- NOW WHERE IN THE INGROWN HAIR IS MY GOOD PEN
(dreams, delusions, days)
Somehow, my feelings of poetry’s preparatory efforts to make us mourn in advance as we adventure into emotional preparedness for things that might be extremely unpleasant resonates in Aisha Sasha John’s new book. In lines like “I was still on the defense,” instead of projecting a future, or tending a vigil site, or concretizing methods of self-care in the present moment, I’m seeing the processual at play here—in a really useful way. It helps me confirm what poetry can offer in any given moment, how it can help shift ourselves out of denial—virtual and material, or support us as we move deeply through the work of fearing aspects of our world as we live with them.
Certainly, John’s poetry does not adhere to a method that has at its heart any binary between indecipherability and simplicity, between dream or delusion and the mundanity of daytime. Instead, these poems suggest that one’s own subjectivity is a condition both sad and beautiful, both real and surreal. That human beings can see themselves, like stars, as vanished beings that remain alight. And that being here, earthbound when we are, is a necessary bending of time and space as it is conventionally schematized. When John writes, “I do feel something back here. But it doesn’t feel like pain. It feels like knowledge,” we see the space in the body as a potential wormhole, as the speaker confronts a feeling of “trying to understand the rogue symptom of a UTI”—as if wanting to open the windows to let in a needed draft or shed light back there. The renewal of exchanges and generative forms of negotiation in moments like these create engagement by never staying wholly abstract. Why does someone need to be “a dog too sometimes—when it’s safe to be one”? When is it “safe”? Because some days it’s Saturday. As a reader, you can feel the beach sand in your fur after a good roll as the relief from the pain in your human kidneys. Like, you don’t miss your body even when it’s a mystery to you. Except in dreams such as this one:
At some point, though I am enjoying interacting with this small child/ren of K.’s, I realize that I am missing its bodies. I have the shoots and I have been interacting with the shoots as if they were it; I had felt that these shoots constituted the babies’ being, but eventually I panic realizing that a baby by definition is a body, and I run around trying to retrace my steps to find the misplaced tiny bodies—they are or it is (it keeps changing) either at K.’s house, as in I had never left with them, or they were at the other place/home I went to after leaving his.
But even this is a dream that, though remembered so well the morning after, will be forgotten, and eventually the body will be taken into, say, a Tuesday on the Skytrain, too.
So is the witness/reader meant to be animated by some sudden understanding of one’s own pain and intimacy, an action as friction that traverses the divide between discrete subjectivities? I don’t know. Maybe. Or maybe they are meant to confront how it feels to be exhausted by someone else’s energies on these matters? Not for me, personally. One of my favorite moments is John checking herself against her own reception at a dance class she’s (maybe) disrupting daily:
Yeah so you do that, and basically something about there needing to be rest, this nonstop movement is exhausting for others too, that I shouldn’t be there, at their class, every day.
Because all I could think of was how my own nonstop movement would be made to feel better by her company and her nonstop movement accompanying mine. I had to check myself because, of course, engaging with the discrete through the affective structure of empathy can actually serve to disrupt the illusion of mutuality since one might become aware of a discrepancy between one’s own perceptions and the experience of another. But there is also a potential that this kind of unsettlement can generate a sort of last-ditch mutuality in which interlocutors at least experience their own separateness and/or strangeness together. Fingers crossed, it’s the latter.
Critics of this work could find the difficulty discernible (the dream logics and deliriums, the opacities, abstractions and sleights of hand and diction) but the delicacy less so. They’d be wrong. The fact is: Aisha Sasha John is consistently attempting unprecedented forms in her writing and the necessity of this aim is so pumped full of the epiphanic in every line that it delights as well as destabilizes—and we should all feel grateful for the bravery of the immersion into the delicate and difficult realities of person-being. It’s as if, alongside her, we have to confront a world in which—while we are enchanted by the aforementioned epiphanic—we must also uncover that no epiphany is resolute.
- THAT THE OPPOSITE OF A COFFIN/IS A STAGE
(imperative, immediate, infinite)
The act of existing, and crafting an existence, is a constant negotiation through foreign and familiar signifiers that doesn’t necessarily yield a resolution but can be significant in describing what needs to be revolutionized: sometimes language itself. I’m a big fan of writing about writing and living while living and the conflation of the two.
To, quite literally, weigh one’s options. Counterweigh. Weigh again. Weigh other things. Against other things. Weigh things together.
