Sinners Welcome Summary
Mary Karr’s poems in her collection Sinners Welcome approach their often deeply personal or biblical subjects from a clear, contemporary Christian perspective. Although her poems show occasional quibbling with official Catholic doctrine and use a casual and sometimes irreverent language toward biblical themes, Karr decisively sees herself as a Catholic poet.
The story of Karr’s conversion to Catholicism at age forty is rendered in the title poem “Sinners Welcome.” As the author writes in her essay “Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer,” which is included as afterword to her poems, the phrase comes from a banner hung over the entrance of Saint Lucy’s Catholic Church in Syracuse, New York, where Karr embraced her new faith. It is in this church that the persona of the title poem opens her heart to Jesus’ love.
Before the clearly autobiographical persona’s conversion and even after, many poems in the collection tell of her spiritual agonies when faced with the sadness, chaos, violence, and tragedy of contemporary human life. Throughout these poems, the spiritual despair of the persona is expressed with great emotion and with lyrics of personal directness. Yet there is always the insistence, even if sometimes very subtle, that Jesus has provided an answer to human despondency. “Disgraceland” tells of the persona’s four decades of rejecting Jesus who nevertheless “always stood/ to one side with a glass of water” while she was suffering, but she admits that she “swatted” him away for a long time.
Interspersed throughout Sinners Welcome, there is a series of five poems called “Descending Theology” that tell of the birth, life, betrayal, passion, and resurrection of Jesus. Derived from the author’s meditations along Jesuit precepts, the five poems retell key biblical stories with lyrics built on a modern combination of naturalism and spiritualism. Here, the voice of the persona is casual and sometimes irreverent, but her trust that the biblical message is still true in the contemporary world comes across as completely genuine.
Many of Karr’s poems deal with the persona’s attempt to reconcile herself, to a great part out of Christian charity, with her deceased, highly idiosyncratic mother, who was an atheist artist. In “Pathetic Fallacy,” like some related poems, the persona uses irony and sarcasm to describe the irrefutable fact that she can no longer communicate normally with her dead mother, who has been cremated. Yet on a spiritual level, she can still feel her mother’s guardian presence. Other poems forgive the mother for once having planned to abort her unborn daughter (“Coat Hanger Bent into Halo”) or to have almost attacked her with a knife when she was five. In the later instance, told in “Overdue Pardon for Mother with Knife,” the persona praises God who stopped her mother’s hand before she struck her terrified child.
Subject of another cycle of interspersed poems is the persona’s relationship with her son, who has grown up from a helpless baby to a college-bound teenager. In “Son’s Room,” the persona tells how the very dependency of her baby boy saved her from losing herself in a drunken stupor, subtly alluding to the power of the infant Jesus.
In “Pluck,” the persona observes with obvious irony how her responsibility for her young boy in the midst of financial distress moved her closer to God:
I developed pluck—a trait much praised in Puritan texts, which favor the spiritual...
(The entire section is 886 words.)