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  • Pathetic Sacrifice:Christian Love in the Poetry of Mary Karr, as Found in Sinners Welcome
  • Bruno M. Shah, OP (bio)

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all consolation, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. . . . If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation.

(2 Cor 1:3–6)

This article aims to uncover and assess the descending theology of love in Sinners Welcome (2006), the most recent collection of poems by Mary Karr.1 A reading that is specifically theological will help to articulate how Karr's poetry—in its unity of subject matter and style—is a dynamic reflection on the mystery of Christian love. I will draw fundamental insights for this project from Pope Benedict XVI's encyclical on Christian love, Deus caritas est (2006).2

I. Proem: Poetry and Theological Reflection

Karr's work has been widely praised in the contemporary literary scene. Her best selling The Liars' Club (1995) is considered to have helped rejuvenate the memoir genre. And her award-winning verse harks back to this country's tradition of confessional poetry. [End Page 112] Widespread acclaim for Karr indicates that her work resonates with current sensibilities. She is also a Roman Catholic convert, which may help to account for significant parallels between Sinners Welcome and the understanding of love in part I of Deus caritas est. All things considered, the poetry of Mary Karr merits critical attention from a Christian perspective.

To be sure, Sinners Welcome is not theology in the classical or academic sense and poetry is not wholly amenable to theological science. Indeed, it can even be argued that critical analysis per se tends to corrupt the experience of art, subjugating one's perception of creative expression to reason. But the significant motifs in Karr's poetry—self-knowledge, conversion, love, mother-child relationship, communion, suffering, and death—all summon the reader's theological reflection, and perhaps designedly so. More objectively, five poems on the mysteries of Christ are, by their very titles, instances of what Karr calls "descending theology." Each poem runs under that title followed by a subtitle: "The Nativity," "Christ Human," "The Garden," "The Crucifixion," and "The Resurrection." A certain theological intellectus is at work in Karr's poetry, and one's appreciation of her artistic and spiritual sensus cannot but benefit from a theological reading.

Karr, who tends toward the bombastic and graphic, is apt to shock and offend some readers with her occasionally perverse and unlikely references. Nevertheless and more importantly, her work poignantly expresses what Benedict lucidly teaches—that "the love which God mysteriously and graciously offers to man" forges an "intrinsic link between that Love and the reality of human love" (n. 1). The poet certainly believes that love is the fundamental desire of the human person. Whether or not she intends them as such, images of eros and agape are prominent in Sinners Welcome. More specifically, Karr's poems confess both the painful insufficiency of erotic love and the consummating succor of agapic love.

However, Sinners Welcome seems to lack reference to the self-sacrificial aspect of agape. Absolute eschewal of this matter would [End Page 113] be theologically problematic: Self-sacrifice is crucially instrumental to the nature of Christian love. Nevertheless, it will be found that there is no attenuation of love's Christian significance in Karr's poems. Because she uses her own experiences of sin and salvation for her aesthetic matter, her poetry as such bears the graced valence of Christian self-sacrifice. In other words, the confessional craft that is Sinners Welcome is itself a sacrificial offering of theological charity.

II. The Fundamental Desire for Love

Perhaps the most significant trope in Sinners Welcome is that of the "face." Facial glances abound—faces of a deceased mother, of past lovers, of Christ, and of the poet's self. The face is a natural synecdoche for the person: although a part, it is emblematic of the whole. Moreover, faces evoke the...


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