by Laci Mattison
I first met Josephine Yu in the summer of 2008, when we were both taking a course designed to brush up on our reading of the French language so that we could pass a required test for our degrees at Florida State University. The room was cramped and sticky, and I knew no one. To make things worse, everyone seemed perfectly capable of translating Camus and Spinoza, as I sat hunched over my book attempting to remember any conjugation I might have learned in high school French class. And then one day, by luck, I sat next to Josephine, who shortly after invited me over for dinner. So began one of the most treasured friendships of my life thus far. Josephine is not only a dear friend, but she is also an award winning poet, whose work she has generously shared with me over the years. Her first book of poems, Prayer Book of the Anxious, was selected by poet and novelist Sarah Kennedy for the 15th Annual Elixir Press Poetry Award and will be published by the press in 2016.
Over lunch last week, Josephine handed me a copy of her manuscript, laughing about how, in the process of printing a copy for me, she had ended up spending the morning making revisions. “Of course I can’t look at it without changing something. I revised a poem that I published eight or ten years ago!”
Prayer Book of the Anxious is a book about ten years in the making. In this way, the book also serves as a kind of artifact of Josephine's development as a poet across the years. Some of the poems are more autobiographical and thus more in line with the post-confessional style of writing. These poems were influenced by Josephine’s reading of poets like Sharon Olds, who she calls her “MFA poetry goddess.” Mixed with this style of writing are also what Josephine calls “braid poems,” a term borrowed from her Ph.D. advisor from Florida State University, David Kirby. She describes the process for these poems as “weaving together seemingly disparate incidences” in order to “bring more of the world” into her poetry. One such poem, “Prayer to Saint Lawrence: For the Overcooked,” begins with the everyday and domestic:
For mothers with one culinary technique: well done,
for the limp asparagus they lower back into the pot,
declaring, ‘Just another minute.’ For scrambled eggs hardening
on breakfast buffets and NY strip three shades past medium,
bring us ketchup and Tabasco sauce, hollandaise and ponzu.
Saint Lawrence, patron of chefs, drizzle au jus over every charred forkful.
Yet the poem moves outward to include lines about a favorite uncle’s throat cancer, about Indian brides who escape the abuse of their husbands by self-immolation, and about a man trapped underground during a mining incident—all within a prayer to this saint who is patron of chefs, laundry women, librarians, and vintners, amongst others the poem names. Like many of Josephine’s poems, “Prayer to Saint Lawrence: For the Overcooked,” reads like an embrace that crosses cultural and geographical lines of demarcation, as it translates the particular into the universal without erasing difference. The Catholic becomes the catholic; the religious, secular.
Just as she is a close and careful reviser of her own work, Josephine Yu’s poems also offer a kind of revisionist point of view. Saints are no longer just for those who are religious in her writing. When I asked where she has gathered inspiration for her work, Josephine replied, “I have culled a lot from my Catholic upbringing. I was raised in a very devout Catholic family. My mother is one of eight girls, all named ‘Mary,’ and I grew up wanting to be either a nun or a train conductor. Although I am no longer a practicing Catholic, I feel that those stories will always be part of my mental and emotional landscape. One of the things I was attempting to accomplish with this book—which I realized only long after I had started it—was to reappropriate this belief system and the life of the saints in a way that would still provide relief and comfort.”
Beyond this transfiguration of saints, prayers, and bible stories—Noah’s wife, for instance, who wonders, if it was “a sin to feel smug standing on the deck beside him”—Josephine’s poetry takes an unfaltering look at the lived experiences of women. Images of mothers and daughters populate the book. The second section of the book especially includes poems about family, motherhood, and generations. As Josephine put it, “Our relationships with our families are our first lesson or blueprint for how we are going to interact with the world. Psychologists call it the Family of Origin. So I think it would be difficult for me not to write about my own relationship with my mother if I am somehow going to write about relationships between other people.” In ruminating on the untold stories of Southern women, I can’t help but think that our mothers’ stories are one of the most undocumented. The culture of the South—and perhaps this is bound up with religion and is somehow a marker of the “Bible Belt” in which we are tightly cinched—suggests in so many subtle ways that women become people only by getting married and having babies. (What else are women for?!) The catch-22 is that “good” mothers never have an existence outside their role as wife and mother, sacrificing their mental and emotional life to that of their husbands and children, all while remaining perfectly coiffed—no wet hair swept into messy buns, chipped manicures, or laundry piled in living room chairs. One of the best things about the mothers in Josephine’s work is that they are real, in all their imperfections, as they overcook the asparagus (“Prayer to Saint Lawrence: For the Overcooked”), worry over an unborn child (“Assurances to a Friend in Her Third Trimester”), or refuse to comfort a daughter in pain because “any pain [is] better than none, better / than the nerves’ apathy” (“My Mother Demanded Gratitude”).
