Tropic of Squalor: Poems By Mary Karr

Tropic of Squalor: Poems
By Mary Karr
Harper, 2018

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Mary Karr is, like so few contemporary poets even try to be, a shepherd for the uninitiated. She takes the mission of Aurora Leigh seriously: the poet’s true subject is the present, with all its unromantic excesses, and not some imagined Arcadian past. The first line of her latest poetry collection, Tropic of Squalor, confirms this unembarrassed commitment to the everyday: “Forgive me, black ant at the base of my yoga mat.”

Karr’s poetry embraces candor to an unusual degree. She defended this in her 1991 essay “Against Decoration,” a thorough rebuke of the gaudy neo-formalism that was then seeing a critical revival. She takes poets like James Merrill and Amy Clampitt to task for their abuse of “two sins”: “Absence of emotion and lack of clarity.” Having written so passionately against ornamental poetry, it’s no surprise that Karr employs a Frost/Collins sort of folksiness in her poems. A simile will do where others might squeeze out fifteen lines of verbiage.

Tropic of Squalor is a peculiar book. In some sense it records Karr’s spiritual biography, beginning with her childhood along the Gulf coast and ending with her shaky embrace of the Catholic faith. But there is too much else in between, and all around, to call it simply that. The latter half of the collection is grouped together as “The Less Holy Bible,” with titles like “Genesis: Animal Planet” and “Chronicles: Hell’s Kitchen.” Stylistically and thematically the pieces have little in common besides a broad “spirituality”; the structure seems suggest a uniformity which isn’t apparent in the poems themselves, which have an impressive range.

The religiousness of Tropic of Squalor is translucent, like Karr’s own. A certain caginess gets in the way of sincere confession, starting from the dedication page: “& (wincingly enough) for Jesus.” Lines like “screw my Church who’d / roast in Hell poor suffering / bastards like you” seem more directed at salving the discomfort of some imagined unbeliever than at real feeling. The dust jacket promises a book which “never preaches,” and enriches “whether you’re an adamant atheist, a pilgrim, or skeptically curious” – things one expects to see more in a new Timothy Keller devotional. Poetry, as Karr herself admits, allows room for strange and powerful feelings; it allows her to say things like “forgive my conviction / that every suicide’s an asshole.” Why, then, so many of Tropic’s religious images are guarded or lathered in irony, is unclear.

It does work, in most cases. The short, sardonic “Wisdom: The Voice of God” imagines divine guidance as “small and fond and local”:

Don’t look for

    your initials in the geese honking

overhead or to see through the glass even

    darkly. It says the most obvious shit,

i.e. Put down that gun, you need a sandwich.

Elsewhere, in “How God Speaks,” the Almighty communicates “in sighs and inclinations leanings / The way a baby suckles breath.” This is as close as Karr brings us to the divine, but with human intimacy she is far more serious. Her portraits are stellar; the weird and tragic figures that feature in Tropic bring out the best of Karr’s colorful wit.

There are some formal quirks which sit uneasily together. Syntactically regular poems are stripped of punctuation without explanation – “bird dogs brindled / and ghost gray and copper / alert to every leaf flicker / Then Cousin Peggy…” – and followed by other, perfectly punctuated poems as though it were only an experimental blip. And Tropic’s religious tropes don’t take the awkwardness out of lines like “mine own head” and “mine throat” and “men did twist the spigots.”

Small distractions like these can spoil what are otherwise the collection’s high points. Take the opening to the second poem, “Loony Bin Basketball,” which deserves a nomination for Tautology of the Year: “The gym opened out / before us like a vast arena.” What follows is musical – “He was a lithe / and licorice boy, eeling past all comers” – which only makes the first lines’ awkwardness even stranger. Then there are Karr’s equally bizarre narrative turns. The character at the center of “Hebrews: The Mogul,” haunted by one of those “childhoods so powerful / they drag on a man’s soul like a magnet,” in the last six lines suddenly finds himself visiting the WTC at the precise date and time of the 9/11 attacks, à la “Remember Me.” It would almost make better sense if the whole thing was a dream after all.

All told, Tropic of Squalor is an oblique, disharmonious, but occasionally brilliant examination of faith in the modern world – the really modern world, the routine and familiar one, which American poets know well but few seem willing to write about. It’s occasionally preachy, and some of its notes ring sour, but Karr’s ultimate compassion for the pilgrim soul, in all its startling varieties, is commendable.

Isaac Randel is an MFA candidate at The New School. He lives in New York City.