!” he grins.
I put down the certainties of my youth. Satisfying to work all day no longer embarrassed by who I was. I am on the bus when these words come to me and having no pen, buy one in Cambridge, an expensive Cross, green and black Lalique like frog skin, treat for all that I have done. I use it waiting for Ed in The Cellar's dark corner over Powers and a Newcastle Brown.
As Corbett manages to “put down” (as in a burden) his old certainties by writing them (or putting them down), he gets to let go of the impulse to mock (or put down) his younger self. Guston would admire, I think, the way that familiar phrase slows down the mind; certainly he's the one who taught Corbett the satisfactions of working all day, of letting something “come to me” to be shaped into art, and even of the passionate looking that treats us to frog skin on that Cross pen. As the poem ends, Corbett has moved from introspection to proper naming, his poem blossoming with capital letters in the names of a friend, a place, a couple of drinks—letters that will keep the “I” of the poem company in that thoroughly unthreatening “dark corner.” Secure at last in his Powers, Corbett might well subscribe to the closing liens of “Advice” by Thylias Moss, lines that might serve—with the word “memoir” swapped for “poem”—as the postscript for Tale of a Sky-Blue Dress and The Liars' Club as well:
I will not abandon this poem that attempts to touch much of what keeps touching me shaping me into a woman who hopes to finish knowing herself in time to begin to know something else.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1181
SOURCE: Churchill, Sue. Review of Viper Rum, by Mary Karr. Southern Humanities Review 34, no. 1 (winter 2000): 97-100.
[In the following review, Churchill expounds on the recurring thematic motifs in Viper Rum and analyzes the impact of Karr's struggles with her aging mother, the death of her father, and alcoholism on her verse.]
In her first book of poetry, Abacus (1987), Mary Karr spoke as a “distant, contemporary cousin” of Diogenes and used the persona to broaden the implications of her experience. In Viper Rum, Christ replaces the Greek Cynic, and Karr's life becomes a contemporary testing ground for Catholic thought and symbol. The twenty-nine poems of Viper Rum, billed as a “continuation” of her bestselling memoir, The Liars' Club (1995), describe Karr's middle-aged struggle with alcoholism, the death of her father, and the deterioration of her mother. To label Viper Rum confessional and read it primarily as autobiography, however, is to sell it short. The shock of Viper Rum, and its real power, comes from the intensity of Karr's dialogue with Catholicism and her re-vision of Christian teachings.
The poems of Viper Rum depict the contemporary pilgrim's progress outlined in “Lifecycle Stairmaster.” Their central theme is incarnation. Karr's “Christ's Passion” and “The Grand Miracle” offer fairly traditional incarnation theology, but “The Wife of Jesus Speaks” illustrates how far Viper Rum is from religious apology or propaganda. It addresses Jesus's sexuality, even describing his orgasm during fellatio. Its speaker bitterly rejects the God and lying gospels that erased her as they denied Jesus's full fleshly existence. She claims to worship only the timeless moment of sexual ecstasy, “when with his hard / stalk of flesh rocking inside me, I was unwrit.”
All the poems of Viper Rum drive toward the re-inscription of the body, “unwrit” in our culture, and repudiate the over-reliance on the conscious mind or head. The “willful bonehead” of “Mr. D. Refuses the Blessing” won't bow his head, “which said / it was smartest of all,” and dies without grace, cobwebbed to library stacks. Karr names the town of a suicide attempt “Marblehead.” Evil results from the glorification of the head, and its separation from the body leaves it unfleshed, a skull. The mind unleashed becomes a Golgotha, steadily piping “bad news” and conjuring up “a field of skulls, angled jaws / and eye-sockets, a zillion scooped-out crania” (“Field of Skulls”). The alcoholic, detached from bodily sensation, is imprisoned in the mind like the dead jungle snake floating in the jar of liquor in the opening and title poem, “Viper Rum”: “eyes scalded of sight, staring out at the warped and vacant world.” Between “Viper Rum” and “Chosen Blindness,” the final poem in the volume, Karr moves outside the solipsism of the skull, bottle, and even family to end in congregational song with relative strangers: “we struggle to match up our voices, hold the beat, / find the pattern emerging, feel the light / that glows in our chests, keep it going.”
Viper Rum's incarnational poetics yokes sexual slang and high-tech medical and philosophical terms. It blends classical and contemporary, erudite and redneck voices. The ornate simile that begins “The Invention of God in a Mouthful of Milk,” for example, is offset by the coarseness of the mother's voice: “As the violin's body shudders with the tree's / lost song, so my mother's soul longs / to rise from its fleshy husk. / ‘I'm over this shit,’ she says.” The movement from a highflown to a more deflated poetic image is typical of Karr's similes. In “Four of the Horsemen (Hypertense and Stroke, Coronary Occlusion and Cerebral Insult)” the riders of her mother's apocalypse arrive, “not riding out at a lope with silk capes blown back, but at a slow plod, / bent over their saddle horns like tired commas.” Karr grounds the sublime in the flesh, and, conversely, illuminates common life by juxtaposition with high culture. She highlights her aging mother's loss of sexuality with the lament of Bacchanal maenads (“Beauty and the Shoe Sluts”). Her “Incant against Suicide” echoes Shakespearean song, and the love poem “Summons” ends with a distinctly Catullan ring. “Four of the Horsemen” applies the classical philosophy of Heraclitus and Epictetus to her dying mother chain-smoking on the sofa. The old woman “scorns delivered wisdom,” but Karr clearly does not.
The powerful intertextuality of Viper Rum results in a broad range of tone and style, from the glib, contemporary voice of “Revenge of the Ex-Mistress” to the Anglo-Saxon sound of “The Pallbearer” with its heavy stresses and alliteration. The archaic tone gives “The Pallbearer” added weight, but Karr typically uses tone and style as a corrective balance. In “Dead Drunk (Or the Monster Maker at Work)” a man passes out behind a bar and loses his arms and legs to frostbite. Placed in an asylum, he becomes the creature in the jar of “Viper Rum.” The flippant tone of this pathetic story saves it from the maudlin. Similarly, “Hubris,” a sketch of a dwarf colleague, avoids condescension through its detached voice and jocular tone.
Many of the poems in Viper Rum are written in triplets, frequently ending with the strong punch of a single line. Karr's considerable work with line and stanza confirms that the essay that fills out this slim volume is not primarily a rejection of poetic form. “Against Decoration,” first published in Parnassus, identifies two “sins” in contemporary poetry, the absence of emotion and the lack of clarity. Karr repudiates poetry of “ornate diction that seeks to elevate a mundane experience rather than clarify a remarkable one.” She targets neo-formalists but also indicts James Merrill, Amy Clampitt, John Ashbery, and the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poets as promulgators of “flowery, emotionally dim” “ornamental poetry.” Karr attributes the emotional vacuity of these poets to watered-down poststructuralism and its conception of poetry as a language game. “Against Decoration” calls for a poetry of communication, a poetry that approaches the “great emotional or metaphysical truths that can change one's life.”
The danger of issuing a manifesto in a volume of poetry is that the poems will be held up to its standard. For the most part, Viper Rum exemplifies the emotional energy, rhetorical charge, and existential quest that “Against Decoration” defines as the poet's responsibility. Karr's love poems, oddly, fall farthest from the mark. The best of Viper Rum takes the rhetorical intimacy and emotional force of the confessional tradition beyond the personal. Of the poems on alcoholism, for instance, the ballad of Tom in “Dead Drunk (Or the Monster Maker at Work)” is more compelling than the vision of Karr sick drunk in an airplane toilet (“Limbo”). “Dead Drunk,” like “County Fair” and “Chosen Blindness,” ends with a call for community. It alludes to the Good Samaritan, but no passerby stops for Tom or “heave[s] him up all whole.” Tom, who ends up literally dead drunk, dramatizes the breakdown of Diogenes's philosophy of self-sufficiency and the inadequacy of the Cynics' rational and individualist ideal. Karr's parable models a Christian acknowledgment of mystery and embrace of the other. Karr inscribes the life she cannot save and brings the reader into choral response, enacting poetically the community she invokes.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2169
SOURCE: Karr, Mary, and Wendy Smith. “Mary Karr: A Life Saved by Stories.” Publishers Weekly 247, no. 40 (2 October 2000): 52-3.
[In the following interview, Karr discusses her literary career, her memoir Cherry, and her assessment of the memoir genre.]
Mary Karr says she had one complaint when The Liars' Club was published in 1995. Karr's account of her childhood in Port Arthur, Tex., buffeted by the stormy interactions of her hard-drinking parents, was the critical hit of the season, praised by reviewers for its gallows humor, hard-won compassion, earthy yet elegant prose, and for a gift for storytelling the author had obviously inherited from her yarn-spinning daddy. General readers loved the book, too, flocking to Karr's readings and buying enough copies to keep The Liars' Club on the New York Times bestseller list for more than a year.
So what was the problem? “It was #2 forever … under Reviving Ophelia, God help me,” recalls Karr. Exaggerating her indignation at being stalled behind Mary Bray Pipher's pop treatise on “saving the selves of adolescent girls,” Karr claims jokingly, “I decided: You want teenage girls? I'll give you teenage girls!” The result is Cherry, a memoir just published by Viking that continues Karr's story through 1972, the year 17-year-old Mary left home for Los Angeles in the company of six fellow misfits who shared her enthusiasm for drugs and a burning desire to get the hell out of Texas. Karr makes that desire wholly comprehensible in an unsparing portrait of a provincial town whose conventions were especially stifling for girls. Yet she also pays emotional tribute to the friends who helped her survive and depicts her blossoming sexuality in scenes as tender as they are frank.
