Prose Feature: The Mind as a Primer of Spirit: A Review of Josephine Yu’s PRAYER BOOK OF THE ANXIOUS by Michele Rozga

May 3, 2017

How can a writer embody, and then describe, her mind as a rambunctious and ultimately unknowable animal, with shifts and a wildness that can be followed through poems, or resisted in them, but not controlled?

The partial answer, given deftly in Prayer Book of the Anxious, published by Elixir Press (2016), is that she might envision her mind as a performer itself (rather than just a transcriber), an animal of exotic origin, an unruly sort, sometimes unknown to itself, sometimes quite prone to using wit and humor, sass and learning, to survive the daily circus in both its midway glory and its folded tent dirtiness.

Yu’s prayerful place is where animals like us thrive— a circus, yes. A universal circus where no denizens are caged or whipped except by their own thoughts, desires, or losses thereof. In spite of Yu’s somewhat religious title, I might call her work in this book joyfully existential, yearning for a way to be here now, rather than a way to be saved up for later or for eternity.

In order to be here now, our animal natures must remain nimble, both existential and joyful, as in the poem “How do You Say,” where they leap between “the language of love and the language of possession /…lyrics in the same aria,” but then also “hum, just one uncomplicated bar over and over, /yet we hear the swelling of a symphony.” (57)

As Yu lays out the animal’s paradox in the poem “Narcissist Revises Tidal Theory,we see her struggling with the basic central aloneness that our minds create for us— it is so hard to be an animal that thinks, that has the ability to abstract us away from life. It is not difficult to understand again, when reading these poems, why some religions have decided that the animal parts of us, and all other animals as well, should be tamed, ignored, or made subservient – for those are the parts that cause us pain, or at least the mind in its echo chamber would have it so. Yu’s narrator in this poem walks an October beach, meshing her mind with the human leavings of the tide, which reveal us to ourselves through our garbage:

the tides are the metronome of my regret, powered
by perpetual hindsight. They set the currents spinning in a gyre
that collects the flotsam of my affairs—plastic spoons and condoms,

frozen dinner trays, snow globes, souvenirs, chewed pens, the
woven mesh of lawn chairs, a cooler lid (20)

But then the tides decide to get out of sync with this narrator, and they shift, begin to reveal the signs of natural processes of animal life, rather than the trash that is human-created. In the final stanza, the ocean shows the life of itself, the values it holds – it, the ocean, guides the narrator out of her human labyrinth:

…the tides fork over a drying branch of coral, some worthless
shells, or sometimes a small shark, half-buried in a shallow sandbar,
whose flesh, when pressed, has unexpected give and whose discrete
cerulean eye glints like an omen I should know how to read. (20)

The dead shark somehow comes to represent aliveness in this poem, the promise and the myth of the omen eye. The idea that even a dead animal has so much to offer this narrator comes to stand in as a representation of a creative act; just as humans create connection to the natural world by recombining its elements in new ways in art, so, too, does the narrator return to herself within the poem, paradox and all, by choosing to see the natural detritus on the beach as a form of connection to her art instead of to her loneliness.

Yu’s craft excels in language that is a roiling beast of bitter and fragile: modern psychology and its modest but persistent terminology of figuring things out is often added to the language of the spiritual life of a randy and ardent apostle, and all the resultant finely chosen words are caught up in the raw animality of the world, in the lonely yet crowded cacophony of the world. In the poem “Stopping for the Night at Motel 6,” a rush of imagery begins the poem, combining the human-made and the animal life: the mind let loose upon the world of night, entangled both in the body and in thought, has no resistance to sadness:

I push aside the hotel pillow on which
a woman’s hair might have dried
and lie stiffly, as she might have,
one of two bodies separated, a couple
with their backs turned. My heart groans
against the rusted springs of my ribs. (63)

The poem continues with an animal, a spirit animal:

In the storm yesterday, I watched a gull, exhausted,
trying to land on the ledge of a parking deck,
pushed back again and again by the gale. (63)

The internal gale in the passage then gives way to a tender moment between the narrator and the husband, who end up making love in the bed (full of ghosts) at the Motel 6, and what better way to understand relationships than by the uncanny sleight of hand that combines history, physicality, and solace for grief? Yu’s mind is a full one, a smart and well-formed animal, and one that is curious and skeptical about the realm of the spiritual life, a thoroughbred stomping its foot and refusing to race one minute, but off in a blaze the next.

Fitting, then, that Yu calls her own capacious mind into question in the first and last poems, which both use an unreliable narrator—a patient who lies to a therapist in the opener, “The Compulsive Liar Apologizes to Her Therapist for Certain Fabrications and Omissions,” and a writer writing about dreams in spite of having been told of the bad taste of such a choice in “Never Trust a Poem that Begins with a Dream”—is a liar who admits to lying the ultimate trustworthy figure? How much should we believe our own stories when we send them out as missives to our readers

The answer does not arrive by the end of the poem cycle, because Yu knows enough not to attempt an answer or a definition where longing is the characteristic that must endure. And what else can a prayer do but give comfort until that prayer is over, lingering then until the next prayer or poem begins? Josephine Yu is as smart as Denise Duhamel in her humor, and her clear-eyed intimacy may just put you in mind of a savvy post-modern Confessionalism, both personal and social: poems that an ex- nun who decided to leave the convent might write.


Michele RozgaAfter working in theater, modern dance, and comedy improv, Michele Rozga relocated to Atlanta, GA, and eventually began taking poetry classes. One of the first poems she wrote was recorded as part of a soundtrack for one of the last dance performances she gave. For the past five years, she has lived in the coastal Georgia area as a full time college teacher. Recent work has appeared in an anthology based on Clash songs published by CityLit Books, and in The Comstock Review. She was also a 2015 semi-finalist for the Crab Orchard Open Competition.

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