Faith in Chaos: A review of Josephine Yu’s Prayer Book of the Anxious
Josephine Yu’s Prayer Book for the Anxious rests on a sense of brokenness: the foothold of many of its shimmering poems involves a kind of wonderful and irreparable shattering. Encountering Yu’s work is like walking into an old church to find an iconoclast undertaking a mosaic project. You’re never granted solid ground: only continuous, exquisitely executed unease carried forward from poem to poem by enormous talent and energy. This is a swift, deft little collection that crackles with titles like “A Vindictive Son of a Bitch of a Poem” and “Narcissist Revises Tidal Theory.” You can’t escape the discomfort that comes with this collection, or its strange and energetic humor.
Sometimes, the kind of brokenness that the poems present us is not visual brokenness, but a more subtle and exquisite sense of falling out of place, as if the speaker is themself the broken element in the equation, as in “Manic Depressive Visits Ocean with Lover One Last Time”:
“She finds that it’s not what she remembered, the sand coarser, / wind brittle, more insistent. / Even the current has changed directions, and she’s lost / in the one-way streets of a city she was sure she knew.”
Later in the poem, there are “scraping fragments of seashells and the broken finger of a starfish,” tangible details rife with shards and splinters, but the pervading sense of brokenness here isn’t that violent imagery of “the broken finger of a starfish.” Something much deeper in the infrastructure is unsettled. The speaker reaches for a reliable certainty, a reliable memory, and finds both absent. The one-way streets baffle her, even though they should be familiar. Where there should be solid ground, a place for identity and relationships to have an anchor, a definite spot to return to, we find the world of Yu’s poems is too fluid and too shattered to offer us such easy reassurances.
There’s a genuine sense of devotion in this Prayer Book too, but devotion to what it’s hard to say. What I feel most clearly is a wonderfully articulated sense, forfeiting any desperation to anchor oneself in certainty, of adhering instead to randomness, to a sense of being disjointed. The desperation for security doesn’t go away though; it only has to be repeatedly rejected. There is a deep desperation in the poems’ anxiety: to settle, to hold on, to sink roots in, and to have the certainty of a fixed path. But even as this urge comes through, the poems deconstruct even the smallest, personal certainties. Yu documents the end of a relationship, a childhood recollection layered with mud and silver light, and prayers to the sainted figures who dot its pages. All of these narratives are undermined and complicated individually, speculated into needle-bright details that ultimately leave us with a cracked, unmoored sense of their respective stories.
In “Prayer to St. Joseph: For the Restless,” Yu writes, “Still our hands as we pack. Remind us the roughest fabric / of the self will end up folded like a sweater / in the suitcase, pilled and raveled and transcendent.” She presents not a simple coming-to-terms with what unsettles us, but rather a decision to move with the currents around us, to allow ourselves to be as unsettled as we need to be.
One unconquerable aspect of this collection, though, is its sense of optimism. The book as a whole has the feeling of a prayer, of looking intently forward despite the smashed-mosaic effect of brokenness and fragmentation already haunting the work. What Yu accomplishes in Prayer Book of the Anxious is a tense, forward-leaning expectancy, a refusal to be buried in chaos but rather to understand the world by allowing its randomness and its damages to show through unapologetically. Rather than looking to simplify, to glue all the pieces back together in a coherent order, we find instead a faith in chaos.
In Prayer Book of the Anxious, Yu pulls off a tricky balancing act in such a small collection: to give her readers a disordered, many-fragmented view of the world through very anxious eyes, and to teach us how to live within that fragmentation.
These are not comfortable poems: they don’t give the impression of solid ground to walk on, or a clear sense that there is security to return to, after the anxious moment of the poem has passed. Rather, the poems’ spark comes from an impressive array of small battles—with self, with place, with memory—as these battles pile up, one on top of another, from poem to poem. There isn’t victory in sight, but as we find in Yu’s poems, we shouldn’t hold our breath for that kind of sanctuary. We can only take stock of the tide and keep moving forward.
Alison Lanier is an MFA candidate at University of Massachusetts Boston, a member of the Writers' Room of Boston, and a founding editor of Mortar Magazine. She also serves as an editor at Critical Flame and as an editorial assistant at AGNI, and previously at Counterpoint and The Wellesley Review. Her fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared at Atticus Review, The Establishment, Burningword, Origins, and elsewhere.