Those scenes were hard to write, says the author, because “there's no language for talking about female adolescence. The male sexual narrative is so dominant in the culture that the ways we are sexual as teenagers aren't even acknowledged as sexual; people don't seem to understand the amount of ardor that goes into a fantasy about some guy skating over to you with a long-stemmed rose. There's no word like chubby [to describe female sexual arousal], no language that's lighthearted and not pornographic or masculinized. I had to invent it; I wrote 500 pages and threw them away before I started approaching a voice that I thought was true.”
That voice retains echoes of The Liars' Club's salty cadences, but Cherry's overall tone is quieter and more literary, which suits a protagonist as passionate about books as boys. “I was trying to invent myself, I was reading Shakespeare, I wanted to be a poet,” says Karr. “To write in the idiom of The Liars' Club, the galvanizing voice of my father that was such a gift to me, would be false to who I was as a teenager. At the beginning of your life, everything about who you are is inherited; you're often just bobbing along in somebody's wake. Then later, you're forging a self by deciding, These are the people I'll associate with, these are the clothes I'm going to wear, this is who I'm going to be.”
Karr grew up to be an award-winning poet and a tenured professor at Syracuse University, still pleasantly surprised by her unexpected additional identity as best-selling autobiographer. Paying a visit to Viking's offices on a rainy Monday morning, she's casually dressed in a gray blouse and black slacks, with a cross dangling from a chain around her neck and high-heeled sandals revealing maroon toenail polish. In conversation she's blunt and funny one minute, scholarly and serious the next, as she recalls the lifeline literature afforded the confused, unhappy girl whose odyssey she describes so movingly in Cherry.
Because of my adventures in the wonderful world of chemicals, a lot of people I knew are dead. Somebody asked me recently, “Don't you miss doing drugs?” and I said, “No! I like not going to funerals; I like not driving into shit.” I have a sense that other people caught bullets that could have been for me. Poetry saved my life. I was mesmerized by the sheer beauty of the language, and the fact that this work of art is made out of the same materials [words] that everybody uses to get the butter passed or get on the bus. On the slopes of Parnassus, the poets were lounging about, and I wanted to be part of that club.
So even in her wildest moments, tripping her brains out on psilocybin or paying an ill-advised visit to a scarily seedy blues bar, teenaged Mary Karr was also scribbling verse and plunging into novels like To Kill a Mockingbird because “inside their stories, I could vanish from myself.” Poetry and literature so dominated her memories of this time that it stunned the adult author to come across a notebook in which she'd written, at age 11, that her ambition was “to write poetry and autobiography.”
“I got shivers up the back of my spine,” she says of this discovery. “I was astonished, because I don't think I'd ever read an autobiography.” Asked why she thinks she wrote those prophetic words, she replies simply, “It was grace. I believe in God, but even if you don't, you can believe in a self, the person who is innately who you are. Once you fully become that person, then everything you do will be blessed.”
The discovery of that inner core of identity fires the epiphany that closes Cherry and gives the book its title. Naturally, Karr is well aware of the word's slang meaning as the physical embodiment of a girl's virginity: “The book mocks that notion,” she says, “but I also remember people talking about their cars as ‘cherry’ when they were newly painted and fresh, and the book is about this newly painted, newly cobbled-together self that was sweet in that way, that's sweet to me as a grown woman. Since there are sexual aspects to the word, too, it seemed the shortest way to convey both; as a poet, I'm into economy.”
Cherry's final epiphany is decidedly tentative: the author notes in those closing pages that her identity was formed “only by half at best” and there were years of “shape-shifting” ahead. Poetry was always part of her life, but it would be nearly two decades before she got sober and discovered the second half of her literary self.
After dropping out of Macalester College in 1974, Karr roamed from Texas to New York to Europe, getting involved in the anti-apartheid movement and publishing her first poem in Mother Jones. In Minneapolis, she studied with Robert Bly and with African-American poet Etheridge Knight, who “helped me discover the vernacular tradition. Public readings and the oral tradition were 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.”
These comments will be familiar to readers of Karr's essay “Against Decoration,” originally published in Parnassus magazine. Critical writing remains crucial to her, as a scholar and a poet. “Robert Hass, the former Poet Laureate, was one of my teachers at Goddard College, and he convinced me that poets had a responsibility to write essays and reviews; it was part of shaping the canon, having a conversation with other writers and developing your ideas.”
Karr talked her way into the Goddard writing program in 1978, feeling the need for a better grounding in literary history and technique. “Stephen Dobyns was my professor the first semester, and I think he made me read 135 books and write essays that came back totally scrawled with his antlike print. So I rewrote and rewrote; I was pissed off, but I realized that I didn't know anything, and at that moment I became teachable.”
MFA in hand, Karr moved to Boston in 1980. She spent a decade with one foot in the business world, including stints in the computer and telecommunications industries, “while I was publishing poetry and essays and still trying to educate myself.” She married fellow poet Michael Milburn in 1983 and was eight months pregnant with their son when she learned that a collection of her poems would appear in the Wesleyan New Poets series. Dev Milburn was born in 1986; Abacus appeared in 1987. James Laughlin wrote to Karr after seeing her work in Parnassus; they struck up a friendship, and Laughlin's New Directions imprint published Karr's subsequent poetry volumes, The Devil's Tour in 1993 and Viper Rum in 1998.
By the time The Devil's Tour appeared, her marriage was over and Karr was writing The Liars' Club. The story of how a respected but hardly big-name poet landed a contract and a hefty advance for a memoir has already passed into publishing legend: in 1989, Karr was having dinner with Tobias Wolff, a friend since they met at Goddard, to celebrate the fact that each had won a ＄25,000 Whiting Writers' Award. As she often did in social situations, Karr began telling stories about her crazy parents. “It's hard not to dine out on my family,” she remarks. “You can get a lot of food out of people when you're talking about my father and mother.” And, when the guest list also includes ICM's Amanda Urban, you can acquire an agent as well. Urban, who already represented Tobias Wolff, though Karr's story had the potential to be as compelling as Wolff's This Boy's Life; she handed the poet her card and urged Karr to write a proposal.
She was as surprised as anyone by the nerve the book touched. “I always thought my family was so bizarre, so when people started coming up to me and saying, ‘My family was exactly like yours,’ I was completely knocked out. I was so touched by people telling me their stories, because they had such seriousness and emotional engagement; they were such real stories about how people become who they are.”
This does not mean, she says, that every personal story belongs in print. “There are going to be trashy memoirs just like there's trash fiction. Obviously I'm interested in writing something that endures beyond the moment, like This Boy's Life or Frank Conroy's Stop-Time. And what makes a truly great memoir, I think, is the voice. The memoir is a relatively cheap form in terms of overall structure. It's not like a novel, which, whether it's driven by plot or by language, has to have a kind of structural integrity. You're freer than that with a memoir, but you have to have a voice that's interesting and engaging to the reader. I think you also have to know yourself, or at least know the self that you were at the time.”
Of the recent rash of tell-all memoirs, she comments, “I think that if you're writing to settle a score, the reader is going to instantly see that and distrust you. If your motive is not on the table, or if it's at odds with the voice and how you're representing yourself, it won't work. If you were raped as a child and you write something to get back at the rapist, but you write a book in which your head is bowed in sorrow and you talk about the great forgiveness that you have, then there's a schism between the form and what you're actually saying. The reader is going to know you're full of shit.”
These biting words ring in Karr's inner ear as she thinks about her own next project. “I always thought that I'd write a trilogy of memoirs,” she says, “and I have a couple of ideas for the third: I can imagine writing about developing a spiritual practice, and I can imagine writing about my parents' deaths [her father died in 1985, mother in 1999]. But if I can't find language less clichéd than has been used lately, then I won't write about either.”
Happily settled in Syracuse with her son (“I coach Little League, we belong to a little church; it's a kind of Mayberry R.F.D. existence”), she likes the current balance in her life. “I adore teaching; they're paying you to talk to young people about books, and there's a great deal of excitement and energy and candor in the students I'm talking to.” As a writer, she finds the satisfactions of her two chosen genres equal but different. “Poetry privileges music and is aesthetically more challenging. Prose privileges information and is emotionally more challenging. Robert Stone once said that the way people go crazy is that they cease to have narratives, and the way a culture goes crazy is that it ceases to be able to tell stories. Any shared burden is lighter; we wonder how we stand our lives, and we read memoirs to find out.”
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SOURCE: Marlantes, Liz. “Youngest Member of Liars' Club Keeps Telling Truth.” Christian Science Monitor 92, no. 225 (12 October 2000): 20.
[In the following review, Marlantes argues that Cherry both captures and mirrors adolescence perfectly through its portrayal of boredom, loneliness, and self-consciousness.]
Adolescence is an ambiguous stage of life. Less free and innocent than childhood, less settled and secure than adulthood, it hangs between in a kind of limbo. Cherry, Mary Karr's second memoir, not only captures this neither-here-nor-there phase perfectly, it mirrors it. The book itself seems to serve as a transition piece between The Liars' Club, her wonderfully funny and searing account of early childhood, and some future, as yet unwritten, work.
Cherry picks up where The Liars' Club left off when Karr is 11. We meet the same scrappy, uninhibited little girl from the previous book. She asks Violet Durkey point-blank why she was not invited to her sleepover party. Violet explains she was only allowed to have five girls—and then lists six. Enviously watching a pack of shirtless boys ride their bikes on a hot afternoon, she peels off her own shirt and rides through the streets, shocking the neighbors.
But Karr also gives early indications that she has entered a new, less childlike phase. Right away, she homes in on a major aspect of life in Leechfield: its stultifying boredom. She reads To Kill a Mockingbird three times in one week, each time turning the last page only to feel the “day's heaviness even more keenly.”
Part of Karr's boredom comes from loneliness—the house is often empty, with her father working at the refinery, her mother painting in her studio or studying at college (or, on more than one occasion, simply gone for days), and her sister off on dates. “The house held me in a kind of misty nether-time,” Karr writes. “I waited a lot, though for what I don't know.”
