In her stellar debut collection, Prayer Book of the Anxious, Josephine Yu includes poems that illustrate faith in human empathy and community. As the title suggests, Yu’s poems read like prayers. They derive rhythms, syntax, and language from the Roman Catholic missal, the incantations of Sunday mass. In a sense, they remain Catholic in their generous universality and attention to ritual. Yet the poems resist traditional religious readings. Yu’s poems celebrate the holiness in human imperfection and the need for connection.
Early in the collection, Yu’s gripping poem, “A Myth of the Palm-Leaf Manuscript,” establishes a tone for the book. Yu’s inclusive discourse and imperative syntax invite us to participate in the poem’s composition, to take an active part in its construction: “Remember the woman who told you she found a dead cat on her deck, fur matted with August rain, how her husband nudged it onto cardboard with his loafer and dropped it over the fence into the neighbor’s azaleas? Make her you, you ten, her husband your father, before the divorce.”
As Yu directs us to substitute words as variables in the narrative, as we “make the cat a mole” . . . [m]ake August February, the shoe a shovel,” as we “let the shovel crack the frozen fur,” the man in the poem becomes more violent, the story grows more brutal. In the end, the speaker seeks understanding in the language of myth: “This is the story the elders will tell when the wheat withers on the stalk and the first-born swallow their tongues, the story they’ll repeat when the cattle fall like trees and the trees fall like drunkards: this, the myth of the god of despair, who is the father of the god of attention.”
The poem addresses the influence of memory on story and language, assimilating the narrative of the other with the narrative of the self. Memory creates meaning, which, in turn, constructs mythology. This theme continues throughout the book. Yu’s poems place the saints in communion with the misfits, the marginalized, and the poems encourage us to locate ourselves in the congregation of eccentrics. We may find pieces of our own stories in those of the lepidopterist who lives alone, the fortuneteller who knows she will never marry, and the manic-depressive who wins the Nobel Prize for getting it on.
In many ways, Yu’s poems celebrate our communion, not with saints, but with humanity, in those qualities, which may be perceived as imperfections; the poems suggest that we establish connection through our challenges, frailties, and adversities. This is clear in “Veneration of the Anxious,” as the poem calls us into community.
If grief is a motel where we each wait
alone in a room, listening
to the pillowcase seams unravel,
surely worry is a cathedral
where we congregate to practice
the sacred rites: biting of nails
and the picking of the newest scab
or smallest ragged edge of skin.
Here worry is not a sign of weakness; it is a common thread to which humanity is tethered. And the poem not only acknowledges the anxious, it recognizes them with deep respect. Yu’s speaker challenges us against stigmatizing the anxious, against clinging to negative associations and preconceived judgments. Likewise, she suggests the anxious deserve veneration because they pay attention and exhibit concern. As the speaker identifies herself with the community of anxious, she invites us to enter the cathedral, to face and accept our worries, and to share them as part of a larger human consciousness:
We come to be consecrated
in dizziness, nausea, insomnia,
ecstatic to hear the chorus of heartbeats,
those hymns racing.
Yu’s poems find holiness, not in the heavenly, but in the earthly, the fleshly, the human. Even error is sacred. In “Plea of the Penitent,” Yu satirically plays on the traditional prayer of contrition.
We’re best-selling authors of grave mistakes.
Our advance is regret, six figures, but never enough
for a down payment on restraint. We’re sincere as hell, though,
when we apologize, pleading into the disconnect tone
or mouthing the rosary after confession, even as we plot
what we can write next on this blank slate.
Give us this day our daily second chance. Let us atone like the Hindus
who lift curses by marrying strays draped in yellow saris
and garlands of jasmines and orchids. Take us to the pound
in Leon County, to the gravel runs in the back.
Show us the arthritic husky or tumored retriever, the one shivering
with anticipation for the long car ride home.
Playing on traditional Catholic guilt and sinners’ words of self-depreciation, Yu advocates that our signature temptations and mistakes bring us into the larger circle of humanity. Our tendency to error, fail, and fall short of expectations, provides us with common ground for new endeavors. Yu’s poems create contexts that consecrate preconceived earthly imperfections.
Rooted in the conventions of prayer, these poems speak in physical rituals as well as those that employ language. For Yu, the holiest rituals are often the most commonplace rites, embedded in the domestic services of daily life. In “How Do You Say,” Yu explores the relationship between language and love:
. . . not all languages of love are actual languages,
not French, as you might expect, mon amour,
or Italian, Ti amo, vita mia, but the language of sweeping
the garage without being asked or necking at the movies
or scooping out the litter box,
so the broom’s metronome counts the beat of love . . .
The poem suggests that love is best expressed in simple acts of affection, generosity, sacrifice; it rejects the notion that love’s language should be elaborate or overly romanticized. These modest rituals, often overlooked, constitute the most sacred acts of humility.
In Prayer Book of the Anxious, Josephine Yu explores the tenacity of the human spirit, in all its quirkiness and fallibility. Her poems reveal holiness in paying attention to the earthly and human rather than the heavenly and angelic. These poems revel in human empathy and desire for community. They celebrate inclusivity as they reside in the space between the self and the other.
Marcene Gandolfo’s debut book, Angles of Departure, won Foreword Reviews’ Silver Award for Poetry in 2014. Her poems have been published widely in literary journals, including Poet Lore, Bellingham Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal, and DMQ. She has taught writing and literature at several northern California colleges and universities.