A guest post by Karsten Piper
With “Descending Theology: The Resurrection,” Mary Karr offers us a poem on an over-familiar yet hyper-daring topic: Jesus rising from the dead.
From the far star points of his pinned extremities,
cold inched in—black ice and squid ink—
till the hung flesh was empty.
Lonely in that void even for pain,
he missed his splintered feet,
the human stare buried in his face.
He ached for two hands made of meat
he could reach to the end of.
In the corpse’s core, the stone fist
of his heart began to bang
on the stiff chest’s door, and breath spilled
back into that battered shape. Now
it’s your limbs he comes to fill, as warm water
shatters at birth, rivering every way.
What’s Your Response?
As with any poem, a basic question is, how did you respond when you read it? Did you feel anything that you weren’t already feeling today? Did you think anything that you hadn’t already thought about today?
Yes, you did—what was it?
If you were here at the Left Bank Coffee Shop with me in Slayton, MN, I’d ask what in the poem made you feel and think these things. We’d start there, to see how Karr did it.
But you’re not here, so I’ll choose…
Creating Moments of Unity
William Stafford (I think, maybe) wrote that in a fundamental way, all words rhyme because any two words are more like each other than they are like silence. I love that, though it probably makes some of you roll your eyes.
Either way, it does suggest something really useful to remember when you read poems that are—apparently—unrhymed: that words have degrees of likeness, and by extension that surrounding words with others that are more or less like them is part of what creates the effect of a poem’s sounds.
So a couple of observations about this poem’s words and sounds.
For various reasons, a lot of the phrases throughout the poem simply sound good: far star points, black ice and squid ink, he missed his splintered feet, the corpse’s core, the stone fist, your limbs he comes to fill. Various reasons, but mostly it’s because she brings together just enough sounds like each other to create moments of unity throughout that are a pleasure to say and hear.
Words that Hang in the Air
The break at the end of a line often acts like a kind of punctuation mark. (Denise Levertov suggested that the pauses at her line breaks are approximately the length of half a comma.) So the ends of lines are often hot spots in a poem because the words there hang in the air for a small moment before the next line begins.
Karr’s are mostly single syllables, and most of those have one hard sound in them, so they land on the ear like blow after blow. Meaning-wise, they are some of the most evocative words in the poem, and together they read almost like a poem of their own, a resurrection-haiku, more or less.
The Poem’s Form (It Does Have One!)
The poem's a sonnet.
No, it’s not iambic, and no, it doesn’t follow Shakespeare’s or Petrarch’s rhyme schemes. But it’s built from fourteen lines. A turn in logic and action comes in line 9 just like in traditional sonnets. (His heart begins to beat again!) And the last two lines are a ridiculously surprising punch line like in the best English sonnets. (It's your limbs he comes to fill!)
A Horror Show
Her images: physical things—especially body parts—everywhere, in every line.
(No, that’s not quite true. The one line in the poem without a body part or bodily action is this one: Lonely in that void even for pain… But lonely, void, that’s exactly all that’s left just then. Her point exactly.)
And the words she chooses: pinned extremities, black ice, squid ink, hung flesh, splintered feet, stare buried, hands of meat, corpse’s core, stone fist, heart bang, stiff chest’s door…
It’s a horror show. Any of those phrases could suffocate you in your nightmares if you let it in.
Now, the Twist at Line 12
After twelve lines, she hangs a word out there that’s loaded with anticipation: Now.
It works backward, yes: “breath spilled / back into that battered shape. Now.” But mostly it works forward: “Now” what?
She lets us wait through the only stanza break in the poem. And if you are reading the poem aloud, you take a breath right there. You do. And when you let the breath spill in, you yourself are acting out the moment she’s describing in your own body, having your life extended by just so much. (I got chills just now as I realized this.)
You’ve Never Pictured New Birth Like This
it’s your limbs he come to fill, as warm water
shatters at birth, rivering every way.
A line that, after all this, just turns inside out every cliched mention of baptism, new birth, being filled, etc. etc. This is almost as fresh as it would have been to Nicodemus’s ears when Jesus said something very like it in the first place.