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.