You'd think a poet's discipline -- all that incising, sharpening, carving away -- would automatically make him or her a tidy, evocative prose stylist, but that isn't always the case. Sometimes when poets turn to prose, they churn out paragraphs that resemble dense thickets of metaphor, their occasional flashes of beauty choked off by too many rich words circling and closing in. That certainly wasn't the case with Mary Karr, a poet who first earned notoriety with a steely, moving (and bestselling) memoir, The Liar's Club. If a poet can write prose like that, the next question -- at least for those who, after reading the memoir, didn't seek out Karr's earlier work -- is, What are her poems like?
Viper Rum, a trim collection of poems topped off by an essay decrying the new formalism in poetry, reads like a shot, suggesting that for Karr, the disciplines that go into shaping poetry and writing prose interlock naturally without jostling or bumping elbows. Karr isn't one of those dreadful poets whose lines announce, with a superior sniff, how positively in love they are with the nuances of language. Instead she just digs right in up to her elbows, with poems about the jagged sense of loss after the death of a parent (and the slow drift of pain that often comes before), about keeping ourselves together against the tragedies we sometimes manufacture for ourselves, about the seemingly small challenges, like not drinking, that in some lives rear up with a repetitive fury.
The title poem outlines a jungle adventure in which someone catches a python; afterward, in the local watering hole, the proprietress celebrates by breaking out a bottle of rum as the snake sits nearby, curled up in a big jar. "Shot glasses went round. The lid unscrewed/let out some whiff of Caribbean herb/that promised untold mystery unfolding in your head./The python's lidless eyes were white, mouth/O-shaped, perfect for a cocktail straw, I thought." That the shot of rum is refused by the narrator isn't the issue -- there's no sanctimony here. The poem ends with the simple phrase "The jungle hummed" -- a suggestion of both its dangers and its beauty, and a wholehearted acceptance of both.
Viper Rum is one of those books for modern people who are scared of poetry (you know who you are). Even if you don't particularly respond to the humor, the aggressive vitality or the hovering veil of despair in Karr's work, it's easy enough to admire her devotion to clarity. In "Against Decoration," the essay that closes the book, Karr makes the case that strict adherence to formal structure and overuse of metaphor don't do modern poetry any favors, sapping emotion from it and obscuring needlessly what the poet really means to say. It's a fearless essay, the literary equivalent of sassin' back, as Karr pokes and prods at the work of James Merrill, Amy Clampitt and other poets who generally tend to get the white-glove treatment. Karr goes at them with the gloves off, and you get the sense that when she sits down to her own poetry, she attacks it in the same way, bare-fisted and two-fisted. The careful crafting essential to decent poetry is there, but Karr also seems to know that sometimes no amount of fussing will cause the words to fall in just the right order. Sometimes you just have to knock them into shape. -- Salon
It takes hubris to preface a negative critique of one's contemporaries with 45 pages of one's own verse, but Karr is a strong enough writer to pull it off. The Liar's Club (Viking, 1995), her best-selling memoir of growing up in Texas, is credited with having revived a genre; her third collection takes readers over much of the same autobiographical terrain-family, broken relationships, alcoholism, and suicide. This is confessional writing that conjures up the physical world: "On the mudroad of plodding American bodies/ my son wove like an antelope from stall/ to stall and want to want. I no'ed it all." The clarity and passion here are what Karr finds lacking in the overelaborate work of some of her colleagues, as she explains in the essay "Against Decoration," which first appeared in the journal Parnassus. Sharp and well written, it attacks, unfairly at times, the so-called neoformalists, language poets, James Merrill, Amy Clampitt, and John Ashbery (readers may wonder what Karr makes of Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, or Lewis Carroll). Ironically, one of the best poems here, about a Stairmaster, is almost Merrill-esque. Highly recommended anyway.--Ellen Kaufman, Dewey Ballantine Law Lib., New York
Readers of The Liars' Club will find poetic versions of some of the same autobiographical material.
[A] terrific, plot-driven collection concerning themes that include alcoholism, religious belief, death, love, family, salvation, transformation....One cannot help but cheer.
Karr's grim wit and compressed, charged language seldom fail in Viper Rum's twenty-nine poems.
The poems of Viper Rum may be blunt for bluntness' sake, but they are not exploitative.
The Georgia Review
"A terrific, plot-driven collection...incisive, idiosyncratic, whetted to an edge, and often funny."