Richard Carr’s latest poetry collection, Imperfect Prayers, arrived a couple months ago. I had just finished reading it when life/health matters interrupted my writing life. Last night, I again all at once, and I’m glad I did. A lot of my original thinking about it remains the same, but I also wondered if Carr hadn’t included a bit subtle humor in some of the poems that I missed the first time around, especially those poems that describe “I” in his/her everyday life.
Reading Imperfect Prayers in one sitting brought to mind reading Archibald MacLeish’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play J.B. when I was in high school. As is true for MacLeish’s play, there’s a lot of Job in Carr’s Imperfect Prayers. I was also trying to figure out if Carr’s “God” is only a Christian God or if it is all-inclusive of any belief system that has an omnipotent deity. I found no clues for all-inclusiveness, so I decided Carr’s God was specifically Christian. I suspect that it could be applied also to any of the Abrahamic religions, however. Finally, Carr gave “God” human attributes at times and this bugged me. I realized that my own beliefs concerning religion, deities, and human life were trying to stamp on Carr’s poetry. So fair warning, some readers may readily identify with Carr’s subject matter in this collection, but other readers may find themselves at odds with it. In order to read and enjoy Carr’s poetic images and situations in this collection, I’d urge readers to set aside their own religious beliefs until after they’ve finished reading the collection. Then it might be interesting (or not) for readers to ask themselves how they relate to the “I” vs. “God” struggle Carr depicts.
Who is “I”? Usually in Carr’s poetry, the first person pronoun does not refer to him, but encourages the reader to be the “I” as she reads, pulling the reader deeper into the poems. I think in this collection, Carr includes himself in the “I” at times. These poems felt far more personal and intimate than the poems in previous collections. The struggle is between “I” and “God” as “I” tries to understand his relationship with “God.” Unlike in J.B., Satan does not really enter into the picture. He remains on the periphery, a character in God’s universe.
Immediately in the first poem, we have God ordering the I/me to “make poems about his creation,” and that creation focuses more on an urban landscape than a rural, on flies but not other insects, fish, animals or humans. In fact, as the flies “buzz loops in the air,” the I “will fly loops in the sky,” identifying I with flies. Hmmm, not very high self esteem, but perhaps in comparison to an omnipotent God, it seems like we are all only flies.
In each poem, Carr seems to create an arc that begins with the first line, traverses the middle lines, and concludes with the last line. I started just reading the first and last lines as if they made all one sentence and this sometimes gave me insight into the rest of the poem. For example, in Poem 5: “God sympathizes, knowing precisely the origin of evil.” The I wants to blame God for all the problems and evil in the world, but God knows who’s really responsible.
Richard uses words to create some startling images. For example, “the mystery of suffering, the protruding bone of it” or “a cat melting into the rain/among tomato plants,” or “hitting the airbag in a hard kiss.” Then there are times when God seems to become I, e.g. in Poem 35: “God skips work some days, stays home in bed staring at the ceiling,” but then separates again in Poem 36 as I is “at home in my solitude.” There is no outright acknowledgment of the struggle being one of good vs. bad or self vs. self. My favorite poem in this collection is Poem 52, in which I and his anger become the wind and rain. I found myself really identifying with this metaphor.
Imperfect Prayers challenges the reader in a more personal and intimate way than Carr’s previous collections. It’s that kind of poetry collection that can yield insights with each successive reading. Carr’s images are to savor, his use of English reveals the language’s true power in words. I highly recommend Imperfect Prayers….