Josephine Yu Interview, with Ösel Jessica Plante
In these poems, the quotidian, like migraines and Magic 8 Balls, brush right up against subjects like saints and supernovas. How do you think these subjects inform one another?
Saints and supernovas help me, if not make sense of the quotidian, then make it meaningful. Or perhaps it’s the other way around. Regardless, I think a richer, more interestingly textured cloth can be woven of the ordinary and extraordinary, than from just one of those threads.
Your first book, Prayer Book of the Anxious, was published in 2016. What are you planning for your next project?
I’m working on a manuscript of poems about ways the body supports and clothes and hosts and betrays and fails us, inspired in part by my experiences volunteering as a hospice respite care provider.
What inspires you?
Reading poetry seems to tune my mind into another frequency, and I pick up more of the metaphors the world is sending. I mean, they’re always being broadcast; I’m just not always listening.
I also get ideas walking with my husband in the evening, as we hash out our day, discuss what we’ve read, and try to figure things out together, like a new unit of measurement to calculate the amount of light left in a dying flashlight. Isn’t poetry an inventing, a sorting through, a figuring out?
Whose poetry have you turned to more than anyone else's?
Anne Sexton is a touchstone. Elizabeth Bishop, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hass, Sharon Olds, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Louise Glück, Ross Gay, Jane Hirshfield, Billy Collins, Jennifer Knox, Kay Ryan, Natasha Trethewey, Tony Hoagland. (This is like having to pick a best friend.) I always tuck an anthology like Seriously Funny in my suitcase, to travel with good company.
If you weren’t a poet, what would you be?
Growing up I wanted to be a train conductor, ice skater, or nun. Ah, what could have been!
My ten-year plan is to run a dog retirement home. I adore senior dogs.
Home Remedy for Headaches
Lying on my husband’s chest
with my hand pressed to my forehead,
then eye socket, next cheekbone, I shift my palm
by degrees, testing
for the right position, the right pressure.
Always a poor student, now I wish
I’d memorized the lectures
in the drowsying halls of geography and physics, lessons
that might have shown me how to calculate
the coordinates and newtons, the surface tension,
the cartography of suffering,
its topography and density, the latitude and longitude
My husband’s hand covers mine,
his words cover our hands, declarations
of love often political—You are the speaker of my house,
the senator of my thoughts—or scientific
and terrifying: My love
and terrifying: My love
for you is a star going supernova, a black hole pulling you in, you
my favorite planet, my every carbon atom.
From his love, mercifully,
nothing can escape, not the ear’s pulsar thrumming,
not the migraine’s dark matter expanding
inside the temple, not one subatomic particle of pain.
Lament of the Unprepared
How could we have guessed all that would threaten to cleave
us in two? How could
we have predicted the dog
struck down, our brother holding her outside the locked clinic
as she bled on the coat we gave him for Christmas?
Or that wrens would balance
their nest on a mop propped
against the porch and we’d spend March on guard,
plucking limp, featherless chicks off the concrete with tissues.
If we’d known, could we not
have braced ourselves?
St. Ambrose, known to levitate circled by doves,
send us signs—the almost inhalable whiteflies swirling like ash
in the dust-pierced light of June,
or a constellation of hives flaring
across our chests, or some code in the arrangement of labels
on cans of soup, each lifted and turned by many hands.
Last October, we returned
from the hospital to find
our duplex neighbor lining the fence with Orthodox crosses
and granite angels to keep the neighborhood dogs, she explained,
from shitting by the mailbox,
as if they would sense
land newly blessed with yard sale finds. She gave us an evil eye
to hang above our door. Its baleful cobalt stare judged our short-
comings and goings but offered no
warning about the claustrophobia
of CAT scans or the burn of an IV port in the back
of the hand. Saint Crispin, patron of cobblers and glove makers,
revive industry in America
so the factories churn out
tarot cards, the fool and the hanged man holding their breath
in cellophane. Laminate the Ouji boards, sand the planchettes,
and wind up our ideomotor reflexes.
Our fingers are twitching for yes,
for the vowels and consonants of the right answer. Send
Magic 8 balls sloshing down the conveyor belts, icosahedral dice
rising up to reassure us Without
a doubt and You may rely on it
or to offer the singular relief of My sources say no