Boredom, of course, is one stereotypical feature of adolescence; another is self-consciousness. Bit by bit, Karr documents this subtle reorientation of her thought as well: Spotting a pimple on her forehead, she quickly thinks back to a moment when John Cleary (her first crush) would have seen it, and writes, “I felt another trapdoor in my quivery sense of self fling open.”
Significantly, as this shift into self-consciousness becomes full-blown, about halfway through the memoir, Karr's narrative suddenly switches from the first person to the second person. In this way, she manages to convey a sense of distance and ironic detachment, more common teenage traits. She also puts readers in the position of being forced to relive their own adolescence: “Your thinking is muddy. You feel some key moment went past that you're now powerless to recover.”
It's a clever technique, and especially well suited to the last section of the book, “High,” which chronicles Karr's high school drug use and sexual initiation. The narrative in this second half conveys more sensations than events, and ultimately, these are less satisfying chapters. In part, this is because Karr's memories are hazier. Much of what makes the first part (and The Liars' Club) so successful is the sharpness—the undeniable truth—of her account. The last few chapters seem less substantial because the teenage Karr spent so much time stoned that there isn't much to tell.
Although Karr has said she has no immediate plans for a third installment, it is impossible not to hope another is on the horizon. The book's prologue describes her departure from home at age 18, heading out for California, but the story never quite comes back full circle, leaving the reader hanging. And Karr makes scattered references to terrible tragedies in the future—tragedies greater than those in this book.
That said, it's a tribute to Karr's power as a storyteller that this account, even with past and future installments hanging over it, is a tremendously enjoyable read on its own. Karr has a warm and inventive writing style, and her memoir is sprinkled throughout with penetrating insights. She's the kind of author you wish you knew in person, and she leaves readers in eager anticipation of her move to adulthood.
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SOURCE: Oates, Joyce Carol. “Pilgrim's Progress.” New York Review of Books 47, no. 17 (2 November 2000): 30-2.
[In the following review, Oates presents a critical reading of The Liars' Club and Cherry within the context of the memoir literature genre. Oates praises both works but observes that the narrative in Cherry is not as powerful as The Liars' Club.]
My memory of eight surreal months in Beaumont, Texas, in 1961-1962, overlapping minimally with the time span chronicled by Mary Karr in The Liars' Club (1995) and in her new sequel to that best-selling memoir, Cherry, is almost exclusively visceral. When the air is saturated with chemical smells—sickly sweet, acrid, like toxic-waste cherry syrup with a nasty undertone of sandpaper—you find it difficult to contemplate loftier subjects. Airborne pollution from oil refineries in this devastated East Texas landscape near the Louisiana border and north of the Gulf of Mexico, known without irony as the “Golden Triangle” (Beaumont, Port Arthur, Orange), must have been close to the edge of human endurance; yet the area's sense of itself was unfailingly upbeat, optimistic.
These were “boom times” for Texas refineries. Luridly apocalyptic sunsets (flamey-orange, bruised-plum-tinged-with-acid-green) were admired as aesthetic bonuses—“In't the sky gorgeous?” Urban areas technically known as cities seemed to have been but recently, and hastily, hacked out of the Big Thicket (pinewood, scrub trees), lacking any architectural distinction, lacking even centers, on a grid of railroad tracks, their poorly paved roads susceptible to dangerous flash floods. There was no cultural life in the Golden Triangle, or the acknowledgment of its absence, unless churchgoing (among whites, predominantly Baptist) constituted culture. One of my Beaumont memories is waiting in an overheated car in long lines at train crossings as freight trains rattled past endlessly. This was hurricane territory, gale-force winds blowing up from the Gulf, but nearly every day there were torrential rains. There was a gasoline-oily glisten to surfaces. I remember a dead, bloated steer lying on its side in a road, forcing traffic to drive around it. Everywhere were snakes, often dead, of an amazing length, run over and mashed on the pavement. At Lamar State College, new, cheaply built classroom buildings were windowless, like cinder-block cubes, air-conditioned to a temperature that set one's teeth chattering. In the women's lavatories (I can't vouch for the men's) toilets were rarely flushed, hands were rarely washed after the use of toilets. Everywhere were flying roaches of a species unknown in the North.
A young wife, I spent much of a night seated on a straight-back chair in the center of a carpetless floor, my knees drawn up to my chest, as my husband, armed with a flashlight and a shoe, bravely but mostly futilely set out to kill, or to rout, the army of glittering black roaches large as hummingbirds, and aggressive, that had swarmed, as if by magic, out of the upholstered furniture and beds in our newly rented house, as soon as night fell. My state of catatonic terror was not helpful to the situation, but I had no other.
Beyond such visceral impressions, the Golden Triangle held little charm. This was a brutally segregated society in which “Ne-gras” were presumed to be subhuman and, if resistant to that label, uppity and troublesome, dangerous. Yet the de facto apartheid of the region guaranteed that communication between the races was very difficult, for regional blacks did seem to speak a foreign dialect, baffling to outsiders. Eight months can be a lifetime, and yet, for some, catatonic with amnesia, such a lifetime can yield little of worth.
And yet here is Mary Karr, whose triumphant first book of prose, The Liars' Club, ranks with the phenomenon of Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes not only as among the most artfully composed of recent American memoirs but as a book that has wholly deserved its success. Both The Liars' Club and its sequel, Cherry, are macabre valentines of a sort to “Leechfield, Texas” (not located on my map, seemingly somewhere in the vicinity of Port Arthur), in the “Ringworm Belt,” a town once voted by Business Week as “one of the ten ugliest … on the planet.” Mary Karr is a daughter of that world, and of its particularities she has fashioned a region of the soul so vividly described it has the power of oneiric prose, entering our dreams as if it were our own:
The sheer stink of my hometown woke me before dawn. The oil refineries and chemical plants gave the whole place a rotten-egg smell. The right wind could bring you a whiff of the Gulf, but that was rare. Plus the place was in a swamp, so whatever industrial poisons got pumped into the sky just seemed to sink down and thicken in the heat. I later learned that Leechfield at that time was the manufacturing site for Agent Orange. … In the fields of gator grass, you could see the ghostly outline of oil rigs bucking in slow motion. … In the distance, giant towers rose from each refinery, with flames that turned every night's sky an odd, acid-green color. … Then there were the white oil-storage tanks, miles of them, like the abandoned eggs of some terrible prehistoric insect.
(Mary Karr's father, Pete Karr, is a member of the Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers Union).
In Cherry, Karr concedes, with characteristic irony:
The town tolerated affliction with more grace than most places I've lived. They had to, for we were, as populations go, teeming with chemical and genetic mutation. Toxic air, I suppose, cooked up part of the human stew. Plus there was inbreeding galore. People disapproved of marriage between first cousins, but it happened, and at least one boy I knew was rumored to have knocked up his sister. Three kids in my grade school contracted and later died from leukemia and bone cancer. … Before we lined up at the elementary school for sugar cubes in paper cups, the polio bug ran through us, for there were stagnant ponds a plenty, and we worried little about wading in ditches to catch crawfish after a heavy rain, even times you could see the encephalitic mosquito eggs afloat on the surface.
And the only available cheese is Velveeta.
When, near the dramatic conclusion of Cherry, the sixteen-year-old Mary undergoes a nightmare acid trip, for all her stylistic virtuosity Karr is hard put to match, let alone outdo, the Texas-Bosch landscapes she has previously created.
It has frequently been remarked that memoirs are flooding the marketplace, and that the motive behind this fecundity is not a good one. The urge to confess in print, on TV talk shows, in person would seem to be a dominant characteristic of our time, an acknowledgment of a failure of imagination. (As if “imagining” the pattern of one's own life were an easy exercise; as if painting a self-portrait isn't the most challenging of an artist's tasks.) Yet it can be argued that the confessional mode is at the root of numberless great works of prose from Augustine's Confessions to James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son, and that the most ambitious twentieth-century novels, Joyce's Ulysses and Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, are wholly memoirist, suffused with the obsessive wish to memorialize life and its experience of a highly particularized world. Poetry as disparate as that of William Wordsworth, D. H. Lawrence, and Sylvia Plath is made from similar motives. Long regarded as a coolly Modernist work of collage, an amalgam of seemingly impersonal, disinterested voices springing from no evident emotional center, Eliot's Waste Land is now seen as intensely personal. To relate a writer's work back to autobiographical sources need not diminish its significance, but may in fact enhance our awe at the ingenuity with which the merely personal is transmogrified into art.
Contemporary memoirs tend to divide informally into two types: the coming-of-age memoir that reads like an “authentic” version of the autobiographical novel, and the memoir of catastrophe. In the former, we follow an individual, usually a young person, through a portion of his or her life; the structure of such memoirs may seem episodic, but has its internal logic and rhythms: how I came to be who I am.1 By contrast, the memoir of catastrophe focuses upon a single season or dramatic event in the memoirist's life; the technique may be synecdoche, the use of the symbolic part for the whole; or, as in a crisis-driven memoir like William Styron's radically distilled Darkness Visible, an account of the author's depression, the remainder of the life fades into the background.2
The coming-of-age memoir has the advantage of leisurely development; the memoir of catastrophe has the advantage of a concentrated focus. The one offers amplitude, the other a narrower, suspenseful concentration. Obviously, both types of memoirs share salient characteristics and both can be wonderful, or disappointing, depending upon that elusive factor we call “style”—voice. Though the memoir purports to be an account of actual events, it isn't journalism or history, which had better supply us with verifiable, corroborative truth; a memoir is a literary text. This is to say that it consists of words artfully, and arbitrarily, arranged. Not ideas, not true-life adventures, not facts, and not “profound” themes yield memorable works of art, for art by its nature is idiosyncratic and indefinable and aspires to uniqueness.
