Mary Karr

1 post

Poets Who Mine the Past

mary karr

If there’s one endless source of material for poetry—a treasure chest available to every poet—it’s the past. Granted, some pasts are more dramatic than others; and granted, some poets over-indulge in their treasure chests to the point where readers want to enter a reading monastery on a program of self-imposed poverty, BUT it can be done with aplomb and class, too.

One “memoir-ish” poem that appeals to writers especially is Mary Karr’s (herself famous for writing book-length memoirs) “Revelations in the Key of K.” To understand the poem, a little background knowledge helps–namely, that this poet has made a career out of writing (as opposed to used it as a sideline avocation to dabble in).

Let’s look at the poem and how she puts the letter “K” to good use, making it earn its living by working overtime:

“Revelation in the Key of K”
by Mary Karr

I came awake in kindergarten,   
under the letter K chalked neat   
on a field-green placard leaned   
on the blackboard’s top edge. They’d caged me   
in a metal desk—the dull word writ   
to show K’s sound. But K meant kick and kill
when a boy I’d kissed drew me   
as a whiskered troll in art. On my sheet,   
the puffy clouds I made to keep rain in   
let torrents dagger loose. “Screw those   
who color in the lines,” my mom had preached,   
words I shared that landed me on a short chair   
facing the corner’s empty, sheetrock page. Craning up,   
I found my K high above.   
You’ll have to grow to here, its silence said.   
And in the surrounding alphabet, my whole life hid—  
names of my beloveds, sacred vows I’d break.   
With my pencil stub applied to wall,   
I moved around the loops and vectors,   
Z to A, learning how to mean, how   
in the mean world to be.   
But while I worked the room around me   
began to smudge—like a charcoal sketch my mom   
was rubbing with her thumb. Then   
the instant went, the month, and every season   
smeared, till with a wrenching arm tug   
I was here, grown, but still bent   
to set down words before the black eraser   
swipes our moment into cloud, dispersing all   
to zip. And when I blunder in the valley   
of the shadow of blank about to break   
in half, my being leans against my spinal K,   
which props me up, broomstick straight,   
a strong bone in the crypt of meat I am.

Me, I like the poem’s playfulness up top with the kindergarten class, the alphabet on the placard, how she uses the letter for vengeful purposes (“kick and kill“) when a boy uses his artistic talents to make a troll of her.  I also like the cameo by her irreverent mom.

Two of my favorite lines are “And in the surrounding alphabet, my whole life hid– / names of my beloveds, sacred vows I’d break.” This is what good poetry does–thinks of the ordinary in a different way. Thus, to have a child look at an A to Z placard running along the top of a blackboard and consider that these letters have the power to mix in different ways, creating words, which in turn will create sentences, which in turn will create paragraphs and paragraphs chronicling the child’s secret futures. Nice, that. The power of the written word, yes, but from a new angle!

The poem turns when the artwork smudges and the daydream dissipates as the poet comes out of her reverie as an adult, doing the same thing, working to make meaning with language and letters. We get a Biblical allusion (“And when I blunder in the valley / of the shadow of blank about to break / in half”), referring to the struggle of every writer before Karr puts her special letter to work one last time (“my being leans against my spinal K, / which props me up, broomstick straight, / a strong bone in the crypt of meat I am.”).

The poem finishes with a flourish, with that powerful image of strength hidden within the vulnerable and mortal bodies we cart around for a lifetime. Her strength, her lifeline, her sanity all come from the same source–letters, her ability to write and make sense of her existence in this crazy world.

To me, “Revelations in the Key of K” is a perfect example of memory mined to good effect. Bravo in B Major, as Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms might say!