Aisha Sasha Johns I Have to Live (Toronto, ON: McClelland & Stewart, 2017, $16.95, 160 pages). Review by Domenica Martinello.

In a culture that takes pride in leisure and unrelenting productivity with an equally obsessive rigor, multidisciplinary artist Aisha Sasha John’s third collection of poetry I have to live stakes its claim outright. “I have to live” is a declaration made not so much from the heart or mind but from the stomach: full of blood, hunger, and life force. As the refrain modulates from universal, to idiosyncratic, to even withholding, I have to live churns butter from the pleasures of a fully unapologetic personhood. It turns the common fact of living into its own artist’s statement.

Here’s a sampling of John’s ‘formal’ artist’s statement from her website: “I love activity very much, I love to do things. Thus, it is very important that what I spend my time doing is good for me. My artistic vision is to be relaxed and all the activities I do are in this service.” I have to live abides by this vision right down to the watercolor wash of purple and pink on its cover page. John operates with a relaxed confidence, the way loose brushstrokes require an artist’s faith. In other words, I delight in how John’s chill artist’s statement spits in the face an economy that celebrates—as a recent headline for The New Yorker puts it—working yourself to death.

With the boundaries of work and leisure more blurred than ever before, even living is a commodity. Think of lifestyle gurus, YouTube stars, and other “creative influencers” who hang a decorative tapestry over late capitalism and post it on Instagram. John recognizes the specificity of the consumerist moment she both inhabits and rejects:

When I am dead this time
Will be an object
And I
Will be an object

That’s okay.
Right now I am alive
I like it.

There’s also a clear divide between work and everything that isn’t work. I have to live acknowledges labour but certainly doesn’t glorify it. Take all three lines of “I can’t believe I agreed to go to work today”: “That was so dumb of me. / I hate money. / And I hate sitting down.” Another poem outlines the way work gets in the way of the body being a body:

The first time I came here I was late, I was scolded
I was bleeding.
I barely even cared
Fuck, look:
When I start to bleed
I have to eat.

The speaker relishes in the subversive act of being “lazy,” of “hardly [knowing] what’s going on,” and of continuing to attend to her “heart” and “pussy.” The speaker must live in accordance with the rhythm of her desires lest she feel the remorse of having “left prime sweetness / Between the tight teeth / Of some hurried days.”

The prime sweetness of John’s micro-poems is often a morsel of evocative, idiosyncratic thought. Evocative of what I’m not always sure, but as John puts it later in the collection, they seem to enact a “performance called DON’T YOU WANNA KNOW WHAT I’M DOING EVERY DAY!” In short, yes. I am somehow riveted as John ruminates “if it’s even sanitary / To leave the ketchup outside all the time. / At night, even. / And also the hot sauce.” In “I like it when we give the world it itself,” one of my favourite poems in the collection, I don’t necessarily need to know about the origins of the mysterious photograph to love the lines “Hi, God. // I said in the photo’s caption. / It’s Aisha. // I volunteer.”

The collection does move into a place that is intentionally withholding, however. An unusually descriptive poem set in Zagora, Morocco ends with the speaker toying with the audience’s access, concluding: “I get / What I come for. // Do I tell you?” Reading like a letter, “For you and all your siblings and friends and husbands or boyfriends” signs off “Daddy // Page 2 of 2.” Readers don’t get first page of the epistle, though its existence haunts the poem. These instances of intentional obfuscation are a risk because they cast other moments in a different light. Poems that seem guilelessly idiosyncratic and without context are suddenly a little more—what is it—glib?

Yes, we’re being teased. If you’re a reader who is willing to yield your sense of authority, you’ll love it. If you go into books thinking their authors owe you anything, you might not. If you need to exert your intellectual control, though, John is more than willing to cede the steering wheel with a wink, as in “I defer to you”: “It’s great. / I’m tired of always knowing everything.”

Ultimately I have to live is a collection rife with life lessons ranging from how to be funny (the answer is to “never joke”), how to have “the most pleasure,” how to prioritize food over all else, how to relax and “draw something ugly by accident.” You know, the basics. It’s also a reminder to stop taking ourselves so seriously. Take a moment to forget the hustle, forget the grind, forget networking, forget working all together and take a cue from John in “Today I could aspire but I want to nap.”

Some people are interested in exploring the ways
Something is negotiated
In light of something else.
God bless them.
I have to fucking live.

Domenica Martinello, from Montréal, was a finalist for the 2017 Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers. She is completing an MFA in poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and her debut collection of poetry, All Day I Dream About Sirens, is forthcoming.

This review was published in issue 14:2 Lies and Duplicity.” To see more from this issue, please visit Vallum’s website.

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