Each memoir is sui generis, like any work of fiction. The very act of putting one's inchoate life into words, arranging it in chapter divisions, giving these divisions titles, deciding upon strategic opening and closing sentences, and so forth, is obviously an act of creation, or re-creation; an act of fiction-writing since it involves a purposefully chosen language and our lives are “alive”—not narrated. The memoir is to be distinguished from the diary, a presumably day-by-day chronicling of life in media res, and its vision is retrospective; the root of “memoir” is after all “memory” Though the memoir may be narrated in the historic present tense, to impart an air of breathlessness and suspense, its ultimate perspective is past tense: the memoirist is gazing back, and may at any time dramatically bring us into his or her present tense which, in terms of the memoir, is future tense. (In The Autobiography of Malcolm X, for instance, a chapter concludes bluntly: “All praise is due to Allah that I went to Boston when I did. If I hadn't, I'd probably still be a brainwashed black Christian.” How I came to be who I am is the continuous subtext.) In a yet more disarming gesture, retrospective vision in the memoir makes the reader feel privileged by being taken into the memoirist's confidence. (As at the conclusion to the harrowing opening chapter of Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior: “In the twenty years since I heard this story I have not asked for details nor said my aunt's name; I do not know it. … My aunt haunts me—her ghost drawn to me because now, after fifty years of neglect, I alone devote pages of paper to her. …”)
The Liars' Club is a luminous account of childhood amid unreliable, unpredictable adults: Mother, Father looming like demigods in a crackerbox house in Leechfield, Texas; and so it's akin to a coup de théâtre to see them, and Leechfield, through the abruptly adult eyes of Mary Karr, the writer self-conscious in her task even as she's still in thrall to the emotional undercurrents of her childhood. Returning to tend to her dying father, Karr is shocked by the now financially devastated and depopulated Leechfield, for one quality of ugliness would seem to be durability; the memoirist confides in the reader:
I set down in my journal the businesses we passed that night: nail-sculpting salon, knickknack shop, trophy store, aerobic-dance studio, K-9 dog-training school. There was a diet center that sported a plywood cutout of a pink pig. … The bubble coming from this pig's mouth held this phrase: A New Way To Lose Weight Without Starving to Death. … You could also get chemotherapy in a modern cinder-block building, which didn't surprise me since the town formed one of the blackest squares on the world cancer map. (It's still right up there with Bhopal and Chernobyl.)
A writer's journal! Can this account for the minuscule details of Karr's childhood? (Obviously not. The journal is composed mostly after-the-fact.) Though the primary focus of The Liars' Club is Mary's childhood, and that of Cherry is adolescence, yet the powerful ending of The Liars' Club takes us into a present when the narrator is an adult, while Cherry, to its disadvantage, ends somewhat abruptly in the past with the seventeen-year-old Mary Karr, besotted by surfing and psychedelia, and a yearning for sexual adventure, planning to leave home for Los Angeles with (male) druggie companions in a rattletrap truck. Ideally, Cherry should be read in tandem with The Liars' Club, which yields a more expansive vision, though certainly it stands on its own as a fully achieved, lyrically rendered memoir of a bright young girl's coming-of-age in America in the Seventies.
It would have been presumed, when The Liars' Club appeared in 1995 with much critical acclaim and commercial success, that the brash, mordantly funny memoir was the forty-one-year-old author's first book, but in fact Karr had published two books of poetry, Abacus (1987) and The Devil's Tour (1993), and was writing the poems to appear in Viper Rum (1998). Much of Karr's tersely written, elegiac poetry is steeped in autobiography; without sentiment and without ornamentation; lacking, perhaps, the zest and startling colloquialisms of the memoirs. Close-ups of aging, ailing parents, the long-ago demigods of childhood, provide the most moving subject matter, yet don't begin to suggest the distinctiveness of personality of Mother and Daddy of the memoirs. The once-beautiful, charismatic mother who could charm an eighty-year-old Texas judge into releasing her daughter, arrested on a drug charge, is now “gnarled as a tree root,” ravaged by illness to a “meat hunk” that manages, still, outrageously, to smoke cigarettes. And Daddy, so compelling a presence in Cherry, is dead, cremated; evoked nostalgically in the poem “The Patient” in which he directs his ten-year-old daughter to put him down one day when he's aged and decrepit. The father who drank himself to death haunts the poet: “Why can you not be / reborn all tall to me? If I raise my arms / here in the blind dark, why can you not / reach down now to hoist me up?”
Viper Rum concludes with an essay on poetics, “Against Decoration,” which takes on, with commendable chutzpah, neoformalism in contemporary American poetry (“obscurity of character,” “foggy physical world,” “overuse of meaningless references,” “metaphors that obscure rather than illuminate,” “linguistic excess for no good reason”) and such mandarin poets as Amy Clampitt (“Clampitt's purple vocabulary sounds to me like a parody of the Victorian silk Pound sought to unravel”) and James Merrill (“Merrill … may well have been the first emperor of the new formalism. I contend that this emperor wore no clothes—or, to use a more accurate metaphor, that the ornamental robes existed, but the emperor himself was always missing.”) Karr's passion for poetry is evident in her unfashionable willingness to speak polemically, charging that much of contemporary poetry is precious, vapid, and obscure; and stating that poetry should be, following Horace, dulce et util, “sweet and useful.” No poetry can be worthwhile, Karr argues, that lacks emotional content and clarity. Surely the same is true for prose?
If Cherry is less steeped in mystery and wonder, thus in suspense, than The Liars' Club, it's because its protagonist is older, more canny, analytical, self-conscious. Mother and Father are beginning to lose their power and will become, by the memoir's end, “smaller somehow” than they once were. The first words of Cherry strike a chord of flight, freedom: “No road offers more mystery than that first one you mount from the town you were born to, the first time you mount it of your own volition, on a trip funded by your own coffee tin of wrinkled up dollars.” The vision is thrilling, romantic: “Your young body is instantly a fresh-lit arrow notched and drawn back and about to be loosed.” Yet the adolescent Mary who has imagined herself a rebel is rather hurt by her parents' willingness to let her go to Los Angeles with a gang of drug-taking friends and a mere one hundred dollars: “… Your mother's unbridled enthusiasm for this half-baked enterprise of yours sets a cold wind blowing through you.” Yet, had Mary's parents tried to stop her, she would surely have left in any case, determined to plunge into the frenzied life of the drugged-out era: “When the blind seer in The Odyssey foretold the loss of all companions, that portent went unheeded.”
But Cherry is the prelude to California, a pitiless examination of Leechfield, Texas, and a lyrically detailed preparation for the adolescent Mary's reckless plunge into the unknown. The memoir takes us through Mary's elementary school years (“our names ran together like beads on a string, John-and-Bobbie-Clarice-and-Cindy-and-Little-Mary [as opposed to Big Mary, who was Mary Ferrell]”) with a scrupulosity reminiscent of Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye, a darker examination of the secret lives of prepubescent girls; through Mary's early infatuations with boys (“Time will never again stretch to the silky lengths it reaches that spring when you and Phil first sit entangled in his car, the odor of narcissus and jasmine and crab-apple blossoms blowing through the open windows on black wind. Nor will kisses ever again evolve into such baroque forms, delicate as origami in their folds and bendings”) and her first sexual experiences, which leave her initially blissful, then abruptly disillusioned (“Once you get to [Phil's] dorm room, you find the odor of old pizza unfathomably discouraging”).
A rocky, rebellious adolescence is characterized by an increasing estrangement from adults (“Without math, you'll wind up being no more than a common prostitute,” smugly predicts the principal of Leechfield High) and involves a tentative suicide attempt by way of Anacin tablets washed down with orange juice (“Having cried yourself quiet, you now lie down in the bed and cross hands over your chest and arrange the skirt so your underpants aren't gaping out at everybody. In this pose, you wait to die”) that ends, fortunately, in vomiting.
Much of the latter part of Cherry concerns the young heroine's initiation into drugs at age fifteen: a friend's brother provides “valium by the packet and even birth control pills in round spaceship-like compacts. … Plus there are colored pills for any mood—methamphetamine (black mollies and white crosses), opiate derivatives like codeine, phenobarb in every dose level, nembutal (yellow jackets), seconal (red birds).” Plus pot, of course, and LSD. Lots of LSD. Smack, or heroin, holds little romance: “The one time you blammed heroin, you puked your way into nod-off, waking up astonished that guys would steal TVs for that stuff.” Though Cherry ultimately makes a statement against drugs, noting their malevolent power to permanently alter personality for the worse, the reader is likely to be impressed, if not incredulous, that an individual who has so lavishly experimented with drugs can have survived to write even a coherent sentence, let alone draw conclusions from her experience: “With the aid of hallucinogens, you set off like some pilgrim whose head teems with marvels and vistas, baptismal rivers from which you plan to emerge purified. But what's longed for usually bears no resemblance to what you find.” Funnily, Mary's most phantasmagoric acid trip yields her a platitude of stunning irony: “There's no place like home.”
Most readers will consider Karr extremely forgiving of her improvident, immature, hard-drinking parents. That she loves them both—and doesn't wish to judge them harshly—is clear. There is something chilling, however, about a father telling his ten-year-old daughter that she can do anything she's “big enough” to do; a father who “you'll hear … has a mistress much younger than he is, a waitress, whose husband … will put a bullet first through her skull, then his own.” Mother, the red-haired siren of The Liars' Club who has had seven marriages to six husbands (having married Daddy twice), continues her habit of disappearing from the household without warning or apology, arousing anxiety in both her daughters. She's an intelligent and perhaps even talented woman, but wholly unreliable. When Mary is arrested in a drug bust, she comes to fetch her home from jail, but shows not a scintilla of maternal concern: “Apparently, even getting thrown into jail doesn't register a jag in your mother's heartbeat.” In a reversal of one's expectation, given Mary Karr's youthful rebelliousness, it's Mother who insists upon her going on the pill (at age fourteen), while Mary protests that she neither has nor wants a steady boyfriend; unhearing, Mother reiterates, “If you want to have sex, so be it. Just don't get pregnant.”
