The chapter opens by explaining that the title, “Joe,” is the English mispronunciation of Yolanda’s nickname “Yo.” Yolanda stands at a window watching a man she calls “Doc” walk across the lawn with a tennis ball and racket. She imagines him as the son of tycoons and begins playing with the word “tycoon” and the names of objects in the room. Unseen, she blows him a kiss. She is apparently in love with him, but her language is so random and disorienting that the course of her thoughts seems unstructured and illogical.
Yo begins narrating her own memories to herself, as if she were talking to Doc. She explains that she loved John at first, and then flashes back to different scenes and dialogues that occurred between her and John, now her ex-husband. Her language is strangely poetic and surreal, and the two lovers jokingly speak in rhyme, although Yolanda has a more poetic ear for the sound of language than John does.
The scene shifts abruptly to an argument in which John tells Yolanda to see a shrink. She feels uncomfortable with his crude slang and idiomatic expressions like “shrink” and “push comes to shove,” and she begins to feel that she cannot trust him. Yolanda lists John’s fastidious behaviors, such as folding his clothes after lovemaking, and concludes that John is too much a realist to live in her poetical world with her. In particular, she reminisces about finding John’s list weighing the pros and cons of marrying her. She found the list after she had started seeing a psychiatrist, Doctor Payne (Doc), and confronted John about whether he had to decide he loved her or not.
In the next scene, John tries to kiss and make love to Yolanda, who resists angrily. There follows a scene, which probably occurs soon after, in which John brings home blue flowers for Yolanda. Yolanda recognizes kindness in John’s tone, but, bizarrely, cannot understand his words. She hears only “babble, babble” and John reveals that he cannot understand her either, leading Yolanda to hope that they have exhausted language and can return to silence.
Yolanda writes a note to John and returns to her parents, who become concerned by her habit of ceaselessly talking in quotations. She quotes poets like Frost, Stevens, Rilke and Rumi, and even sings children’s rhymes throughout dinner and during her sessions with Doctor Payne. The doctor decides to check her into a small, private facility where he can keep an eye on her. During her treatment, she finds herself falling in love with Doc. She also develops what she calls an “allergic reaction” to certain words, so that saying “love” or “alive” causes her eyes to water and skin to itch.
Finally, the narrative returns to the opening scene in which Yolanda is watching Doc with his tennis gear. She imagines a beating hunger—heartbreak—inside her that emerges like a dark bird and swoops down on Doc, who is sunning on the lawn. His red towel turns into a pool of blood for Yolanda, who cries out to him. He tries to guess who is calling his name from the window until Yolanda shouts her name at him. The name causes her to feel uncomfortably itchy, the signs of her allergic reaction to words, and she ends the chapter by saying various words aloud to test how she will react to them.
Yolanda’s psychological instability emerges from her hypersensitivity to sex and language, which she cannot separate from each other. The dangerous aspect of Yolanda’s obsession with language is the temptation to build alternate worlds that she is either unwilling or unable to distinguish from the Real World, as she calls it. As she speaks with John, his words “throw themselves off the tip of his tongue like suicides” (73) or she swallows her words and feels them “beat against her stomach” (75) violently. Words have a dramatic physical existence for her and can spin fantastic visions of beasts howling in a river. When she watches the “black bird” (83) of her broken heart attack Doc, she is startled into thinking the bird might actually hurt him. Her perception itself becomes distorted, and she briefly mistakes Doc’s red towel for blood. Her inner world is so vivid that it overwhelms the Real World.
Yolanda takes an ironic tone in capitalizing “Real World” (73), implying that she considers it to be an idea just like her own internal world; the Real World has been legitimized only because enough people believe in it. She says nothing explicit on the subject, but her tone of alienation from the Real World points again to the danger of her preoccupation with language. If the Real World only has significance through the symbolic order of language, there is nothing to prevent her from creating her own equally legitimate Personal World. She even invokes the creative power of God’s Word when alludes to the opening of the Bible, “In the beginning” (70). She resists placing limits on words’ power to create.
John, however, is a firm believer in the Real World. He is methodical and unimaginative and speaks in clichés that indicate his relative indifference to language. By the end of their marriage, the difference in their respective interest in language has been amplified until it seems to Yolanda that they do not speak the same language at all. When John brings her flowers to reconcile with her, she hears only “babble babble” (78). John is speaking English, but his words meaning nothing to her and metaphorically become nonsense syllables.
When she leaves John, she begins to speak only in quotations of other writers, as though she finds language so overwhelmingly powerful that she fears to use her own words. As her therapy with Doc progresses, he urges her to use only her own words, forcing her to confront the meanings of what she says. She becomes frustrated at her inability to define crucial abstractions like “love” or “Yolanda” accurately, and she develops allergic reactions, such as itchy skin and watery eyes, to saying these words. Such words mean too much and nothing at all, whereas Yolanda wants a precise correspondence between the word and what it signifies.
Doc tries to teach her that not every emotion or idea needs to be articulated in language. Some experiences, he suggests, exist outside the symbolic order of language, and are real despite being indefinable.