>Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer (A Slow Spin on a Hot Spit)

>Mary Karr is one of my favorite memoirists, right up there with Ann Lamott and Haven Kimmel, who is also a poet, and Kim Michelle Richardson (and yes, she’s a poet, too). Oh and also Augusten Burroughs. So I was excited to read Karr’s book of poetry, Sinners Welcome, this past week.

Like her memoirs, Cherry and The Liar’s Club, Sinners Welcome is gritty. It doesn’t pull any punches. I find great comfort in her honesty and humility, and my faith grows as I read about her journey to God. In “Waiting For God: Self-Portrait As Skeleton,” she writes about her mother’s death, and reflects on her mother’s insane life style:

“… Was it God
who dragged her from the kitchen floor
where she’d puked and the guy had pissed himself
to detox, to a rickety chair where she eventually sat upright
with eyes clear as seawater? Yes, I said
to myself one day, kneeling, I believe
that’s right
. Then from the hard knot at my skull’s base
I felt warm oil as from a bath bead broken open
somehow flow upward to cover my skull, and my hair
came streaming down again,
and the soft clay crawled back to form my face.”

As wonderful as her poetry is, the big surprise and greatest blessing of her book, for me, turned out to be the afterword, “Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer.” Karr had been asked to write this essay for the journal, Poetry, but I missed it there, so I’m thrilled to find it in the back of this book of her own poetry. You can read the entire essay at Poetry online, here.

Karr writes about how poetry can minister to hurting, doubting souls, sometimes in ways that nothing else can. If you’re a conservative Christian and you’re reading this and thinking, “what about Scripture?” I would say to you, yes! Read the Psalms! But I would say to those creative spirits out there, that poetry can save. Or it can at least keep you from falling so deeply into the abyss that you can’t reach a hand up to God for help.

As Karr says of a particularly dark time in her life:

“In this state—what Dickinson called ‘sumptuous destitution’—prayer was a slow spin on a hot spit, but poetry could still draw me out of myself, easing my loneliness as it had since earliest kidhood. Poets were my first priests, and poetry itself my first altar…. The first source of awe for me, partly because of how it could ease my sense of isolation: it was a line thrown from seemingly glorious Others to my drear-minded self.”

Now, before you think, “Oh, no, Susan is giving up on prayer” let me just say that prayer is the singular most difficult task I have ever attempted in my life. Well, that and fasting. Well, and maybe also dispassion and moderation and sobriety, but all those are really outcomes of a life of prayer, and not ends in themselves. But back to Karr’s essay:

“But if you’re in a frame of mind gloomy enough to refuse prayer, despite its having worked bona fide miracles for you before, nothing satisfies like a dark poem. Maybe wrestling with gnarly language occupies the loud and simian chatter of a dismayed mind, but for me the relief comes to some extent form a hookup to another creature. The compassion innate in having someone—however remote—verbalize your despair or lend a form to it can salve the jibbering psyche.”

These words brought to mind my ongoing struggle with acedia. And while Norris might not have all the answers, the struggle she shares is almost enough in and of itself to cheer me in my own fight, you know?

Like Karr, I’m more often drawn to God, Church and prayer because of a great neediness or pain or suffering or anger or hurt. And like her, I’m in awe of people who are drawn to God simply to praise him. Prayer and worship are messy affairs, and our motives and brokenness are all in there together, or as Karr puts it:

“Maybe saints turn to God to exalt Him, from innate righteousness. The rest of us tend to show up holding out a tin cup…. With both prayer and poetry, we use elegance to exalt, but we also beg and grieve and tremble. We suffer with prayer and poetry alike. Boy, do we suffer.”

There’s a simplicity in Karr’s writing that reminds me of Ann Lamott, especially in her memoir, Grace Eventually. They both surprised their friends by turning to God for help with their addictions. Lamott would pray, in the face of temptations to drink, use, or abuse alcohol, drugs or food, “Help me, Help me, Help me!” and then when the help came, she would pray, “Thank you, Thank you, Thank you!”

Karr “starting kneeling to pray morning and night—spitefully at first, in a bitter pout. The truth is, I still very much fancied the idea that glugging down Jack Daniel’s would stay my turmoil….. Ergo, I prayed—not with the misty-eyed glee I’d seen on Song of Berndette…. I prayed with belligerence, at least once with a middle finger aimed at the light fixture—my own small unloaded bazooka pointed at the Almighty. I said Keep me sober, in the morning. I said, Thanks, at night.”

Reading these words I was, of course, turning the pages quickly to see if it “worked.” And I read on:

“And though I’d been bouncing on and off the wagon for a few years, unable to give up booze for more than a period of weeks (with and without the help of other human beings), I didn’t pick up a drink. Which seemed—to one who’d studied positivism and philosophy of science in college—a psychological payoff to the dumb process of getting on my knees twice a day to talk to myself.”

So, her volume of poetry, Sinners Welcome, is shot through with poems about Christ but also with transparent broken humanity. As she says, about the volume:

“My new aesthetic struggle is to accommodate joy as part of my literary enterprise, but I still tend to be a gloomy and serotonin-challenged bitch.”

I’m so thankful to have discovered Mary Karr, the woman, the poet, the writer, the mother, the struggler to whom I can relate. Like her, I want my work to be infused with light:

“Having devoted the first half of my life to the dark, I feel obliged to locate any pinpoint of light now. And writing this essay did fling open a window so some column of sun shone down on me again. When I hit my knees again during Lent, I felt God’s sturdy presence, and I knew right off it wasn’t God who’d checked out in the first place…. That’s why I pray and poetize: to be able to see my brothers and sister despite my own (often petty) agonies, to partake of the majesty that’s every sinner’s birthright.

HELL’S KITCHEN
JULY 2005”

So here I am in “Nativity Lent” and what book am I choosing for my spiritual reading? Karr’s new memoir, “Lit,” which I started on last night. Stay tuned for a review in a few weeks.

And if you ‘re looking for some poetry for yourself or to give as Christmas gifts, I highly recommend Sinners Welcome, as well as these great books of poetry:

Scott Cairns’ Compass of Affection

Beth Ann Fennelly’s Unmentionables

Anne Fisher-Wirth’s Five Terraces

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