Like The Liars' Club, Cherry ends on a resolute, upbeat note, with Mary's experience of a girlfriend's kindness and in her realization that she possesses, for all her swings of mood and fortune, a “Same Self” that will endure. Yet the memoir's lingering tone is brooding, melancholy; beneath the sparkling prose surface there's a “repository of silence” we hear all too clearly. No child, however eloquent, should have to grow up so young.
Acknowledged by contemporary memoirists as primary influences in the genre are James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son (1955), Frank Conroy's Stop-Time (1967), and Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life (1989).
Notable recent memoirs of this type are Mikal Gilmore's Shot in the Heart (1994), a younger brother's account of the family life of the executed Utah murderer Gary Gilmore; Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss (1997), a stylishly anorexic account of Harrison's protracted love affair with her father; Jane Bernstein's Bereft: A Sister's Story (2000), whose subject is the author's long obsession with her dead sister, murdered years ago while a college student; Elizabeth Kendall's American Daughter: Discovering My Mother (2000), a double memoir of the St. Louis-born author and her mother, who was killed in the accidental crash of a car driven by Kendall at the age of twenty-one; and Bill Henderson's quirkily lyric, inspirational Tower (2000), which chronicles Henderson's one-man construction of a tower in rural Maine during a time of “middle-aged hypochondria and panic.”
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 997
SOURCE: Sayers, Valerie. “Tattletale.” Commonweal 127, no. 19 (3 November 2000): 27-8.
[In the following review, Sayers comments that, though Cherry avoids many of the pitfalls of contemporary confessional memoirs, the volume's narrative voice is ultimately flawed.]
Mary Karr has now written two narratives of her childhood, which can stand as Exhibits A and B in the Case of the Contemporary Memoir. Past evidence suggests that we are a nation of first-person narrators, confessing our own sordid histories while we peek in on the neighbors' stories. We don't often invoke our right to privacy—on the contrary, we're ready to spill all—and we certainly don't seem overly concerned with the privacy of lives that have intersected ours.
The literary memoirist may operate on a slightly higher plane than the talkshow exhibitionist, but faces the same dangers: the seductions of self-justification, self-aggrandizement, self-absorption, self-delusion. I am happy to report that in both accounts of her early life, Karr's writing tends toward the generous impulse, not the selfish. She gives her all in language, empathy, and forgiveness—but she is not above a little titillation. Both memoirs rely on a sexy, suggestive narrative come-on, yet their conclusions about sex and all human intimacy are thoughtful.
Karr's first memoir, The Liars' Club, was a long-standing bestseller and brought her to prominence. The story of Karr's upbringing in East Texas (and briefly in Colorado), The Liars' Club is told in a bemused, humorous voice. It is a litany of sorrows, beginning with her flamboyant parents' alcoholism, progressing through two chilling accounts of sexual abuse, and ending with the uncovering of the great secret of her mother's early adulthood. The title and the central motif—her father's embellishing of his own life story for the sake of his drinking buddies—ask readers to consider the ways the narrator may be tailoring the story to fit her own needs. Much of The Liars' Club is told in a swaggering Texas drawl, which doubtless adds to its popular appeal but which strikes me as oddly coquettish. Karr is a poet who writes beautiful, bracing lines, but throughout both memoirs she gives her childhood self a precocious way with words that hovers in that realm between fancification and falsification. In The Liars' Club, for instance, she has her seven-year-old self “screaming to Carol Sharp that her Jesus was a mewling dipshit”; in Cherry, Mary, age six, receives a mash note that says, “If you play nasty with me, I'll like you for one year.” Perhaps both lines are reported verbatim, but the neat way they fit into the narrative's design makes me wonder. Karr herself is amused by the way we reconstruct our childhood selves: “In actual written artifacts from my past, I sound way less smart than I recall having been.”
Cherry focuses on Karr's sexual coming of age. I dislike the title, a cheap bright lipstick smeared on the book's face, promising another lurid tell-all that isn't exactly forthcoming. Though Karr is frank about her early sexual experiences and desires, her book integrates her intellectual and social coming-of-age with her sexual self-discovery, and takes seriously all the struggles entailed. Hers is the story of the bright girl in the small town, observing the way her bright parents trapped themselves in lives that can't contain their longings.
For the purposes of this second exploration, Karr shifts her voice to a second-person narrative. This addressing of the self as another person (a device I'd hoped had been left behind in the '80s) is obviously supposed to signify the distance between the present narrator and the past subject, but it comes across as mannered here. It's a small enough mannerism. Though the book opens with a bad-girl, listen-to-me-talk-dirty tone, it settles into the kind of sharp observation that evokes not just one little girl's life but a whole American era, in which Mary Karr's (and my) generation replaces alcohol with psychedelics, early marriage with early sex and birth control pills. The ensuing road trip leads, often as not, to jail, suicide, and disaster for Karr's childhood friends.
The oddest disjunction in Cherry concerns the abuse depicted in The Liars' Club. The earlier passages—describing Karr's rape at seven by a teenage neighbor, and her abuse by a babysitter at twelve—are stark and distant, removed in precisely the way we might expect. In Cherry, those early events are not acknowledged until well into the narrative, and their evocations are parenthetical: “(Undercurrent: a boy in the dark bucking over your seven-year-old body. …).” As a teenager, after she sleeps with her boyfriend for the first time, another pair of parentheses appear: “(How odd, you'll later think, that you embarked on your first love affair—meant as an intimacy—with such a large sexual secret in tow.)” The lack of analysis is completely understandable, but the presentation of these events as afterthoughts in a young woman's sexual re-initiation underscores the difficulties of our confessional age: there are still events so painful that they resist the unveiling of the self. Perhaps the sexual woundings reveal themselves in other ways; there's a crude recurring phrase used in this book, about what it is that boys are chasing, that reflects the hurt in an offhand, even unconscious, way.
In any case, Cherry's greatest strength is not its revelation of self but its recognition of others. Karr offers up loving depictions: of her childhood genius friend, Meredith; of the nonjudgmental surfer boys whose communalism appears, however briefly, utopian. She holds herself to a high standard of responsibility, and her deep empathy for family and friends leads her to question her commitment to them. Years after watching a girlfriend cut herself, she asks: “Couldn't you have told someone? Or just left the room? Surely witness is tacit approval.” This memoir, and the one that precedes it, become the opportunities to “tell someone.” At their best, both offer witness and the kind of introspective questioning of self that can be instructive to even the voyeurs among us.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1372
SOURCE: Shulman, Alix Kates. “Hungry for More.” Women's Review of Books 18, no. 3 (December 2000): 19-20.
[In the following review, Shulman argues that, despite some problematic elements with the narrative voice in the volume's second half, Cherry is an admirable and “worthy sequel” to The Liars' Club.]
The plot is an ordinary plot: American girl traverses the tricky terrain of adolescence. First bra, first pimple, first love, first kissing game, first date, first real kiss, first period, first smoke (marijuana, it being the late sixties), first betrayal, first run-in with the principal, first sex. Familiar territory: in its key events Mary Karr's school life in 1960s hardscrabble Texas is remarkably like mine in 1940s suburban Ohio, with a cherry's “market value” surprisingly unchanged.
But Cherry is no ordinary book. Karr is a poet, high on language. She won't permit her prose to be violated by a bland verb where a live one will do, and if the right word doesn't exist, she'll make it up. The true hero of this memoir is Karr's slangy, muscular, free-wheeling prose: the English language goes wild with arousal and submits to her will as Karr takes any liberties she likes—flamboyantly ending sentences with prepositions, inventing words, ingeniously tying every episode to the gradual loss of innocence and testing of power that is adolescence.
Verbs break their bonds: “the tears revered between her knobby fingers”; hair “ready to sprong up at any minute”; “I … power-slammed the door into its molding”; “heart fish-flopping inside my rib cage”; “I would have nattered and mullygrubbed at her”; “my voice just foghorns out of me”; “the spit you feel yourself to be writhing on”; “whapping talcum powder on her back.”
Similes and metaphors startle: Shoes “aimed at me from the closet floor like little gunboats fixing to fire.” “He inscribes each letter at such a far forward pitch that you half expect the words themselves to fall over on their faces and pour off the margin.” Kisses are “delicate as origami in their folds and bendings.” “[U]nleashed, this tender boy would throw you to the earth and boff you into guacamole.”
Never before has being stoned, where banalities are experienced as profound revelations, been rendered so precisely, nor a kiss been described so fully:
You often go meandering inside his breath until you feel yourself vanish into the plush warmth of his tongue, each movement of which is a word or piece of punctuation in a conversation so intricate, all your diligence is required to keep up. He runs his tongue along your lower lip like a question, and you return the inquiry. Then in unison your tongues meet all soft on that same territory and glide together the small distance. Touch and withdraw, taste and test. All the light of your being seems to pour into him at such moments, and his into you. His tongue barely spirits along a closed eyelid leaving a light stripe of cool damp. For the whirled cartilage of your ear, it's cyclonic.
Cherry is a worthy sequel to the best-selling 1995 memoir The Liars' Club, the story of Karr's early years in a fiercely loving but dysfunctional working-class Texas family, studded by such events as her alcoholic mother's incarceration in a mental hospital, her own rape (at seven), her parents' divorce and subsequent remarriage. In Cherry the personnel are the same: same alcoholic suicidal artistic intellectual mother; same mean and nasty older sister Lecia, an ally when it counts; same doting dad, still working two backbreaking shifts in the oilfields of Leechfield, “this anus of a worm-eaten town,” “this spirit-frying inferno.” But here Karr expands her focus to life outside the family: her love of girlfriends and yearning for boyfriends, her rebellions, her newly awakened passion for drugs, danger, poetry and books.
