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There’s Stuff Between Things:
Aisha Sasha John's I have to live

Aisha Sasha John, I have to live
Toronto, ON: McClelland & Stewart, 2017.

In a conversation with Lisa Robertson, (hosted by BookThug and viewable online), Aisha Sasha John observes that an octopus can see with its skin. Tiny organs in the skin of an octopus, disconnected from the brain or eye, swell in response to light, sending waves of colour across the skin’s surface. John uses this phenomenon to challenge one’s prevailing modes of perception. In I have to live, she posits new modes of perception in seeking to answer the question–Where is the soul lodged?

Following John through the numinous sequence of poems in I have to live makes you want to give less of a fuck. It makes you wonder why you ever thought poetry was somehow not the feeling of being hungry for what’s in “the fridge in the staff kitchen,” or that it doesn’t have to do with “the left side of [your] pussy,” which sometimes hurts, and certainly “feel[s] [when something] is stupid.”

I have to live suggests that poetry happens between things. The poem, like friendship, like emotion, like living, takes place in between subjects, is in direct correlation with one’s feelings toward the subject or object. Not in you or me, but churned up by circulation. Between us.

John’s work dances in the necessary agnosticism that comes from knowing “anything at all”; its uncertainty originates in confidence rather than doubt: “The first knowledge is of our ignorance. / Hi.” In this territory, possibility multiplies; the space of absence after a death is filled with lush peach curtains “round and wild with wind.” Importantly, John reclaims the tacit knowledge of the body; the spirit does not just navigate the body, “The spirit / is the body.” John’s work, fully carnal and holy, involves the waking body. It necessitates lack of control. It’s obsessed with beginnings, with thresholds, with the mysterious “destiny / beyond this hallway.” Its heaven is met “in your company. / And yours. / And yours. / … / And also / Yours hi.” The text explodes not as fragment but as web: it’s sticky. You are invited.

I have to live is a particular assemblage of possibilities, a particular following of hunger, of the divine, of the body’s desires, of weeping. It communicates that living is not a complete-able act. That poetry is part of the betweenness in the act of living. That in this sensuous mess, all we can know is that “what there’s been / is non-stop being.” We meet here.

There are certain artists whose work I can’t stop revisiting, and each revisit is a meeting, is a reward. Aisha Sasha John is one such artist. In I have to live, the poem takes the form of the contact we have with living. This is the soul.

The soul is between.


Sarah Burgoyne is a writer living in Montreal. Her first collection Saint Twin was nominated for the A.M. Klein Prize in Poetry.