Prayer Book of the Anxious by Josephine Yu (Elixir Press, 2016).
Letters from Limbo by Jeanne Marie Beaumont (Cavan Kerry, 2016).
“Oh, but the heart isn’t fooled / by the gorgeous lies of poems,” Josephine Yu declares toward the end of her debut collection, Prayer Book of the Anxious. Poetry’s use as both an investigative and obscurant tool is of central concern in this book, and Yu challenges us, with a sense of humor always alert to unease, to admit to both the things we see and those we look away from. This poet’s landscape is middle-classdom and suburbia, a particularly American mode and location of disguise, which she delineates with the precision and wonder of a cultural anthropologist engaged in her first field study. In the poem “Middle Class Love Poem,” Yu records “the pleasure of knowing our children / and our children’s children will have ever-increasing latte options / and even richer neighbors and even crazier, more creative exes.” To look forward to one’s child’s deranged ex-boyfriend or girlfriend might seem the height of cynicism or even an invitation to treachery, but the poem’s central image of “hug dances” on the front stoop to the strains of Coltrane overheard on the “Bose speakers” in a wealthier neighbor’s “gazebo” assures us of those “children’s children[’s]” good fortune in their parentage while providing shrewd commentary on the strata of class and economics that they (and we all) must negotiate.
This is the knife-edge of Yu’s poems as she worries the edges of a happiness predicted, supposed, and, in brief glimmers, actual. Both despair and farce visit this collection—as in the image of “a curdled bottle” that ends the poem “Late Period,” or the title “Manic Depressive Wins Nobel Prize for Getting it On” (we almost don’t need a poem to follow that heading). But Yu’s real subject consists of the daily disappointments and affirmations of life and the ordinary objects, the “lattes,” overpriced speakers, and so on, which populate these experiences. In “Narcissist Revises Tidal Theory,” the poem’s self-obsessed speaker visits the beach to find “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…” Yu is eloquent in her use of objects to reflect our experience—the shame of “condoms” mixed with the hope of “snow globes”—and who among us has not been that “narcissist,” even for a moment, contemplating our triumphs or failures as reflected in the landscape before us?
Threaded throughout the collection are a series of poems from the “Palm-Leaf Manuscript,” an invented document, or perhaps sacred text, that illuminates Yu’s excavations of a personal and shared past. Moving through categories of “Myth,” “Unfinished Fairy Tale,” “Fable,” and “Proverb,” to “Physics Lesson,” “Definition,” and “Theory,” these poems advance from allegory—“Once when Empathy and her youngest sister, Longing were my night nurses”—to concrete horror—“my best friend in middle school pulled clumps of her hair out while her uncle raped her,” as if Yu needed to recognize our societal self-protective instinct to rationalize pain as a learning experience. Tell this to the girl who, decades later, “still calls [her uncle] on Sundays,” unable to escape the “knot” of his betrayal. As Yu works to unpeel the layers of defense with which we shield ourselves, her poems become at once less artful and more moving in their approach. By the time we reach “Why I Did Not Proceed with the Divorce” in the final section of the book, Yu is ready to dispense with metaphor entirely, rejecting the fable of “a man who lay / his left leg across train tracks” as a lesson in “how to celebrate loss” for the mundane details of long-partnered life:
for six months
and you tapped on the door
each night, offering a glass of water.
The clarity of that “glass of water” stays with us as an image, reminding us that such seemingly small but practical consolations are all we can offer each other against grief, and yet they nourish and endure.