Chapter and Verse

Karr's pop quiz would, however, probably allow the majority of her own poems in Viper Rum to pass into print. One is about sadness. One about love. One about regret. All the narrative data are in place. The metaphors relate familiar concepts and they aren't too clever. The music, the diction, the climax--all these elements hum at low level, nothing too flashy or risky.

Even so, Karr's poems rise to take on serious matters, from suicide and haunting deaths to erotic redemption and other saving graces. Her style and sensibilities are shot through with dense music, and composed with a keen ear for consonance and internal rhymes, as in the brief poem titled "Revenge of the Ex-Mistress," which reads, in full: "Dear X--/Finally met your wife/in Beef and Beer./She hates it that you let me/pierce your ear, and time/you lost to me she guessed./Still, we fell in love./Please send her clothes/to my address. Best/wishes, no regrets--Another X."

There's an edge of iconoclasm at work in nearly all these poems, a contrariness that operates to different effect than in Karr's criticism. Here, the sacred is prey to a sort of gleeful heathenism, particularly in a series of poems sprinkled through the collection that set their captious sites on Christian dogma. In "The Wife of Jesus Speaks," she writes of the Christ's bride in reverie imagining "his hard/stalk of flesh rocking inside me" even as she bakes in the rosy caverns of hell. Elsewhere, Karr pronounces that "History is rife/with such hoaxes" as the Easter resurrection--a credo that kicks the fancy pedestal out from under a man-made God in order to bring him down to a mortal, manageable size.

The best of these poems put Karr in league with other true believers who write as if the future of American poetry depends not on bells and whistles and gaudy patinas but on the continual evocation of emotion, line by line. These writers feel their way past theory, past the lunch-hour rush for the perfect McPoem, and--as counterpoint to "Against Decoration"--offer a persuasive retort to the silly, stuffy renaissance of the new Victorianism.

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