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Tropic of Squalor

May 8, 2018

Mary Karr has a new volume of poems out today, Tropic of Squalor, and HarperCollins sent me an advance copy. I had read a few of her poems before, but was unacquainted with her memoirs. Now, in the wake of Karr’s weekend Twitter thread and Jezebel’s ensuing article, I know more about her and David Foster Wallace than I ever needed to.

This is to say that I came to her poems about her father (“Illiterate Progenitor”), famous poets she knew (“The Age of Criticism”), and David Foster Wallace (“Read These”) without preconceptions and loved them. Even now I think they stand alone.

The last stanza of “Illiterate Progenitor” reminds me of the two-item list in Stanley Plumly’s “Sonnet,” about his father: “He could lift his own weight above his head/He could run a furrow straight by hand.” Karr’s stanza is about food rather than strength, but it seems similarly arbitrary in its brevity:
“He took his smoke unfiltered, milk unskimmed.
He liked his steaks marbled, fatback on mustard greens,
onions eaten like apples, split turnips dipped
into rock salt, hot pepper vinegar on black beans.”

As any reviewer does, I love poems about criticism, so I was predisposed to enjoy reading “The Age of Criticism” even before I realized that I knew about the poets the speaker is discussing. When I read about “Deborah” who was “slim in oxblood riding boots,/she wore a near see-through black silk blouse/with loose coils of red hair tumbling down the back,” I thought of Deborah Digges, the then-wife of Stanley Plumly who I met at parties at the University of Maryland around 1985. And then I realized that the guy named Franz she had been talking about was someone who once left a nasty comment on this blog, years ago, when the speaker says:
“nobody invited Franz
anywhere for years before cancer took him,
though we often emailed each other his crisp,
venomous posts to reviewers. Everybody
claimed to forgive Franz because his father
bailed and his stepdad beat him. And critics
hoping to stave off one of his nasty, articulate

rants persisted on calling him a genius because, hey,
what if he was? But we all thought him an asshole”

The poem about David Foster Wallace, “Read These,” is elegiac, perhaps not what you’d expect if you came to it after reading the poet’s tweets about how she doesn’t want to be known only for her relationship with him:

The King did say
and his arm sweeps the landscape’s foliage into bloom
where he hath inscribed the secret mysteries of his love
before at last taking himself away. His head away. His
recording hand. So his worshipful subjects must imagine
themselves in his loving fulfillment, who were no more
than instruments of his creation. Pawns.
Apparati. Away, he took himself and left us
studying the smudged sky. Soft pencil lead.

Once he was not a king, only a pale boy staring down
from the high dive. The contest was seriousness
he decided, who shaped himself for genus genius
and nothing less. Among genii, whoever dies first wins.
Or so he thought. He wanted the web browsers to ping
his name in literary mention nonstop on the world wide web.

He wanted relief from his head, which acted as spider
and inner web weaver. The boy was a live thing tumbled in
its thread and tapped and fed off, siphoned from. His head
kecked back and howling from inside the bone castle from
whence he came
to hate the court he held.

His loneliness was an invisible crown
rounding his brow tighter than any turban,
more binding than a wedding band,
and he sat becircled by his tower
on the rounding earth.

Read these,
did say the King, and put down his pen, hearing
himself inwardly holding forth on the dullest
aspects of the tax code
with the sharpest possible wit. Unreadable
as Pound on usury or Aquinas on sex.

I know the noose made an oval portrait frame for his face.
And duct tape around the base of the Ziploc
bag was an air-tight chamber
for the regal head—most serious relic,
breathlessly lecturing in the hall of silence.

Some of the poems in the volume are timely, like her poem about the town near Houston where “the oil barons too smart to live here would/as soon snuff us out as look at us.”

A few sound querulous, as if the world is changing too fast for the speaker, who in “Discomfort Food for the Unwhole” doesn’t like to see people in the check-out line at the grocery store with “each head bent over a shining phone” and in “The Like Button” imagines that “we may evolve/a glow button maybe mid brow,/so as we pass each other we can vote/praise or scorn.”

For the most part, though, this is a brilliant volume, full of images and metaphors as compelling as when, in “Obadiah: A Perfect Mess,” there is an “insignificant miracle: in one instant every black/umbrella in Hell’s Kitchen opened on cue, everyone/still moving. It was a scene from an unwritten opera,/the sails of some vast armada.”

You don’t have to know the characters to enjoy the volume, but it can add a little extra something if you do.


6 Comments leave one →
  1. the other theo permalink
    May 8, 2018 2:46 pm

    There’s a comment on the Jezebel article in regard to how people like D.T. Max used a different measure for the conduct of David Foster Wallace and other male “geniuses” that says “That is the typical portrayal of fictional geniuses too. Usually some House/Holmes type that people only tolerate because they are gifted.”
    To which I say, ummm no. Sherlock Holmes may have not been much on small talk, but he did NOT stalk and beat on women. He would probably have tried to kick the ass of a man who did so in his presence.

    • May 10, 2018 11:15 am

      Many people do tolerate unmannerly behavior from people who are exceptional in some way. But, as I think you’re pointing out, being unmannerly is different from assaulting someone.

  2. the other theo permalink
    May 8, 2018 2:51 pm

    I think the Australian band This Is Serious Mum had the right idea:

  3. the other theo permalink
    May 8, 2018 3:51 pm

    These lines made me think of an article I read this week about Kanye West:

    “And critics
    hoping to stave off one of his nasty, articulate

    rants persisted on calling him a genius because, hey,
    what if he was? But we all thought him an asshole”

    • May 10, 2018 11:17 am

      I can see that, although I think Franz Wright was much more articulate.

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