Josephine’s poems also document the stories of women who are scarred with the physical and emotional markers of past trauma. In “A Proverb from the Palm-Leaf Manuscript,” the speaker’s “best friend in middle school pulled clumps of her hair out / while her uncle raped her, and then she pulled / her hair out during breakfast, homeroom, / algebra, geography, and world lit, littering blond / strands across stubbled carpet and linoleum and / right down the halls of Saint Joseph’s long-term / ward until the floor glittered like Indian cloth / shot through with gold thread.” In “Property Manager’s Word of Warning,” we are cautioned: “If you must walk the dogs alone after midnight, / clutch your keys with their teeth jutting.” “The woman from 3-B” has been mugged; a little girl “plucked from the playground,” “lifted / from the swing in mid-air,” “hair floating / behind her like a ransom note.” And in the concluding stanza, the Southern landscape is transformed into an image of imminent masculine violence, as the dogs “bark at pear trees, the wisteria, / at something you cannot see: discarded pipes, choked vines, / trees with their branches clenched / like men with cocked fists.” Such lines remind us that the picturesque South is the setting of a history of violence—especially racial and sexual—where trees hang with the ghosts of strange fruit and women asked for it or were shamed for wanting it.
It’s no surprise the images of the South appear in Josephine’s book. She has lived her entire life in the South: from a small town in Alabama to Atlanta to Tallahassee. Yet what does it mean to be a Southern writer? Perhaps there are just as many ways of being a Southern writer as there are of being a woman. When I asked Josephine about the ways in which she sees herself as a Southern writer, she was hesitant. “Maybe it’s like standing with your nose against the wall. You can’t see the building until you step back,” she said. “I hadn’t really thought about there being much Southern landscape or flavor in my poems, but after you asked, I went back and looked, and there are moments,” she added. She points especially to “Postcard from the Sapelo River” as the “most overtly Southern poem” in the book, although she qualified this by claiming, “I could have changed the location and it still would have been the same poem.” I will further qualify Josephine’s own qualification: maybe, but maybe not. In “Postcard from the Sapelo River,” the speaker reads on the porch with a “highball perched / on a stack of Harlequins beside the loveseat.” Yet, the poem also refigures romantic relationships: “if you were here, my dearest, my most / comfortable of loves, I could belch, scratch my armpits, / and sit with my legs splayed.” Like much of the poem, these lines suggest the ways in which the poem subverts the myth of Southern womanhood. In sixth grade, I vividly remember being told that ladies—who always wear dresses, of course—must sit with their legs crossed (a habit I am still unable to break). The speaker in this poem is comfortable with her body and her sexuality, just as she is comfortable with her lover, and I can’t help but think this poem offers a picture of an empowered Southern woman who reads romance novels but also inhabits a love story that doesn’t require her to stick to the implicit script of Southern womanhood. This is only one of the many reasons I find Josephine Yu’s poetry so compelling. But don’t just take my word for it; take a look for yourself. You can read “Postcard from the Sapelo River,” published in Painted Bride Quarterly, here.
Laci Mattison is a Visiting Lecturer at Florida State University in Tallahassee, FL. She is one of the General Editors of the series Understanding Philosophy, Understanding Modernism (Bloomsbury) and co-editor of a special issue of Deleuze Studies titled Deleuze, Virginia Woolf and Modernism. She has published articles on Woolf, H.D, and Nabokov.