Mary Karr

To Understand the Meek

A poem and an excerpt from an essay by Mary Karr from Sinners Welcome:

Who the Meek are Not

          Not the bristle-bearded Igors bent

under burlap sacks, not peasants knee-deep

          in the rice paddy muck,

not the serfs whose quarter-moon sickles

          make the wheat fall in waves

they don’t get to eat. My friend the Franciscan

          nun says we misread

the word meek in the Bible verse that blesses them.

          To understand the meek

(she says) picture a great stallion at full gallop

          in a meadow, who—

at his master’s voice—seizes up to a stunned

          but instant halt.

So with the strain of holding that great power

          in check, the muscles

along the arched neck eddying,

          and only the velvet ears

prick forward, awaiting the next order.

Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer 

To confess my unlikely Catholicism in Poetry—the journal that first published some of the godless twentieth-century disillusionaries of J. Alfred Prufrock and his pals—feels like an act of perversion kinkier than any dildo-wielding dominatrix could manage on HBO’s Real Sex Extra. I can’t even blame it on my being a cradle Catholic, some brainwashed escapee of the pleated skirt and communion veil who—after a misspent youth and facing an Eleanor Rigby-like dotage—plodded back into the confession booth some rainy Saturday.

Not victim but volunteer, I converted in 1996 after a lifetime of undiluted agnosticism. Hearing about my baptism, a friend sent me a postcard that read, “Not you on the Pope’s team. Say it ain’t so!” Well, while probably not the late Pope’s favorite Catholic (nor he my favorite Pope), I took the blessing and ate the broken bread. And just as I continue to live in America and vote despite my revulsion for many U.S. policies, I continue to take the sacraments despite my fervent aversion to certain doctrines. Call me a cafeteria Catholic if you like, but to that I’d say, Who isn’t?

Make Room

Incant Against Suicide
by Mary Karr, from Viper Rum

Buy neither gun nor blue-edged blade.
Avoid green rope, high windows, rat
poison, cobra pits, and the long vanishing point
of train tracks that draw you to horizon's razor.

Only this way will another day refine you.  (Natural death's
no oxymoron) Your head's a bad neighborhood:
Don't go there alone, even if you have to stop
strangers to ask the way, and even if

spiders fall from your open mouth.
This talk's their only exit.  How else
would their scramble from your skull

escape?  You must make room first
that the holy spirits might enter.  Empty
yourself of self, then kneel down to listen.

To Practice Hope

Chosen Blindness
by Mary Karr, from Viper Rum


Viper RumI was blind to flowers for one thing.
Picture a meadow stitched with dandelion,
those seed stalks whose tall white heads

poke up like ancestral ghosts
(pale auroras of wisdom), but profligate,
the fluff shot through with brown seeds

that others might follow. I never saw it,
just fixed on my own death, sat on the sofa
ingesting poison, looked out

at the rectangular field as if it were a postcard
from some foreign land, useless, already cancelled.
I sucked streams of gray smoke down my lungs

to blacken me deeper. The embroidery sampler I did in x’s
read BAD NEWS. The butterless popcorn I ate
was a bowl full of spiders. Skinny?

My skeleton forced itself forward. No word
of praise passed my lips though a million breaths
moved through me. That’s what human bodies do, keep

breathing, no matter the venom their brains manufacture.


Now I go to church. Who’d think it?
We stand in rows, like graves, I’d once have thought,
like herd beasts lined up for slaughter. Now I notice

our bodies bend in the same places. We form the same angles.
To sing together, we have to breathe in unison,
draw the same air into the dark meat of our bodies

as if it actually were spiritu sancti and ourselves
that spirit incarnate. Every now and then,
a toddler bolts up the main aisle, pursued

by a lumbering adult. Babies list
in sloping arms and toothless grin.
The old lean on canes

and chrome walkers set down slow. People
pause to let them pass. Always a list of dead is read,
always the sick are mentioned so your own aches

seem aggressively minor. My forebears
forebore this way, in company. Bread fed them,
and they had to practice hope to keep

plowing up the Dust Bowl’s
starved earth in rows, year
after fruitless year, till the cotton came back.


At the end of my drinking,
I coiled a garden hose in the back of my station wagon
and set off driving to a town

called Marblehead to breathe in the cool
exhaust and thus stop thoughts from streaming
through my mind like bad current.

I’d left my infant son a note, glowing green
on my computer screen, how he’d be
better off. Now a column of sun

through high windows shines
on his blond head. His hand
holds half our hymnal, index finger

underlining each word as we struggle
to match up our voices, hold the beat,
find the pattern emerging, feel the light

that glows in our chests, keep it going.

for Dev Milburn