<!--[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?