Thou, by Aisha Sasha John (BookThug, 2014), surfs the porous border between the mind and physical reality; it does so in service of the question, what is a person? Or, more personally, who am I?
I didn’t want to go so I didn’t go
I did want to post something online so I posted something.
I wanted to conceal and confuse so I did.
I wanted to cover and also to reveal and so I did.
I do believe this is a beginning
If you sift
and then gather the dirt into a line, you have a story.
You can put perfume on that line but I’m not
anymore a liar.
I want to smell the armpits of the line
like how the unit of a poem
is your mouth.
The end. (134-5)
The above selection contains elements of style and construction that repeat throughout the book.
The mode of address: direct and clear, powered by the voice.
Regarding subject matter, the simultaneous desire to reveal and to cover up. The want to show and the want to hide, the want to make clear and the want to confuse; the presence of both types of desire within one communication is actually very accurate to the way in which people share information. That is to say, people contain contradictory impulses. The contradiction is not impossible, and may be the only way to actually convey certain truths about time, the body, and the nature of perception. Sometimes the only way to make clear is to compound, and sometimes to cover is to make plain.
The desire to ‘smell the armpits of the line’ is framed as a matter of fact; this speaks to the style of the mode of address. There is a forthrightness to the line and to the sentiment; this guides the work’s approach to its subjects: we are going to be looking at reality, and there is no need to pretty it up, because it is beautiful in and of itself, despite or perhaps because of its messiness.
‘If you sift/and then gather the dirt into the line, you have a story.’ This line also gets at the book’s approach to looking at the world. Thou has a notational feeling, as if the base ingredient of John’s compositions were the direct transcriptions of her observations of the external world.
This sense of things operating in their thingness is also expressed in the following poem:
To make a work is to sit with your irrelevance
and confront your importance
I mean, the swallows just fly.
And the papaya sweats when cut.
With the pad of my right index finger
I smooth my left brow.
It’s so easy and feels
feels so physical.
The taste of plain yogurt
which has turned, slightly.
I knew I would change physically. (35)
The poem is an accrual of examples of things being themselves, framed in the context of creating artistic work. John, as author, is capable of taking these things in, of observing them, and transmuting them into writing. But at the same time, this intake has an effect on her as an author. Knowledge becomes one.
The author-function, the very ability to perceive and transmute through writing, is placed in a complex relation to the objects listed, especially the swallows. ‘The swallows just fly’ recalls the biblical lilies of the field, which toil not, yet are sustained. That ‘just’ is powerful. They ‘just’ fly.
But, for swallows, flying is their work. It is even more than that; it is what they must do. The author-function is positioned here as both irrelevant and important. There is a certain reading of humanness, which could say that writing is superfluous, is an extra level of toil that is not needed, not called for. But at the same time, there is a reading that says that the author-function is as natural, necessary and basic as the act of flying.
The way in which these contradicting, multiple thoughts are held, balanced, in the same line, is a recurring feature of the poems in Thou.
Thou is a book you get lost in, as subtly and irrevocably as you would if you walked into a forest sans compass.
There is a subtle way in which the lines ‘like how the unit of a poem/is your mouth’ carries two very different meanings. They call to the importance of the voice, of the spoken, both as a compositional tool for the work, and a way of conveying information in life. On the other, it says, very literally, that the poem is made of the body of another. This is a transference, a blending of the selves: John’s words are made of another’s body. That body is her words. This mingling is portrayed as a fact of life, self-evident, ‘The end.’
A line burst onto me/and so I came home to it. (157)
The desire, the impetus to write, features in Thou as a bodily presence capable of transposing the everyday into a higher level of reality. The presence of this desire in the body of the writer excites their perception, awakening sensitivities, making them able to see in new ways. It is an open question in the book, whether objects always possess the qualities that make them noteworthy, or whether the heightened perception of the writer imbues them with qualities they did not possess before. Whichever the case may be, and it may be somehow both, the effect is to make the reader aware as well of the nature of things in themselves, for themselves, a deep sense of identity, that is not determined by how useful an object is or what it may be used for.
Thou is comprised of two long poems, ‘Physical’ and ‘The Book of You’. ‘The Book of You’ appears second, but was actually written first chronologically; ‘I didn’t want to go so I didn’t go’, which appears as part of it, was published by BookThug as a chapbook in 2012.
This chronological switch-up proves interesting. ‘The Book of You’ features a style, and exploration of themes that appear again in ‘Physical’. There is an investigation of the idea that through desire, identities may literally become one another.
and we might
right among the spaces
my side and arm and your
arm and side
and your thick
and behind that your
and the space between that nut and
some energy around which there is no space.
We dip dates into a good wine
and have communion.