Aisha Sasha John’s poetry sets up a strategy of countering the big and unwieldy universe through this method of deconstruction by position—to verb something and to simultaneously posit it can show that a sentence can be two things at once: “To be held against a surface willingly” or “To be fixed to/by an impossibility” or “To be poured into a vessel so as to exceed it” gives the feeling and material substance balance. And the lack of resolutions or privileging is important.
We do this work in our own mind’s eye in this form of list-making but John also allows us to check our phones. These little admissions of screenshots of texts or inclusions of messages illuminate the human forces that make the surreality of digital media very real to us. She exposes the tangible elements of our seemingly vacuous technological obsessions by showing how we really use them—to communicate as much as to distract ourselves. The poems, in this way, perform words that are in no way directing, but nonetheless challenge us to find the connectivity to our own ways. These lost ideas, these strange ambitions, these lists, these archived chats, these abstractions marooned together, these absurdities that delight us as we are surprised to find them. What do they mean? What do we mean? And it seems John understood that part of the task was to connect to just the querying and questions without answers of those actions, to reveal what is not ordinarily revealed, what happens to and in a body and a mind with a smartphone as a mirror.
III. I AM MY OWN METER, ME
Confessions—in the right hands—force us to share the experience of a limit, the limit as a shared limit and of the finite sharing of finitude and its exceptional cases that bring consequence to the same location of desire. To work, from that location, toward redemption or to self-emancipate from parent-shaming and feeling shamed by one’s parents in the name of “DAUGHTERHOOD” is a terrible beautiful time worthy of record. For Aisha Sasha John, she confronts this work head on: “MY THEORY IS DESIRE” she writes. She is looking at, amongst other things, the “MATERIALITY” and “FLUX” it takes
TO BE RECOGNIZED
Certainly this book, as a chronicling of her reckonings, can at times be seen as a critical distancing from her personal interest in her own intelligence and aesthetic integrity, but the poetry’s immediate nowness nurtures the inherent vibrancy (with its angry humanity) of those talents without democratizing them. Kept difficult, not tamed into a knowing place, John’s smarts and style are as distinctive as they are liberating.
As her reader, I would find myself answering her imperatives with affirmatives. She writes: “TO BE SOUL” and I could say aloud “Yes.” She writes “UNINJURED” and again my “Yes” turned up. Equally, “MISREPRESENTING, UNGRACIOUS” and “OBLIVIOUS, MISPRONOUNCING” and “ILL-FITTING, DANDRUFFED” could help me take stock. Breath a little more deeply. Sometimes less easily. Sure, we use language to empower or to undermine, to communicate, to inform, compliment, and educate, or we harm, annihilate, and destroy, via language. Equally, as social pedagogues to each other, we have the means to assassinate people’s character, malign their ideas, and destroy their self-esteem, through the accessible, dangerous weapon of language. To satirize, to list, to reel, to reference, represent, misrepresent. Or to praise, to ekphrasize and adore through unabashedness. To flesh out and to lose the details at the same time. In John’s work however, she raises these knowns as questions pertaining to issues of authority, culture, accountability, power, peace, art and the very presence of language in these places, the very form of exposure being a muddle. They don’t resist the personal but show its transformations, the private as it is public. The delimitations and the works themselves are refreshingly unconvincing, holding all the registers to be all of those things, but eschewing of communal solidarity, looking for new avenues of survival on many tongues, in many charts. These works forward a vision of life that champions immediacy. They challenge our own transactions.
And when the challenges are actually presented in the interrogatory, in lines like “DOES EMOTIONAL MATURITY CONSIST OF ESSENTIALLY A CAPACITY FOR AND PROPENSITY TOWARD NARRATIVE” it can feel more pertinent (lead by example) to say “No.” With the same breath in toward emancipation. So if “emotional maturity” shouldn’t have a narrative as such, how to move it onward…. Maybe a work like this could allow us to daughter each other a little more? And that would be, in my books, an infinitely better state of things. John’s work exists in a space between now and then and ahead, between writing and written, between the individual expression of authenticity as a feeling and art with an agenda, alert to larger meanings. Oftentimes the hardest task at hand (or in the hands of a poet), or the greatest thing at stake for one’s own humanity, is tenderness as a form of attention being paid and will as being made, and of this, John has no shortage. But tenderness isn’t simply done. It takes a lot of squinting to develop eyes that can soften.
YOUTUBE TO LOOK AT LAVA.