Prayer Book of the Anxious



THE BOOK: Prayer Book of the Anxious


THE AUTHOR: Josephine Yu

THE EDITOR: Dana Curtis


SUMMARY: Prayer Book of the Anxious addresses themes of anxiety and loneliness, spirituality and religious doubt, community and compassion, family and marriage. With a mixture of humor and pathos, the poems explore the tension of religious incredulity in conflict with spiritual yearning. The collection seeks to remake religious customs and retell the stories of saints to provide comfort to a secular life. Echoing the incantations and language of Catholic prayers, poems such as “Prayer to Joseph: For the Restless” are not religious in the traditional sense, but instead locate faith in empathy and community. According to Tupelo Quarterly, “Yu’s poems find holiness, not in the heavenly, but in the earthly, the fleshly, the human.”

Image result for josephine yu poet + photosA number of persona poems in the collection examine the ways people cope with worry and loneliness, like a fortune teller who foretells heartbreak (“The Fortune Teller Knows She’ll Never Marry”) or the lepidopterist who dreams of exotic and unattainable species of butterflies (“Why the Lepidopterist Lives Alone”). In other poems, simple rituals like scooping out a litter box (“How Do You Say”), filling a bird feeder with seed (“The Thing You Might Not Understand”), or offering a spouse a glass of water (“Why I Did Not Proceed with the Divorce”) become acts of love, sustaining friendships and marriage. Kim Addonizio, author of The Poet’s Companion, notes that within this collection “you’ll find weeping and gnashing of teeth, grief and profound loneliness, in words that ‘throb on the page like nerves.’ There’s also a belief in transformation, and in moments that can only be called grace: the upwelling tenderness for strangers, getting stoned behind the school library, embracing a lover from behind as he washes the dishes.”

THE BACK STORY: In ninth grade, I was flipping through my English textbook during science class and came across a poem called “Her Kind” by Anne Sexton. The speaker’s unpitying admission that she had “gone out, a possessed witch, […] lonely thing, twelve fingered, out of mind” seared me to the bone. I didn’t know quite what I’d read, but I knew I wanted more. I sought out “more” during high school, then college, and I had the luxury of “even more” during my masters and doctoral programs, when I wrote most of the poems in this book.

WHY THIS TITLE?: The manuscript was first called The Optimists’ Birthday. Poet Barbara Hamby, my PhD mentor, suggested Prayer Book of the Anxious instead. I stubbornly held out, submitting the manuscript with its original title for two years. But eventually I realized Barbara was right (she’s always right): Prayer Book of the Anxious better highlights the themes of the book, while still emphasizing its optimistic tone. After all, prayer (saying “please” to the unknown and expecting a response) is a truly optimistic endeavor.

WHY WOULD SOMEONE WANT TO READ IT? I enjoy poetry because it is a form of meditation, a focusing of attention that often results in a new understanding. In a culture that encourages distraction, poetry demands reflection, which is a spiritual act. As French philosopher Nicolas Malebranche wrote, “Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul.”

I have found inspiration, knowledge, and joy in poetry. I hope readers of Prayer Book of the Anxious take pleasure in its humor and enjoy the company of the often anxious, sometimes lonely, but always hopeful daughters, saints, narcissists, and lovers that congregate in these pages.


“Both bawdy and reverent, tender and frustrated, Yu’s poems, which are often humorously titled, maintain a curiosity that is almost rapturous—a questioning always followed by the infectious satisfaction of solving the puzzle.”  —Publisher’s Weekly, starred review

“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.” — Tupelo Quarterly

“These are smart, savvy poems, but they are also humane in the best sense of that word: interested in the human and compassionate to all beings. Josephine Yu asks the right questions: ‘What animal am I?’ and ‘Ready to go home?’—and the answers she gives are always those of an anxiety-born attention, not just to the self but to all of humanity.” — Sarah Kennedy, Contest judge, 15th Annual Elixir Press Poetry Awards

“This beautiful collection begins with a poem about lying, to which one says, ‘Yippee!’ A poet’s lies beat today’s headlines hollow, and Josephine Yu has assembled here a cast of winsome, slightly off-center characters to help with all that prevarication: a lepidopterist who lives alone, a fortune teller who knows she’ll never marry, saints and dreamers of every kind. So many poetry collections are monotone—not this one. A hundred voices bubble out of these pages, each one beseeching you to listen. You’d be crazy not to.” — — David Kirby, author of The House on Boulevard Street: New and Selected Poems

AUTHOR PROFILE: Josephine Yu grew up in Atlanta, so naturally she calls all soda “Coke.” After college, she got a job at Coca-Cola, but once the novelty of the ICEE machine in the break room wore off, she returned to Georgia State University for her masters in creative writing. In 2007 she dragged her husband, Royal, to Tallahassee, so she could earn her PhD at Florida State University. She’s now a faculty member at Keiser University, where she teaches writing and literature. She also volunteers at Big Bend Hospice, providing respite care and reading to patients. Some of Josephine’s favorite things are board games, Christmas movies, and senior dogs—especially her own good dog, Sissy. She is also quite fond of her husband, who is from Wisconsin and calls Coke “pop.”

Josephine’s poems have appeared in such journals as Ploughshares, The Southern Review, TriQuarterly, and Best New Poets. She won the Ploughshares 2013 Emerging Writers Contest, Meridian’s 2010 Editor’s Prize, the New Letters 2010 Poetry Award, and the New Letters 2010–2011 Readers Award for Poetry. Prayer Book of the Anxious is her first book.


Prayer to Saint Joseph: For the Restless

by Josephine Yu

Saint Joseph, stepfather of Christ, patron of moving, patron
against doubt, lead us not to Seattle or LA or SoHo
when unease thickens like lime calcifying

in the porcelain basins of our chests. Lead us not
into the temptation of sublets or studio walk-ups
that get good afternoon light in our imagination.

Patron of real estate agents, deafen our ears to the call
of subdivisions with shorter commutes and condos
our lovers will swoon to enter, with brass-fixtured bathrooms

they will never lock themselves in to weep.
Patron of immigrants, let us think not on the president
of Kazakhstan, who moved his capital to a frozen steppe

and there built an aquarium and a glass pyramid
of dark-loamed, path-stitched gardens. Let us not be quick
to split when we bankrupt our small countries. O patron

of travelers and wheelwrights, when the wallpaper ripples
in the humidity of our malaise and the carpet is worn
to a sheen by our pacing, stop us before we put our houses

on the market and bury your statue in the backyard
for luck. You who know the summons
of the journey, remind us of the friend who left town

in the middle of the week, abandoning
a mattress and a lease, and whom we later learned
stepped off a bridge, holding hands with his loneliness.

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.

The Fortune Teller Knows She’ll Never Marry

Because she wakes one morning with hands
so swollen even her father’s class ring
can’t be worked over the stiff knuckle.
Because weevils writhe in her canister
of rice and the dough under the cheesecloth
veil refuses to rise and she draws three times
a worn Five of Cups from the tarot deck.

So when she traces a hopeful woman’s
sloping heart line, she returns her folded bill
and foretells: “You give your love too easily,
you toss it like pennies into a well.
You’ll come to know no more thrilling sound
than your own heart breaking like the crest
of a wave or the clapper of a glass bell.”



LOCAL OUTLETS: Please support your local independent bookstores and ask them to order Prayer Book of the Anxious.

WHERE ELSE TO BUY IT: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.

PRICE: $17


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Recently retired after 35 years with the News & Advance newspaper in Lynchburg, VA, now re-inventing myself as a novelist/nonfiction writer and writing coach in Lake George, NY.

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