Not that there aren't events here as shocking as some in The Liars' Club. Karr's mother is raped; Karr herself bungles a suicide attempt; her mother once locks herself in the bathroom with a gun and twice terrifies her daughters by disappearing; Karr and her friends do monumental amounts of drugs and some go to jail. But what chiefly shines through this sequel is Karr's ability, bolstered by family love, to absorb the dangerous, sometimes tragic events with humor, irony, integrity and guts as she struggles toward a self beyond what she calls her “wiseass persona.” We cheer the tenacious spirit of this spunky girl, her will to thrive.
The book is admirable in its unwavering focus. Unlike many childhood memoirs with each episode rendered for its own sake and a structure of and-then-and-then, Karr ties every chapter and event to the yearnings of adolescence: even her mother's scary rape inspires her to speculate on how much sexual attention she herself might command. Beneath the bravado, the pain, the self-absorption (refreshingly mocked by Karr herself) and the flamboyant prose are patches of astute psychological discernment of adolescent feeling, especially about sex. In several passages, Karr observes that having sex can actually diminish pleasure. In another she details how masturbation fantasies may be far less carnal and softer focused than the actual physical events that inspire them. In another she connects desire with fear: “your body seizes up with a fear that masks itself as arousal. … the feelings do favor each other, i.e. sweat rolls down the ribs; breathlessness kicks in; the skin surface becomes hyperalert. It's baffling that you feel phosphorescence gather in your body … given your revulsion at the boy's heavy body and sour kiss.”
Karr manages to make even somber scenes hilarious, like the one in which her mother, who “holds loudly forth on any and all pussy-related subjects,” suggests she get a diaphragm. “Mother! you say with all the virginal outrage you can marshal given the amount of time you spend reading Henry Miller in the bathroom. You've never had a steady boyfriend. Nobody's even ever tried to feel you up.” But “You go along with the birth-control idea because you read somewhere estrogen makes tits bigger and might kick start a girl's period.” The gynecologist, discovering her raped hymen, tries to shame her—“didn't your church teach you better?”—prompting Karr to fantasize: “As a grown-up, you'll consider dropping a note to this green-coated worm of a physician. Tell him how bare you felt inside that paper nightgown. Ask him who died and made him God. Remind him of that oath doctors are meant to take: First do no harm.”
In Cherry, the best girlfriend, that central relationship of girlhood, is as important as boy-love. Clarice, her intimate partner in daring and her first close buddy, drops her because of Karr's “weird” enthusiasms—code for elevated class aspirations. Karr is devastated until a new girl, the astonishingly erudite Meredith Bright, becomes her “heart's companion.” Meredith, a “genius” who can discourse on Pynchon, Dostoyevski and contemporary poetry, is gentle, loyal, serious. It is a pleasure to witness this touching relationship, which advances the intellectual awakening of poetry-hungry Karr.
I was bothered by one aspect of Cherry. Parts One and Two, the first hundred pages, are written in the first person, and the rest, Parts Three and Four, in the sometimes awkward second—all the more disconcerting because the Prologue, probably composed after the book was finished, is also in the second person. Any artistic purpose served by this annoying double switch is invisible to me.
No matter. The canny Karr leaves me hungering for the next installment of her autobiography. Cherry closes where the Prologue opens: at high school's end, with Karr and her surfer gang of druggy boys in a battered truck heading out for California and adventures that lie just beyond the last page.
You pull away … feeling naught but hope, though before those six bodies in your company have hardened into adulthood, several will be cut down by drug-related obliterations. Two will take their own lives. Two will pull time in jail. Who saw it coming? Not you, certainly. … Wedged bare-legged in the banged-up truck with your fellows, you are still immortal, and that coast across the yellow map of the richest country on earth is beckoning to you with the invisible fingers of hashish smoke.
I can hardly wait.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3850
SOURCE: Pinsker, Sanford. “Citizens of Somewhere Else: Memoir and the Place of Place.” Georgia Review 55, no. 1 (spring 2001): 162-69.
[In the following essay, Pinsker examines a selection of recent memoirs, including The Liars' Club, and comments that a strong sense of place is a key element to a successful memoir. Pinsker additionally compliments Karr's “deliciously vernacular voice” in The Liars' Club.]
Krochmalna Street in pre-World War I Warsaw … Leechfield, Texas, in the 1970's … an Alexandria, Egypt, that abides in the imagination—these are the times and places that fuel the respective memoirs of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Mary Karr, and André Aciman. Unfortunately, their books arrive at a time cluttered with accounts of how X was victimized and how Y managed to survive. Indeed, that is why the place of place serves as a useful way of distinguishing these artists from the anybodies with a lurid story to spill on an afternoon television show or between the pages of a tell-all volume.
“I would not have been different,” Singer once told me, “if I had been born a Frenchman or a Chinaman.” Why so? Because, Singer insisted, he would have been uncomfortable anywhere, with the same questions that first occurred to him growing up in Poland, and that continued to haunt him in America, still pressing on his consciousness: Why are people born? Why do they suffer? And perhaps most perplexing of all, why do they die, knowing that they will die? These are the Big Riddles, the universal ones that great writers, regardless of their time or place, brood about.
At the same time, Singer was equally insistent that every story must have an “address,” as he liked to put it, so that a reader would know where to send its characters a letter. Thus it is that the concrete and the universal are forever intertwined, one element complementing—indeed, reinforcing—the other.
Among the many traps that memoir sets for its would-be writers is the giddy feeling that nothing could be easier than telling one's own story. (Who, after all, knows me better than I?) Alas, the muse of memoir is much more demanding, and only those who find ways to shape their material into a coherent, convincing whole stand a fighting chance of receiving the attention of serious readers. The others are destined to stand in the ever-growing line of people whose books are fatally flawed by being universal when they should have been particular, and particular when they should have been universal. Singer, a master at artful remembering, knew how to evoke the telling details of a specific time and place, yet keep himself finally freed from both.
Originally published in the Yiddish Jewish Daily Forward during the late 1950's, the twenty-seven sketches of More Stories from My Father's Court (skillfully translated by Curt Leviant) are further evidence, as if more were needed, that the late Isaac Bashevis Singer was a storyteller of extraordinary power. Nearly forty years ago, Singer published In My Father's Court, the initial installment of his memoirs. His father's beth din (rabbinical court) provides the backdrop against which an impressionable child first learns how strange the world and its human inhabitants can be. Many of the stories begin with a knock on the apartment door and the entrance of a troubled person needing his father's counsel.
Not surprisingly, what the young Singer particularly notices are the more grotesque specimens, because inevitably they have the best—that is, the strangest—tales. As the Yiddish quip would have it, az m'lebt m'lebt alles (as you live you live through everything). In Singer's case, it would be fair to say that, early on, he vicariously lived through everything. Stories, after all, allow us to experience other people's experiences, and this truism also operates for those who do the writing. As Singer's father remarks at one point, “People dream up all kinds of stories.” Little did he realize at the time that his son would not only quote the line in a sketch about a noisy, uncouth set of neighbors (“Sounds That Interfere with Studying”), but would also write literally hundreds of stories about the strange tales people often dream up.
If it is true that Singer's most memorable characters tend to be hysterics, people obsessed with fixed ideas and the compulsion to share them with a Singer-like protagonist, it is even truer that Singer's father provided, unwittingly, the same service to those who sought him out for a rabbinical ruling or sage advice. But, unlike his son, Singer's father regarded most of these interruptions as … well, interruptions. He much preferred jamming his nose into a volume of the Talmud and entering into a world very different from the one teeming outside his window. Indeed, this is why Singer's father was so perplexed, and not a little disappointed, when both his sons—first Isaac Joshua and then Isaac Bashevis—became secular writers. When asked what they did for a living, he would say that they “worked for the newspapers.” That, he felt, was bad enough. To be writers of idle tales, of fiction, was much, much worse.
Some eighty years earlier Nathaniel Hawthorne had brooded about the reservations his forebears would surely have harbored if they had known he would become, of all things, a writer—something they would have put on roughly the same level as wasting away one's life as a fiddler. Small wonder that Hawthorne ends his manifestolike “Custom House” sketch by declaring himself a “citizen of somewhere else”—that realm of the imagination where all true writers, including those being discussed here, finally live.
Singer was apparently attracted to the power of stories, or to the material that could later be turned into stories, much earlier in life than was Hawthorne—but Singer had a father whose job put the boy Isaac in close proximity to rich material. “Question or Advice?” illustrates this curious arithmetic very clearly. As Singer eavesdrops in another room (presumably looking for a book), a man unrolls the sordid tale of how his wife has taken on a lover—this while he works as a gravedigger. Singer's father strongly insists that the man get a divorce (this, after all, is what the law dictates), but the man keeps bringing up extenuating circumstances: his two children, for one thing; the fact that he actually likes his wife's lover, for another. Singer's father loses patience and the man leaves, promising to “think over” getting a divorce once again. “Sinners are very stupid,” father tells son, and then the elder Singer “removed the narrow black cord from the Gemara and resumed studying.” For Singer's father, armed as he is with the truth of Torah and Talmud, there is nothing more to say or to think about. His son, however, puts the strange meeting into his memory bank where it can be fleshed out, reshaped, and told afresh decades later.
Much the same thing is true for the way that the young Singer is drawn to the welter of details in front of his wide eyes: “Chaim was a man of middling height, strong and broad-shouldered, with a face brown as bronze and beard to match. His clothes seemed to be dusted with rust” (from “Chaim the Locksmith”). He can also (in retrospect, as it were) make pithy observations about the eccentric characters who have come his way: “Reb Layzer Gravitzer loved two things: prestige and danger. Some people had actually witnessed him lighting his cigar with a five-ruble note.” These are some of the characteristic ways that Singer brushstrokes his characters; my point, however, is that the seeds for this technique were planted early, when he paid attention to the oddballs who trooped in and out of his father's court.