Have we the same
This investigation of communion brings to bear questions of learning and feeling: how are knowledge and emotion intertwined, how do these things enter into or arise from the body, and how are they shared?
It is a polemical gesture to present the idea of communion so directly and powerfully. Thou asks the reader to decide how they feel about it, to decide if they believe it. To decide if they agree with the perception of the process as outlined in the text.
The question of perception is complicated in ‘Physical’, wherein John travels to Marrakech. The experience of being in a new culture opens up the multiplicity of ways of being in the world. This creates a feeling of openness. Suddenly behaviours become choices. ‘Physical’ is a destabilising; there is less certainty in this section than in ‘The Book of You’.
So, it is interesting that in Thou, the more destabilising section comes first, which implies a type of progression, a progression towards greater certainty. Whereas, in reality, the reality of John’s life—at least, as it is seen through the writing—the opposite is true.
By confounding chronology, Thou troubles the sense of linear progression in time. It is also saying something about the nature of perception, and the thoughts and writing that come from perception. The mind works on a circuit, it goes around, it comes around, certainly becomes uncertainty becomes certainty. The mind is changeful, and narratives of linear progression are false impositions. What we think today, we might not think tomorrow, but we may think it again in a year. And the writing we do will be coloured by these states of mind. The way we are able to transcribe the events of our day will be shaded by our feelings.
How do we see what we see?
distinct, physical medium mountain and physical medical log clouds;
bush, space, bush,
donkey. It’s not
getting any less.
I will let it work on me physically. (39)
There is a narrative thrust to ‘Physical’: a woman arrives in a new country; its ways are exciting to her, we feel that the differences between the new place and where she is coming from are surprising and pleasing; they feel right. Then the woman is struck with a case of sickness brought on by eating the food of the new country, and her body revolts against her. She spends many days in bed, and then she gets better.
The storyline restarts.
But the narrative continued through the sickness.
The sickness brought about a change in relation to the body. It was intensely physical. This heightened awareness of the body became an opportunity for notational practice.
The director. He prescribed
A Thai yoga tonic massage—
For the following morning.
In my wishes I said if.
In my wishes I said if I am with this pain
12 hours from now god—
I will need a massage from God.
Before all that I was okay I thought.
I saw your pit stain in the resto at lunch.
I said, Nice to see you – forcefully. (14)
Sickness causes the body to retract its energy into itself. The perception is simultaneously decreased (leaving the world) and heightened (focused on the body). It is curious that this sickness is overlaid in ‘Physical’ with the destabilising experience of a new culture.
In the poems, both are sites for transformation.
The lambs are in a square pen.
The area around the lamb pen
Smells of the shit of lambs.
(add something here) (18)
Thus ends one of the poems in ‘Physical’. It highlights the notational qualities running throughout the book, in two ways.
For one, it is an example of observing and reporting on the facts of the seen; the experiences that appear before the face of the poet. Being attuned to these experiences posits the poet as a conduit between the external world and the book, which contains poems, that the poet is writing. The world is one thing. The poems are another. They are in a sense separated. But, the poet is the interstitial point.
The external enters into the poet, and the poet projects a point of view into the external. This is a double movement, a constant movement, occurring simultaneously, an interpenetration, the mingling of clear and salt water in a tidal bay.
For another, the parenthetical ending points to a view of the poem as continually in process, purposefully unfinished, less of a bounded object, and more of a movement. This affirms the poem as a tool/product of ongoing observation.
The notational style allows for quick cuts and hard edits, mid-scene jump to new scene. These depictions of discrete realities are knit together by the force of the poet’s focus, which finds/places/claims the underlying commonalities, the hidden affinities, between these discrete occurrences.
The sick person spends days in bed. The days pass, almost as if they were the same day over and over again. The same objects appear: flies, sicknesses, patterns of light.
The repetition that modulates; we have here a model of time that approximates the eternal present of the mind.
This sick room, with its dim light and bodily smells, is a necessary space for thought.
I like to think of my body as a garment
I have borrowed my body.
It means I need all afternoon to think everyday.
That’s what it means.
It means money looks like movement.
I have to think about existence every fucking day.
And I am unwasteful.
If I don’t consider the day how can I live in it. (54)
Thou‘s seemingly casual manner marries notation and narration into a fully realised, inherently porous presence. It allows for the construction of a tight interweaving of themes—the limits and potentials of the body, the malleability of knowledge, transference, desire—in a way that deflects from the rigid course of argument. The book unfolds along a highly personal, highly developed line of reasoning: not of the classroom, but of life. It bristles with an intelligence sharpened on the realisation that feeling is a way of thinking. Emotional intelligence. We are not shown, we are made to feel. Embodiment. The effect, of looseness carrying and building tropes in a way that explicates and satisfies, while maintaining an air of mystery, makes Thou a model of poetic construction.