In a spiritual companion to her last poetry collection, Sinner's Welcome, Mary Karr delivers Tropic of Squalor, a compact exploration of the emotional complexities of divine devastation. In the first half, it covers the full range of secular religiosity, from an apology to the unseen creatures we kill every day, to a breathless prayer for David Foster Wallace. The second half tracks an exodus to New York City and explores the surprisingly divine corners found there. Meditations on the daily grandeur of cello songs ("Psalms: Carnegie Hall Rush Seats") and conference room projectors ("Hebrews: The Mogul") build to a crescendo of post-9/11 horrors ("Lamentations: The More Deceived").
As in her previous poetry collections, Karr embraces the majesty of religious devotion to capture the minute sublimity of a tangible world. In "How God Speaks," she worships the "cashmere flesh" of a lover, while in "Psalms: Carnegie Hall Rush Seats" she praises the moment when "the cello is taken/ into someone's arms, taken between/ spread legs and lured into/ its shivering." Such poems showcase Karr's strength in capturing emotional imagery, but also her ability to show reverence for the irreverent. An expert in tone, Karr never allows the weight of her subject matter to overcome her dexterous wit, nor does she give her wit permission to undermine its subject matter. Such a dual talent proves fundamental as Karr wrestles with the past in order to pray for the future, hoping for the possibility of "the forever disposed transforming." --Alice Martin, freelance writer and editor