When I want to pay attention, I make bread. The dough feels like skin against my own, drawing my focus as something to be attended and held. It demands lifting and patting; it asks to be placed on a bed of flour and coaxed it into a loose loaf, shaped and smoothed and weighed in my palms. Making bread reminds me of my embodiment—the marvel it is to be a body animated with breath and memory, desire and fear. So, too, should words.

In The Art of Memoir, poet and memoirist Mary Karr introduced the literary world to “sacred carnality.” Carnality, Karr writes, doesn’t refer to sexual or physical urges. “By carnal, I mean, Can you apprehend it through the five senses?” She argues that physical details—those we can apprehend through the senses—are essential for recreating an experience, whether of praying or eating barbequed ribs. Carnality imbues a text with material heft so that the reader can live inside the narrative, with all its accompanying sensations. It welcomes the reader into a world crafted with physical detail.

Sacred carnality, then, is a tool for writers looking to capture the spiritual, mysterious, or profound in words. The way Karr employs sacred carnality can be traced to her Catholic theology, yet the lesson applies to anyone hoping to draw near mystery through language.

My writing mentor once suggested adding food details to a story that I couldn’t get quite right; the tone felt impersonal and the narrator seemed aloof. Writing about food is a hospitable move in literature, she said. Food welcomes readers into the story. It builds an avenue into the narrative with tangible, digestible details. Carnality in all forms is that—an in-road to the story. It’s a hospitable way to talk about faith or mystery, two inherently befuddling subjects.


Mary Karr came to faith as an adult, a self-proclaimed “black-belt sinner” who survived a terrorized childhood through a religion of alcohol and poetry. She was baptized into the Catholic Church at age forty, a church whose sacraments, liturgy, and theology are bound to the incarnation. In Catholicism the Eucharist is Christ’s physical body, bread and wine transubstantiated into flesh and blood. Worshippers’ role in Mass is physical: congregants cross themselves, sit, stand, and kneel. Unlike Protestant churches with their vacant crosses, the Catholic crucifix displays God’s body hanging torn and twisted.

Karr might have used the word sensory over carnal—“sensory details” being my English teachers’ term of choice—but instead she chose a word that draws the mind to incarnate. In church-speak, sacraments like the Eucharist and baptism are visible signs of invisible grace, much as carnal details in literature provide palpable signs of invisible movement. A kiss contains the current of a character’s love; a brittle letter the vestiges of his grief. In much of her later work, Karr’s sacramental theology bleeds into her poetry and prose. She writes not with the abstract diction one might expect in spiritual narrative but with gritty, tactile details, using words soaked in the physical substance of life.

While Karr came to faith kicking, my own Christian conversion meant deepening into the love I’d been shown since birth. However unalike our stories, it’s been her work, more than any other, that has taught me how to capture the numinous in language. I often flail when trying to put words to spiritual experiences; Karr’s work teaches me that sacred carnality is the avenue into these stories. She reminds me that bodies—governed by experiences like eating, illness, and sex—are sites of God’s dwelling, and that our embodied experiences reveal something about God.


Many of the poems in Sinners Welcome, Karr’s 2009 collection, dwell on Christ’s physical body. One of my favorites, “Disgraceland,” harnesses spiritual longing with a few precise, carnal details. The poem moves from the speaker’s—ostensibly Karr’s—conception to her conversion, beginning with an image of Eden:

Before my first communion, I clung to doubt

as Satan spider-like stalked

the orb of dark surrounding Eden

for a wormhole into paradise.

Then the poem moves back in time to her conception, and Karr imagines her parents trading breath:

God had formed me from gel in my mother’s womb,

injected by my dad’s smart shoot.

They swapped sighs until

I came, smaller than a bite of burger.

With one bite of burger, Karr turns the poem from ephemeral to embodied. Until this phrase the poem exists a degree removed: Eden floats in a dark orb, her parents make love as though on a screen. The imagery of communion, Eden, and a wormhole recalls bites: a mouthful of wafer, the flavor of apple. Then suddenly, the reader tastes burger. The intimacy of two strangers becomes the reader’s own; the placement of the phrase so near their mouths (“they swapped sighs”) brings burger to her own lips, and the characters’ sensuality to her tongue—a reminder of embodiment.

The poem progresses into images of thirst and quenching, as the speaker gets drunk while Christ stands “to one side with a glass of water.” Instead of allowing him to hover vaguely in the speaker’s consciousness, Karr imagines God in a body, standing on two feet with a cool drink in hand. I am the living water, Jesus told his followers, and she puts flesh on this metaphor. When the moment of conversion arrives, the poem turns back on itself, locating imagery in the reader’s mouth again:

You are loved, someone said. Take that

and eat it.

Like “Disgraceland,” Karr’s Lit: A Memoir owes its spiritual punch to material details. Lit is the story of her reluctant movement toward Christ, her assent to belief in an incarnate God told through a carnal lens. By paying attention to the world, she wrings spiritual truth from its physical features. A tub of frosting shared between alcoholics at a recovery meeting becomes a form of communion. Porch lights through a blur of whiskey appear as angels. A bleach-and-shit- encrusted toothbrush and Bible verses underlined in blue chalk conspire to push her into mercy. Using the five senses, she points to a mystery beyond physical apprehension.

Moving through Lit with Karr’s narrator feels like walking through parched landscape: drink is everywhere, yet she remains hung over and dried out. Her conversion at the end arrives as a flood of clear water, rinsing away years of thirst. “Maybe all any of us wants is to feel singled out for some long, sweet, quenching draft of love,” she writes, “some open-throated guzzling of it—like what a baby gets at the breast.”

Karr’s prose and poetry return again and again to the body and the mouth, site of burger bites and cool swallows of water. The carnality of daily, physical details opens a space for the sacred to appear, the concrete expanding into the abstract. Her writing stills and sates, reminding the reader that love exists not to be earned but to be taken and drunk.


When I read the Bible, especially with an eye for its literary movements, I find sacred carnality embedded throughout the New Testament. The biblical authors were masters of the well-placed carnal detail, revealing in Jesus a man who lived not just in a body but an embodied life, concerned with meals and ailments and harvests. He told stories about feasts and wineskins and gouging out eyes. He spit in dirt and made mud to rub on a blind man’s eyes. He gutted fish at the edge of a lake, flipping the silver scales over fire to feed his disciples. What else would welcome us in but words that speak to our incarnate condition, that point to the strange grace of divinity entering flesh?

Employing sacred carnality might look like, among many things, placing a weighty conversation between characters at the dinner table, around pappardelle pasta and red wine. Or allowing a character to reach a spiritual epiphany during a hike while sweat slivers down his arms. In other words, giving the sacred a carnal vehicle. Readers respond to the concrete because that is the world we know, our bodies being our one home. When we offer a world made of flesh and substance on the page, we make the reader bread, and hope that it nourishes.


Mary Karr’s next collection of poetry, Tropic of Squalor, is due out in May 2018.


Annelise Jolley is a writer and editor living in San Diego. She earned her MFA in creative nonfiction through Seattle Pacific University and her work has appeared in Sojourners, The Millions, and Christianity Today, among others.