On Keeping it Going:
A review of Viper Rum, by Mary Karr
In Mary Karr’s book, Viper Rum, readers are once again held against the knife’s bright edge. The poet has a reputation for presenting work that asks more from her readers than most poetry— to surrender a piece of themselves to her potent images, bone-sawing language, and always startling intimacy. Viper Rum is an incredibly demanding book— you’re guaranteed to take one on the chin, and frequently you’ll be kicked when you’re down.
The books opening lines might as well be a warning of what is to come: “All day we had run-ins with jungle snakes.” Every poem, to use the phrase from the title piece, is “hatching snakes.” Not surprisingly, they are the most venomous pythons, each threatening death from drink, cervical dilator and uterine currette, or crucifixion. The poems find resonance with each other, as words are repeated throughout the book, the sounds of “hissing,” the suffocation of a “cage,” “juniper” and “gin,” eyes stinging and “scalded of sight” or “unblinking.”
But the poems do not resist hope entirely—many of them uncage and rise with a “fiery mist.” In many of the more hopeful poems, Karr devotes most of her lines to the dark, gritty, and terminal life of addiction, but the moment before the poem’s doors shut, the reader is lightened by the “tired souls that could not stop rising.”
In the poem Limbo: Altered States, we get a taste for that furious threat of addiction. The poem begins with the speaker imagining dying in a bomb blast while flying in an airplane, but quickly reminds us how easy lingering on death demands some kind of straining toward comfort and escape:
And there’s the sliver liquor cart jangling
its thousand bells, the perfect doses
of juniper gin and oak-flavored scotch
The liquor cart, with its perfectly measured bottles of antidote, is headed right for the speaker, but brushes past as she slips into the reasons why she has to let it go:
I don’t miss drinking, don’t miss
driving into shit with more molecular density
More powerfully, this image has a counterpoint that helps to balance its strong negation and impregnates the poem with a compassionate human texture:
But I miss
the aftermath, the pure simplicity:
mouth parched, head hissing static.
How little I asked of myself then—to suck
the next breath, suffer the next heave, live
Then, returning to the cabin of the jumbo jet, Karr delivers us from her imagination, but not before reminding us of that familiar weight experienced as the body readjusts to the sea-level atmosphere. “Sometimes landing the head’s pressure’s enormous,” begins the final stanza, as the spirited cloud-life of flight touches down to the stony earth:
When my plane tilts down, houses grow large, streets
lose their clear geometry. The leafy earth soon fills my portal,
and in the gray graveyard of cars, a stick figure
becomes my son in royal blue cap flapping his arms
as if to rise. Thank god for our place
in this forest of forms, for the gravitas
that draws me back to him, and for how lightly
lightly I touch down.
This is an example of one of the more unburdening poems, the touch of lightness we all deserve but rarely feel, as the earth, growing large in our windows, seems only a massive rock of weight. But contrast that with another poem, Dead Drunk (or the Monster-Maker at Work), and you experience that prison-heavy, ball-and-chain effect, of the work as a whole. It opens with “Tom” passed out behind a bar in a pile of snow, and tells of the frostbite and consequence of his addiction: “But once the surgeon sawed away/ his frost-black hand and feet, / Tom could no longer stand”. But Karr doesn’t stop by demonizing his drunkenness, instead, she reminds us how deeply human the situation is by reminding readers of the lusty sexuality that inhabits all of us, with the line continuing, “nor hold a doorknob, / nor, when lonely, fondle his lower parts.” The poem is powerful and convicting. Karr manages this conviction, after telling of Tom sent to rehab and then released, of Tom back out in the world, begging enough “to keep a pint between his knees,” asking the reader to consider their own part in Tom’s death. After a medic comes to Tom’s side, drunk once again, and the medic doesn’t mind “Tom’s pants were wet”, we are shown our own involvement:
was all the grace there was, unless you count
the patient janitor who once stubbed out his smokes,
other maniacs who cut his meat, the coroner
who shook her head and said, please God, above the corpse.
And you, dear reader, if you drove past
Tom’s original post in the snow, you might have stopped
and heaved him up whole.
But for Karr your involvement is not enough, “That tale’s / unwrit: We cannot make it so.” Like the thief who teases Jesus at the crucifixion there is no paradise for Tom, “So let us stand in company and grieve that fact.”
Viper Rum is an honest telling of addiction, death, and grace. In it, people, speakers, and bystanders are all linked into the network of our grizzly life. And at the center of that life is human longing. Animistic Anatomy, if you’d like, a more hopeful poem, reminds the reader of their fiery soul, even Tom’s fiery soul. The speaker, imagining her after-death autopsy, shows us a horrid depiction of the body being violated “by the undertaker’s whirling saw”, but says “I only shine inside at death.” But the speaker, still alive, maybe Karr herself, anticipates that death as, no matter how gore-filled and final, a breach, the soul’s rupture into the unnamable:
How I long to be opened
and laid bare this way, weighed and measured,
illumined, my soul at last uncaged from ribs, rising.
This rising is what the book is truly about, the journey of the poet going from dead drunk on the bathroom floor, “shirtless/ in flimsy underpants”, to the woman she becomes, we all become, in the final poem, Chosen Blindness, when she reunites with her son, ends up in a church, singing from a hymnal:
underling each word as we struggle
to match up our voices, hold the beat,
find the pattern emerging, feel the light
that glows in our chest, keep it going.