Tuesday, November 18, 2008

>Rae Armantrout's "Prayers"


<!--[if supportFields]> SEQ CHAPTER h r 1<![endif]--><!--[if supportFields]><![endif]-->“Prayers,” The New Yorker November 10, 2008.

            Given the timing of this poem’s publication, it’s impossible for me to read it without noticing and/or imposing political overtones.  Too easily it becomes a hoorah! for Democrats, albeit awkwardly so at points, particularly those comprising the poem’s first part in its entirety.  As easily, it can stand on its own as a poem about aging.  So, given this ambivalence toward subject matter, I’d rather examine the poem’s employment of irony.

            Irony is far and away the poem’s dominant gesture.  Consider the opening couplet: “We pray / and the resurrection happens.”  The speaker’s tone is so matter-of-fact that the irony almost scoots past, but whose prayers have been answered so quickly?  If any of us had a direct line to God, we wouldn’t learn to pray at our besides as kids, nor at the dinner table, nor anywhere else for that matter.  The fact is prayer, in my opinion, rarely–if ever–reaps such quick results.  What’s more, though resurrection isn’t capitalized here, the word automatically echoes of Christ’s return, yet no a single moment, not a strain of emotion is paid to it.  The language is quite nonchalant.

            The next three stanzas–the whole of part one of “Prayers”–emphasizes this de-emphasis by making the born again “the young . . . . sniping and giggling, // tingly / as ringing phones.”  The tone has shifted a bit closer to snideliness, as the speaker observes the cell phone generation attacking and laughing at the mysteries on their phones’ other ends.  And is this what technology brings?  Immaturity?  Is this second coming of tots and teens going to save anyone, including themselves?  Not likely, but, ironically, it’s typically technology and kids that are our future, that are redemption for insults and injuries.  What’s more, the prayers of the first stanza appear to be futile: the young are coming anyway.

            Part two of the poem moves darker still.  The speaker, speaking for whomever she represents (all of us?  the elderly?), asks “that our thinking // sustain momentum,” which I find analogous to progress, to keeping the ball rolling.  The poem’s next two words clarify exactly what our thinking must do to allows this: “identify targets.”  We’re no longer talking about kids taking verbal shots at their friends, but about ideologues, governments, etc. taking real shots at others.  Armantrout mentions nothing about this macrocosm inside the poem, but the words targets, as well as the later torture, seems too much a keyword not to be being used for this implication.  But, she nevertheless continues to mix things up.  Rather than stay global, she immediately turns to the personal by having her speaker divulge her lower back pain, which, by rising to be recognized,” becomes her thinking’s target.  The strange, ensuing stanza about “blue triangles” remains personal and as such becomes the object of the next stanza’s insult regarding torture.  However, given the poem’s subtle but larger context, “torture” must also be read accordingly.

            Armantrout’s ironies have become double-entendre-like at this point, which ultimately forces the poem into paradox.  The speaker must make two, somewhat opposite admissions.  She is as afraid that “all this / will end” as she is “that it won’t.”  Because she makes no comment about the glee she’ll experience if one or the other doesn’t occur, the negative weight pulls all: she’s damned if it does (end), and she’s damned if it doesn’t.  The great irony here is that the poem began, at least for a stanza, with hope: resurrection, rebirth, a new age.  As it ends, all of that has become moot.  The prayers have gone unanswered.

            But honestly–what should we expect?                       



  1. >I appreciate your attempt to give this poem a chance. I suspect that's the step after getting the vomit taste out of your mouth. For me the theme is disconnectedness. It's as if the poet has no idea what's going on and hardly tries to make sense of it before resigning to stare blankly at the floor. There's something happening here and you don't know what it is, do you Ms. Armantrout?

  2. >i don't know if disconnectedness is the theme or not, but it's certainly a tool armantrout uses between stanzas (you should read her other poems...). it's kind of been the chic thing for awhile not to make sense. in fact -- it's kind of funny -- i gave a reading last night and read a good handful of narratives, which are relatively easy for the ear to follow. somebody actually said to me -- it's a relief to listen to poems that actually make sense. i thought that was a weird thing to say...but nonsense (or difficulty or uber-intellect for all the literati out there) is one of poetry's dominant forms of currency these days.as for me, i very much appreciate your dylan reference.

  3. >i haven't read her other stuff so that's a helpful context. I was seeing disconnect also from the younger generation or democrats or whatever. Unlike you, I don't see irony; only disgust and holier-than-thou sarcasm. She really beats things into the ground by insisting on using words like "pain" and "torture" while presumably being surrounded by Obama backers.Last two lines: I read the italicized "this" as refering to the general excitement or current public involvement regarding politics, followed by her annoyance about the current results or circumstances.

  4. >It is rather ridiculous to read this poem as if it was actually...a person used to praying and the connotations of "answers" to prayers. As if.You know.The inherent law of the Creator...well. Ms. Rae is obviously a beginner at the actual recording of prayer noises, mentalities and all the back pain/hard work that go into real prayer.It's a nice effort if you ask me and the second time I've read the poem.

  5. the last lines are good...