‘This Morning I Pray for My Enemies’ is a dually beautiful and compelling poem by Joy Harjo. One that articulates the emotional complexity that comes with processing anger and outrage, especially when it is directed at a particular person.
As an indigenous writer and poet, she uncovers a radically alternative means of understanding how we should identify who is an enemy. While also illuminating the ways in which such an adversarial relationship is one founded on an uncanny intimacy that, one entangled with, can lead someone once believed to be a hostile foe to become an ally.
Explore This Morning I Pray for My Enemies
‘This Morning I Pray for My Enemies’ by Joy Harjo contemplates both how one should decide who or what is an enemy and the subtle differences between friends and foes.
‘This Morning I Pray for My Enemies’ begins with the speaker posing a question: “And whom do I call my enemy?” In answer, they state that a true enemy is someone “worthy” of being confronted
The speaker then turns to the sun and walks toward it. They remark that it was their heart that asked the poem’s opening question — not their “furious mind.” They describe the heart as being a younger relative of the sun’s because like the celestial body above it “sees and knows everything.”
Our heart’s omnipotence over us makes it privy to everything that grinds our teeth in anger or frustration, as well as moments of grace. It is also only through the heart that the “door to the mind” should ever be opened.
Consequently, any enemy that you choose to engage with will inevitably find their way into your heart or mind, thus risking an intimacy that will put them in “danger of becoming a friend.”
Structure and Form
‘This Morning I Pray for My Enemies’ is written in free verse, as it does not contain a formal structure or rhyme scheme. All nine of its lines are comprised of just a single sentence and also end-stopped. Both lines four and nine contain examples of caesura.
‘This Morning I Pray for My Enemies’ utilizes the following literary devices:
- Rhetorical Question: a question whose purpose is not related to its direct answer, as when the speaker inquires, “And whom do I call my enemy?” (1)
- Visual Imagery: “I turn in the direction of the sun and keep walking” (3) creates an image of the speaker and the sun.
- Kinesthetic Imagery: imagery related to movement, as in the details “I turn” and “keep walking” (3).
- Personification: the application of human characteristics on the inanimate, such as the ability to speak; “It’s the heart that asks the question, not my furious mind” (4).
- Extended Metaphor: a metaphor that extends through multiple lines of a poem, as when the speaker compares their heart to the sun; “The heart is the smaller cousin of the sun. / It sees and knows everything. / It hears the gnashing even as it hears the blessing” (5-7).
- Irony: specifically situational irony, as when the speaker reveals the ease with which an enemy can become a friend; “An enemy who gets in, risks the danger of becoming a friend” (9).
And whom do I call my enemy?
In the first two lines of ‘This Morning I Pray for My Enemies,‘ the speaker poses a rhetorical question around which the entire poem hinges. One that introspectively contemplates the identity and characteristics of someone they might perceive as their enemy. The speaker settles on a rather interesting definition: “An enemy must be worthy of engagement” (2).
Harjo’s diction here is crucial, as the word “worthy” carries an ironically positive connotation and underscores the speaker’s belief that an enemy should be deserving of the time and energy that will be required to face them. This quality of worth might be displayed in a variety of ways. Perhaps an enemy is worthy because they represent a sufficient challenge, or maybe there is some merit or value in confronting them.
I turn in the direction of the sun and keep walking.
It’s the heart that asks the question, not my furious mind.
The next series of lines from ‘This Morning I Pray for My Enemies’ introduces the extended metaphor Harjo uses to compare the heart to the sun. It opens with a piece of visual and kinesthetic imagery that envisions the speaker turning and walking “in the direction of the sun” (3).
As they stroll toward the brightest star in the sky they ruminate over the source of the poem’s opening question — identifying it as their personified heart. The speaker then makes an important distinction between their heart and their “furious mind” (4). Harjo’s diction implies that the speaker’s mind is already possessed by a resolute and consuming anger for their enemy.
The poet further strengthens this characterization by referring to the heart as the “smaller cousin of the sun” (5) because it “sees and knows everything” (6). A metaphor that emphasizes our heart’s relative sovereignty over both our senses and mind — just as the earth orbits the sun so too do our lives revolve around the whims and passions of our heart.
This omnipotence allows the heart to hear “the gnashing even as it hears the blessing” (7), a fragment of imagery that accentuates the heart’s ability to perceive both the good and the bad.
The door to the mind should only open from the heart.
The final lines of ‘This Morning I Pray for My Enemies’ offers a mercurial answer to the question of what makes someone an enemy. A new metaphor connects the personified regions of the mind and heart via a door. The only way to get to the former is by walking through the latter.
This makes sense in lieu of Harjo’s extended metaphor which clearly subordinates the “furious mind” with the all-seeing and hearing heart. Although a reason is not explicitly given, the implication is that the heart’s lucid perceptiveness makes it far wiser than the mind. Making it a better judge for determining an enemy worthy of engaging.
But the image of a doorway also reflects the fact that someone who enrages you enough to the point that your mind is obsessing over them furiously is also someone who has (albeit malignantly and woundingly) touched your heart.
This brings us to the poem’s final line, which reveals that one possible ironic consequence of engaging with an enemy is emerging with an unexpected friend. Harjo’s use of the word “danger” (9) doesn’t caution against such an outcome. Instead, it uses the language of conflict to illustrate this boldly iconoclastic image of reconciliation.
Harjo’s poem explores the similarities between the way we define who is a friend and who is an enemy. The speaker makes the case that because both have the ability to enter one’s heart and mind, the lines between them can be blurred.
Like so many of Harjo’s poems, this one provides an antithesis to colonizer modes of thinking. One that approaches the idea of an enemy from a place of sincere introspection and radiant receptiveness.
The poem’s title mentions a prayer being said for one’s enemies. This mirrors the speaker’s rumination over the nature of whom they consider an enemy and the fact that it is the heart that asks/decides. Their prayer is indicative of their tendency toward the perceptive compassion of the heart as opposed to the fury of their mind.
“Gnashing” alludes to the act of grinding one’s teeth in frustration or outrage, while the blessing might symbolize some obscured grace to be found in engaging an enemy. This foreshadows the poem’s ending line, which reveals the hidden friend within an enemy.
Here are a few more poems by Joy Harjo that you might also enjoy:
- ‘An American Sunrise’ – a poem that presents the struggle to preserve and protect Indigenous ways of life.
- ‘Perhaps the World Ends Here’ – a poem that also uses an extended metaphor to ruminate over the end of the world.
- ‘She Had Some Horses’ – this poem uses symbolism to explore the variety found among different kinds of people.