Nobody, including Singer, can accurately reproduce dialogue spoken months—much less decades—ago. This is one of the many places where whatever one means by “nonfiction” touches hands with whatever one means by “fiction.” The categories cannot help but blur because memory is always the captive of the shape-shifting imagination. To turn the title of Mary Karr's first memoir, The Liars' Club, to a slightly different purpose, we could say that all memoirists worth their salt are members in good standing, and Singer is no exception. The menagerie of unforgettable characters who flit in and out of his father's court may well be as “made up” as are the dybbuks one often encounters in his fiction, but this matters to me not a fig. The best moments in this new collection bring me back to the Warsaw streets that called to the young Singer as surely as the larger world beyond them eventually did—and it is in this mixture of a formative place and an actively shaping memory that the delights of Singer's fiction speak eloquently for themselves.
A word about posthumous publication: in most cases, a work scraped from the bottom of a famous writer's barrel does little to enhance his or her hard-won reputation. Hemingway's mythic aura will survive True at First Light, just as Joseph Heller will be forever linked with Catch-22 rather than with his posthumous Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man. Still, their respective publishers would have done better not to have called these badly flawed efforts to our attention. By contrast, I suspect that Singer's posthumous works will be with us for some time, and that they will add to his stature. That was certainly the case when an English translation of Shadows on the Hudson appeared a few years ago, and it is true for More Stories from My Father's Court. Singer was a prolific writer, turning out numerous literary diamonds and zircons without quite realizing which were which, but plenty of the former remain untranslated.
That many writers emerge from childhoods spent in unlikely cultural settings is a truth almost universally acknowledged (one thinks of Mary McCarthy from Seattle or, even stranger, Susan Sontag from Tucson), but it was not until I read The Liars' Club that I fully realized just how bone-chillingly horrific a “place” can be. The late poet Richard Hugo liked to talk about a “triggering town,” that spot where surface textures meet an interior landscape, and the ways in which this peculiar combination can be the springboard for one's best poetry. Hugo's manifesto is aptly illustrated in his signature poem, “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg,” where the speaker's internal despair finds a series of objective correlatives in a fading Northwestern town. Leechfield, Texas, is clearly Mary Karr's triggering town, but with certain significant differences: unlike the speaker in Hugo's poem, she lived in its neighborhoods and went to its schools. Leechfield surrounded her and eventually became a “character” in her memoirs every bit as much as the heath does in a Thomas Hardy novel: “The sheer stink of my hometown woke me before dawn. The oil refineries and chemical plants gave the whole place a rotten-egg smell. The right wind could bring you a whiff of the Gulf, but that was rare. Plus the place was in a swamp, so whatever industrial poisons got pumped into the sky just seemed to sink down and thicken in the heat.”
Like I. B. Singer, Mary Karr fastens onto memories of childhood, but her east Texas upbringing turns out to be so mind numbing, so unremittingly awful, that one wonders how she managed to survive. For a long time I had imagined that nothing could be worse than being raised in a small south-western Pennsylvania town, where one hardly needed to be a hypersensitive artist to feel the seismic repercussions whenever the local glass factory shut down or yet another coal mine played itself out. My classmates grew up knowing instinctively that an unshakable poverty was likely to be their lot, so they lived early and hard as only the desperate do.
For Karr, even more ominous than the leaden sky over Leechfield are the genetic and cultural byproducts roiling underneath. These she describes with just the right mixture of irony and understatement:
The town tolerated affliction with more grace than most places I've lived. They had to, for we were, as populations go, teeming with chemical and genetic mutation. Toxic air, I suppose, cooked up part of the human stew. Plus there was inbreeding galore. People disapproved of marriage between first cousins, but it happened, and at least one boy I knew was rumored to have knocked up his sister. Three kids in my grade school contracted and later died from leukemia and bone cancer.
There is no escaping the fact that Leechfield is a death-haunted place, especially when Karr gets to the toll that drugs and high living will take on many of her former classmates, but that is not the whole story. Tall tales, of the sort Karr's father liked to swap with his cronies in the “liars' club,” come with the territory, as does the sassy, shit-kicking attitude that fairly drips from Karr's paragraphs. She is, in short, a good ol' Leechfield gal, despite the fact that high-class poetry can squirt off her lips easy as spit.
Granted, there are times when one grows a touch weary of just how spunky Karr's mouthpiece can be, but everything—including the emotions—is Texas-sized in Leechfield. Friends of mine who know east Texas better than I do tell me that Karr often turns the landscape and its inhabitants into caricatures. Perhaps, but the question is not so much whether Leechfield is as soul robbing as Karr reports or if every bit of dialogue passes the litmus test of realism; rather it is whether or not she can convince us that her persona is at once of Leechfield and yet somehow beyond its paralyzing nets. I put the matter this way because a significant part of Karr's ambition is to transpose Stephen Dedalus and the “dear dirty Dublin” of Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man into a coming-of-age story set amid the scrublands of east Texas. In this sense, Cherry is only marginally about hankering to have big hooters and a hunk for a boyfriend, or about being deflowered; the book is about the interior parts of Mary Karr that responded to the magic of language well used. Ruminating on a soliloquy from Richard II (“Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes / Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth”), an adolescent Karr says this:
Sure the passage was dark. But in my somewhat magical system of thought, pessimism served as a hedge against disaster. Think of the worst, and you stave it off.
I read and reread the passage, covering verses with my palm then checking a line at a time what I could remember. Next to me, my sister was sawing metaphorical toothpicks. In the far room my cowboy daddy was equally clean of thought. I was the only one awake, for I was growing into a worrier, a world-class insomniac, what one friend would later call a grief-seeking missile.
Leechfield is a place that such worriers leave, largely because thinkers need company and east Texas has more bowling leagues than poetry societies. Granted, when Mary Karr heads off to California with her surfboarder buddies there's more LSD than Keats dancing around in her brain, but the stuff that writers are made of is in there as well. How she found her way to college and finally to the making of The Liars' Club will, I feel certain, be covered in the next installments of her ongoing memoir. But I shall miss hearing more about Leechfield because it is a place I have come to know, and in an odd way to love, as Mary Karr's deliciously vernacular voice took me somewhere beneath or above or beyond what started out, far too simply, as hatred.
Whatever my doubts about how prominently east Texas will figure in Mary Karr's next book, I have none about what will remain at the center of André Aciman's imaginative world. It is an Alexandria that he can neither recover nor entirely shake, an Alexandria whose presence he feels in small Manhattan parks or when strolling Parisian boulevards. It is an Alexandria he recognizes whenever heat, blue sky, and water overwhelm his senses—indeed, whenever he hears or writes the word beach. Finally, of course, it is an Alexandria captured, however tentatively, on the page.
Elie Wiesel once quipped that Jerusalem is his favorite city, and then added, “when I am not there.” The same thing is true for Aciman and Alexandria. He came to wide attention with the publication of Out of Egypt, a memoir about growing up in a magical city that he and his family were forced to leave in the mid-1960's. What he remembers, however, is a time when there were some 50,000 Jews living in Alexandria and when Egyptian Jews were active players in the stock exchange, owned some of the biggest banks and nearly all the department stores, and even held a few seats in the parliament. All this changed dramatically in 1956, when Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal and Israel joined forces with France and England against Egypt. The aftermath was a new spirit of anti-Western nationalism and, not surprisingly, waves of antisemitism. Once again, Jews found themselves fleeing Egypt as their property and assets were being systematically seized by the state.
Aciman's response to all of this was as ambivalent as the title of his memoir is playfully complicated. The Exodus is a story of how ancient Jews left Egypt, the land of bondage, and made their way to freedom. To be “out of Egypt” signified triumph, but for Aciman it meant leaving a place he loved and where his family was well fixed. As a nonreligious Jew, he makes no bones about how ambivalent he feels when well-meaning friends invite him to participate in a Passover Seder. Rather than ritually celebrating how the Jews left Egypt, Aciman secretly hankers to return. But when he did, in fact, make a return visit after years of exile, it occurred to him that he was “doing the most typical thing a Jew could do. I've come back to Egypt the way only Jews yearn to go back to places they couldn't wait to flee. The Jewish rite of passage, as Passover never tells us, is also a passage back to Egypt, not just away from it.”
False Papers is filled with meditations of this against-the-grain sort. On one level, it continues his earlier ruminations about Alexandria in a series of fourteen interlocked essays that consider Alexandria from a variety of angles; on another, it is about how Aciman became the personal essayist he now is. The result has a kaleidoscopic effect: turn its lens in one direction and the Alexandria Aciman yearns for almost seems within reach; turn it another and you realize that Alexandria is a construct, a way of talking about one thing so as to muse about deeper levels of self-exile. As Aciman tellingly put it in a recent “Writers on Writing” piece for The New York Times (28 August 2000),
Writing about Alexandria helps me give a geological frame to a psychological mess. Alexandria is the nickname I give this mess. Ask me to be intimate and I'll automatically start writing about Alexandria. … If I write about places it is because some of them are coded ways of writing about myself: like me, they are always somewhat dated, isolated, uncertain, thrust precariously in the middle of larger cities, places that have become not just stand-ins for Alexandria but stand-ins for me. I walk past them and think of me.
