Mary Karr, Convert
In the Oct. 23 issue of Commonweal, I reviewed Mary Karr’s third memoir, Lit. Karr, for those who don’t know, is a poet and a celebrated memoirist; her first two autobiographical books, The Liars’ Club (1995) and Cherry (2000), were bestsellers. They also set a high literary standard for memoirs of childhood and adolescence, respectively. Lit, to be published next week, is the story of her adult life: how she became a writer, how she overcame addiction, how she survived a divorce and, thanks to her relationship with her son, made peace with her own mother. What intrigued me most, however, was the story of her conversion to the Catholic faith. She first wrote about becoming a Catholic in Poetry magazine in 2005, in her irreverent and insightful essay “Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer.” (Longtime dotCommonweal readers may recall that Fr. Imbelli wrote about it here in April 2006.) That essay is a compressed account of the journey she traces in Lit, with a particular emphasis on how her experiences with poetry inform her concept of prayer, and vice versa.
“Facing Altars” is included in Karr’s 2006 volume of poetry Sinners Welcome. The poems in that collection touch on many of the themes explored in Lit (and I see a paperback edition has been prepared to coincide with the publication of the new memoir). She returns again and again to the “carnality” of the Catholic faith, the Eucharist, and the Passion, and she meditates on the Blessed Mother from her own perspective as the mother of a son. There is much to admire in that collection — Fr. Imbelli has already quoted my favorite line, from “Disgraceland”: ” You are loved, someone said. Take that / and eat it.” Still, I find I like Karr best as a writer of prose, and the part of Lit that takes us through her path to conversion is rich and deep in a way the 2006 essay only hints at. I highly recommend it.
New Yorkers can catch Mary Karr reading from Lit at the Lincoln Triangle Barnes & Noble next Tuesday, November 3. I’d like to attend, but I have a prior commitment — to my parish’s RCIA group. I’m sure she’d understand!
UPDATE: A couple more places you can find Karr’s thoughts on her craft and her faith: First, a transcript, in PDF form, from a 2007 forum at Fordham (thanks to Peggy for the link). Reading that led me to this opinion piece Karr wrote for the New York Times in 2006, after the James Frey scandal.