Sinners Welcome

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

Mary Karr’s fourth collection of poetry, Sinners Welcome, offers a wide range of poems that reflect on the life of Jesus Christ as well as on that of the persona, her family, and her friends. As a Catholic poet, Karr seeks to express the idea of the grace of God through her lyrics and showcase how God’s grace has touched human lives. Her poems express how God loves everybody from his own son to all people, including her persona and her immediate family and her friends. Karr’s poetic voice is direct and fresh. She avoids arcane literary allusions in favor of an emotional appeal to the soul and heart of her readers.

As she writes in her afterword, “Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer,” Karr states that the poem that gave her collection its title, “Sinners Welcome,” comes from a banner hung from the Catholic Church of Saint Lucy’s in Syracuse, New York. This was the church she attended when she became a Catholic as an adult.

The title poem tells of a direct experience of the persona with Jesus Christ. The persona confesses that he lit up her heart. She recollects her amazement that he knelt in front of her, rather than vice versa. In turn, she likens the Christian Savior to the classical Greek hero of Ulysses who defied false pagan gods and the temptations of the flesh. She expresses wonder that he should arrive in her world. The poem ends with the persona’s experience of a close union with Jesus that brings her much longed for joy.

The five interspersed poems of Sinners Welcome that deal with the life of Jesus relate to his life from the Nativity to the Resurrection. Ironically, Karr calls these poems “Descending Theology,” in direct allusion to Christ’s descent to earth. “Descending Theology: The Nativity” poetically describes Christ’s birth in naturalistic images drawn from the biological experience of childbirth. Mary may feel her baby move in the womb, and after the pains of labor delivers “a sticky grub” all too human. The sleeping baby appears to know little of his eventual destiny.

The second poem in Karr’s pentalogy on the life of Christ, “Descending Theology: Christ Human,” is also dedicated to an admired friend of the author. In succinct images, the poet describes Christ’s brief mission on earth as he preaches his love for all who surrender to him.

“Descending Theology: The Garden” lyrically evokes the crisis of confidence at the beginning of the Passion of Christ as he realizes his fate ordained by his Father. The poem stresses the human side of Christ, who begs for a reprieve. Karr’s moving lines express how Jesus feels loneliness as all his disciples are at sleep in the olive garden where he comes to accept his destiny. Perhaps to stress historical continuity from this biblical event far into Western Christian culture, Karr mixes in some allusions to a classic of Western literature, William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet (pr. c. 1600-1601). Regarding Judas’s betrayal of Jesus, the poem states, “The dark prince had poured the vial of poison/ into the betrayer’s ear” just as Hamlet’s uncle Claudius poured poison into Hamlet’s father’s ear to kill him. The poem argues that Christ “prayed for the pardon/ of Judas,” insisting that Jesus loved even those whose fate it was to deliver Him to the forces of evil.

“Descending Theology: The Crucifixion” confronts the reader with starkly realistic lines. Here Karr utilizes contemporary biological knowledge of how this ancient penalty physically brought death to the thusly condemned through eventual collapse of the lungs. Somewhat colloquially and perhaps too irreverently for some readers, Karr calls Christ’s body on the cross “a sack of flesh” but concludes with the biblical image of a “rent sky” at the moment of Jesus’ death.

Finally, Karr’s poem “Descending Theology: The Resurrection” tells of Christ’s death on the cross and how, in “the corpse’s core,” his heart begins to beat again. Resurrected, the poem suggests, Christ offers rebirth from a life of sin to all who follow him. At the poem’s end, Karr deftly combines images of baptismal water with a woman’s water breaking at the moment she gives birth to her baby. This poetically showcases the Christian belief of a second birth in Christ through the act of baptism.

Beyond the five poems telling of Jesus’ life, Sinners Welcome focuses on the life of the persona and her relationship with her deceased mother and her son’s growing up. Poems also deal with the multifarious...

(The entire section is 1880 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

The Atlantic Monthly 294, no. 4 (November, 2004): 129.

Cunneen, Sally. “Mary Karr: Sharing the Shock of Reality.” National Catholic Reporter 42, no. 42 (September 29, 2006): 18-19. Substantial discussion of the importance of poetry and Christianity in Karr’s life; analyzes some of the poems in Sinners Welcome and provides biographical background based on a personal interview with Karr.

Musgrove, Laurence. “Sinners Welcome.” Christianity and Literature 55, no. 4 (Summer, 2006): 618-621. Discusses relationship of the book cover’s neon cross with its contemporary religious content, offers intelligent analysis of key poems, and reflects on Karr’s concluding essay.

The New York Times Book Review 155 (April 30, 2006): 17.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 50 (December 19, 2005): 42.

Ratner, Rochelle. “Karr, Mary. Sinners Welcome.” Review of Sinners Welcome. Library Journal 131, no. 1 (January 1, 2006): 122-123. Concise review focusing on the violence apparent in some of Karr’s poems. Briefly places the book in the context of spiritual poetry in English.