I find it hard to think of a better description of what happens in False Papers, as Aciman turns “Alexandria” into an ever-complicating metaphor—at once the site of inner turmoil and an instance of what Eudora Welty called “the heart's field.” Nostos, the Greek word for “return,” lies at the core of memory, just as nostography, “writing about return,” lies at the core of the disparate memoirs under discussion here. But Aciman, I would argue, is an extreme case, not only because place so dominates his writing but also because he, more than the others, is so self-conscious about the place of place:
The Alexandria I knew, that part-Victorian, half-decayed, vestigial nerve center of the British Empire, exists in memory alone, the way Carthage and Rome and Constantinople exist as vanished cities only. … This is the Alexandria I live with every day, the one I've taken with me, written about, and ultimately superimposed on other cities, the way other cities were originally sketched over the Alexandrian landscape when European builders came, in the middle of the nineteenth century, and fashioned a new city modeled after those they already loved. It is this Alexandria I came looking for—knowing that I'd never find it. This did not bother me. For I had come not to recover memories, nor even to recognize those I'd disfigured, nor to toy with the thought that I'd ever live here again: I had come to bury the whole thing, to get it out of my system, to forget even, the way we learn to hate those who wouldn't have us.
In the final lines of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus boasts that he will “forge,” on the smithy of his soul, “the uncreated conscience of his race.” Joyce, who bowed to nobody in his love for the pun, chose forge carefully, implying that the heroic action of writing is inextricably coupled with a kind of dishonesty. False Papers suggests something of the same thing: people forced to travel light and on the lam often use “false papers” to slip across borders; at the same time, the “fictions” that are an inevitable component of “nonfiction” have a way of ringing true.
Aciman, I suspect, had no choice but to write as he did because place chose him rather than the other way around. At the end of an essay (“Square Lamartine”) that looks for all the world like an exercise in meandering, Aciman says this:
it finally dawned on me that my life had not even started or that life, like Paris, was little else than a collection of close calls and near misses, and that the objects I loved and would never outgrow and wished to take with me would always litter this landscape, because they were lost or had never existed, because even the life I had yearned to live when looking out the window with my great-aunt in Alexandria and dreaming of a Seine scarcely seven minutes away was also cast upon this landscape, a past life, a pluperfect life, a conditional life made, like Paris, for the mind. Or for paper.
Memoir, at its best, is the fortunate (some would say “lucky”) conjunction of place and paper, of memories that press and a consciousness that shapes. There are hundreds of ways to get this tricky arithmetic wrong, but these three books not only get it right, they get it right in ways that give memoir itself a good name.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 514
SOURCE: Bristow, Jennie. “Teenage Confessions.” New Statesman 130, no. 4543 (25 June 2001): 51.
[In the following review, Bristow describes Karr's Cherry as “an amusing, warm account of growing up in late 1960s Texas” but comments that the story lacks a compelling plot or unifying element.]
Mary Karr tells us, on page 25 of Cherry, that her ambition aged 11 was to write poetry and autobiography—the exact literary path she later followed. When a pre-pubescent decides to make a career in memoir-writing, autobiography clearly ain't what it used to be.
Karr fits well into the great confessional-writing craze of the late 1990s. In the modern memoir, what you have done counts for less than what you feel; there are book contracts out there for all highly strung emotional literates. Ghost-written lives of the already famous have been replaced by diaries of the unknown anorexic or abused child.
To her credit, Karr does not peddle the straightforward “victim lit” of many of her contemporaries. Her prizewinning memoir The Liars' Club recalled her childhood; Cherry, the sequel, is an amusing, warm account of growing up in late 1960s Texas, with an unorthodox but loving family, poetic aspirations and bucket-loads of recreational drugs. If Karr's lack of trauma is refreshing, it is also the problem with her book.
A “proper” autobiography is interesting because its subject is interesting—if you are intrigued by Geri Halliwell, you can forgive 300-plus pages of terrible prose. An anorexic's memoir is compelling, however gross, not least because the question “To eat or not to eat?” invites some kind of conclusion. But Cherry is simply a collection of well-written personal observations. Part three—Karr's teen-drama-queen, pseudo-suicide attempt—is titled “Limbo.” In fact, the whole book seems to exist in limbo, and the “so what?” factor reigns supreme.
Halfway through, Karr inexplicably switches her narrative to the second person, perhaps to expand her coming-of-age story into a wider comment on the lifestyle and thinking of Sixties teenagers. The effect is peculiar. Having set herself up as an unusual child with an unusual story to tell, Karr cannot then leap into generational generalisations. Her attempt to do so misses out some of the most interesting aspects of her own life. She talks often about her poetry, but there is no exploration of the creative process. Instead, we get lots of stories about drugs—to appreciate which, you probably had to be there.
Cherry could be a very good book if only it had a plot. So why go for a memoir? The Liars' Club was impressive because of Karr's vivid recreation of her life aged seven. But there had to be an element of fiction—nobody, surely, remembers entire conversations verbatim. Likewise, a faithful recollection of a chunk of your life spent stoned out of your mind—which forms the latter part of Cherry—must strike some readers as a contradiction in terms.
So why not go for the time-honoured tradition of a first-time novel based on personal experience? The book might lack “authenticity”, but it would be a better read, and a greater challenge for Karr's talent and imagination.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 961
SOURCE: Woods, Vicki. “Escaping from the Boondocks.” Spectator 286, no. 9021 (30 June 2001): 42-3.
[In the following review, Woods offers a mixed assessment of Cherry and observes that the central subject of the work is not sexual awakening but rather an intellectual awakening.]
The fin-de-siècle fancy for novelised memoirs is still going strong—and very harrowing they are, too. Millions of people have read Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes and his sequel 'Tis, and the desperately gloomy A Boy Called ‘It’, and the sharply post-post-modernist A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Why though? Why? I can understand why the books are written (for closure, darlings, closure: the holy grail of modern America. There's nothing like a good sharp pen for writing of your childhood wrongs). But it's less easy to see why they're read so voraciously. Maybe we're all so smug and cheerful about our own dear home lives that we need to wallow in other folks' misery now and again, for balance.
Mary Karr's new book Cherry is the long-awaited sequel (publisher's blurb) to her dazzling memoir of five years ago, The Liars' Club, in which she described her extraordinary life as an eight-year-old in Leechfield, a horrible oil-town in the swamps of east Texas, where oil-rigs clanked day and night and Agent Orange was manufactured. ‘Described’ isn't exactly the right word—Karr seems to have climbed right back inside her eight-year-old head in order to detail the harrowing events of her young life with vivid immediacy. She was a toughie, Karr. She had to be: her mother was a ‘bohemian Scarlett O'Hara’, seven times married, prone to spectacular drinking bouts, psychotic fits and attempts at suicide. Her father was a roughhousing Texas oilman who drank when he wasn't working double shifts and whose habit of telling tall tales with his drinking buddies at the American Legion gave Karr her title. The Liars' Club got rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic, partly because the life described was so extraordinary (parental fights, desertions, deaths, sexual abuse via babysitters) and partly because Karr's prose is so terrific (tight, funny, unbelievably foul-mouthed, heavy on the vernacular).
Cherry begins with Karr running away from Leechfield at 17, in a truck packed with six boys, their surfboards and enough hallucinogens to keep everyone going until they reach Los Angeles (it is the Sixties). ‘Someone should stop that truck and the future it chugs toward,’ she writes. Because ‘before those six bodies in your company have hardened into adulthood, several will be cut down by drug-related obliterations. Two will take their own lives. Two will pull time in jail.’ She was obviously going to have to leave Leechfield, and the rest of the book charts the reasons why. Cherry is a rather sexy title, and I was expecting a rather sexy book, a coming-of-age book, as the truculent eight-year-old of The Liars' Club turns into an adolescent and works her way through junior high (11 to 16, I think). But apart from a few breathless kisses and some melting yearnings over the handsome star of the school football team, it isn't about her sexual awakening. It's tougher than that. It's about her intellectual awakening. She's going to California because she believes that the streets are ‘aswarm with long-haired boys’ who ‘subsist on brown rice and ceramic bowls of clear broth’. ‘These boys,’ she writes, ‘are not like the meat-eating, car-disembowelling, football-watching, squirrel-murdering boys you grew up dodging spitballs from.’ The boys she wants to meet live in ‘rooms lined with books’. Books are her passion. Karr wants to be a poet (packed under the surfboards are her two volumes of Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti); she scribbles poetry constantly in a notebook, she hunts poems down, she even memorises the poems she finds in exam papers.
Her un-Leechfieldlike passion for literature marks her as an outsider, especially at school. Her principal asks her sardonically how many books of poems the average American household contains. He tells her: one. And what makes her think that the one would be by her and not, say, Mr Longfellow? Even as he says the word ‘Longfellow’ she hears the opening lines from Hiawatha jogging through her brain. He tells her to drop the ‘poet thing’ and get back to maths. She'll need maths for when she has to run dinner parties for her husband, to ‘double or triple what it says in your recipes’.
It's the knowledge that this is not the future she has imagined for herself that forces Karr out of Leechfield, but the going's very hard. The book is about her drugs awakening as well (as I said, this is the Sixties), with the handful of beachbums and surfers she eventually runs away with. There are an awful lot of ‘pharmaceuticals’ in Cherry, and an awful lot of apocalyptic, drug-fuelled episodes—on the beach, in a horrible lavatory, in the ‘drugs tank’, at the local jail. The long shadow of her life in Los Angeles lies across the book, the Los Angeles that ‘is beckoning … with invisible fingers of hashish smoke’.
Mary Karr is now the Peck Professor of English at Syracuse University in upstate New York, it says on the cover flap, and is a prize-winning poet and essayist. It's a weird country, America, isn't it? Weird and marvellous—a place where you can bale yourself out both from your background in a horrible hick town and from your dragging-up in a crazily dysfunctional family. Obviously, her fierce intellect drove her out and up, but I don't see even a fierce intellect working the same trick on a girl from, say, Blackbird Leys estate. Where would she plan to escape to in Britain, in a drug-packed truck with her poetry books and six 17-year-old boys? Where is her Los Angeles? Brighton? Aberdeen?