This summer I ate a lot of grapefruit. One day on a whim I bought a whole bag and for the next week and a half I consumed one grapefruit daily, marvelling over the sound of the pieces peeling apart, the luminescent pink flesh, the piquant feel of it on my tongue, its sting bitter in my mouth.
You could say summer is a season for feeling pink: blood thrums to the cheeks, a sunburn blossoms on the chest, the palms are hot and blotchy and slick. I skid off the pavement on my bike one day and came up with a knee and elbow skinned and raw. If it was a bodily kind of vulnerability, it was one synced to the emotional and psychic stickiness I was living with. In summer everything feels risen to the surface, hot and pink and written right across the skin for anyone to see.
In Aisha Sasha John’s I have to live, this rawness is all over and it’s all a bit too much. Everywhere the speaker encounters the mushy middle of the world that seems too soft to keep itself together. “I like it when we give the world to itself / Folding it to it / Like a soft-shelled taco,” John writes (31). If the world is the shell, we are the filling that spills unceremoniously out, the sloppy creatures we only pretend not to be. And yet, these moments of recognition and generosity offer startling grace. To be open to the world staring back at you, and to greet it with open eyes feels like the central objective of this book. “Hi, God,” the speaker writes.
But this radical openness comes with its own consequences; feeling emotions too intensely to bear, grappling with a world that does not always seem as though it will come through to rise and meet us where we are. In “It’s Saturday. I meet you, get soft,” John confronts the matter of vulnerability:
I have to trust people
Or else I’m too busy.
I feel nothing but foolish
And also okay
Because what will happen is I will
Continue to live.
And then one day I’ll die. (47)
I have to live deals in this; the precious, tiny mussel heart of you that you hate to expose, the fleshy insides you couldn’t work to make cute if you tried, and the necessity of exposing them anyway. The poems champion the courage to pry your shell apart rather than quivering to cover up—to let your insides sit and crinkle in the open air; if only because, as the refrain chants, I have to live.
The poems in the collection are small and spare. The lines gather around the left-hand margin; they don’t waste energy or expend words, but rather embody a language of survival and of necessity. “Why should I know what I’m talking about / When I can merely feel it?” the speaker asks (5). “What would I write if I were going to live?” John’s epigram implores. There is a slowness to the form that marries itself to a kind of bluntness, a refusal of pretension. “I’m cleansed of / Everything stupid,” the speaker tells us (94). “You have to worship the fact of life and not its / Corny by-products. // Art is for romantics. / Art is for stupid people” (6).
This insistence in cutting through bullshit and facing the world head-on illustrates a certain kind of toughness. Not toughness for its own sake, or for machismo, but a tenacity that arises out of struggle and that manifests as a firm resolve to carry on and weather the world. As the speaker writes in “And a withering pear I can’t eat”:
I have to have problems I suppose
Or else I would have a
Very, very hard sweetness. (9)
This balance of softness and hardness, toughness and pliability twines through the text. Later, the speaker returns to assert its necessity: “I have to be fibrous / So as not to be consumed. / I have to / fucking live” (99).
And the bluntness does serve to accentuate the tenderness, to make even more precious the moments of connection we glimpse through the poems. “I hold my own hand firmly,” the speaker writes in “Strong basic love”—“Look at us / I am holding you in my face” (64). These moments of contact, the ways in which bodies hold each other or at least memories of each other, are key to the collection. Quiet and small rather than dramatic or glamorous, they invite us to witness bodies in the midst of a sloppy try:
My hand is not steady
But my heart wet
Lend me your neck or your palm
And I will draw something ugly by accident. (106)
These are poems with bite, but also with tongue.
Through the book, the self is stripped bare again and again, pushed out into a raw sun that grazes the marbled body. Despite this abrasion, a language of softness throbs and pulses on—in a rabbit fur coat, the soft middle of a blackberry, the body. We are eating and mouth-y, weeping and oozy, tuned into pleasure and pain and the vicissitudes of the sky. “Something softens me,” the speaker tells us in the opening poem, “something spills out my pores as light” (3). Whatever this ineffable something, it holds a spiritual quality—channeling it becomes a means of channeling love, becomes a kind of communion with God and the world. This is what I have to live offers: the humility to accept what the world can give, opens the pores to it, and listen, and look, and say hi.
I have to live
by Aisha Sasha John
McClelland & Stewart, 160 pp., $16.95
Kara Stanton is a writer and reader with a soft spirit and a devouring heart. They spend most of their time thinking about bodies and land and language and how the three fit together (or don’t) or, alternatively, analyzing the line breaks in road signs.