Our Poem of the Week excursion through the poetry collections on the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist now stops at “I fold in half”, one of numerous examples of Aisha Sasha John’s refreshingly direct authorial voice in I have to live.
“I fold in half” exemplifies what the Griffin Poetry Prize judges observed when they remarked that John’s collection “shows what poetry can become when stripped of prettiness and polite convention — when in survival mode.” The poem’s title is the start of a declarative sentence, rolling straight into the business at hand. In this case, the business at hand is a mundane job, but John’s narrator gets to it.
As she marches forward, her drive is not blinded to telltale details in the world she is navigating that might aid or impede her survival.
“I consider how long stickers have rested on the glass”
is both vigilant and verging on humorous in its concern for safety.
Still, in her next breath, she contradicts her apparent attention to detail and confesses that she was late the first time she showed up for this job. This narrator is both breezily heedless and – maybe – mindfully self-deprecating.
A couple of weeks ago, we examined how Natalie Shapero spoke to us directly through her lyric poetry. Arguably, John’s poem is also lyric, in the sense at least that she is speaking directly, certainly in that she speaks intimately. In her two references to bleeding, you don’t know at first if she is injured – thereby eliciting sympathy – or menstruating, eliciting any number of reactions, none of them necessarily sympathetic even if they might be empathetic. She’s in a workplace. She’s new here, we’ve only just met, maybe that information is too personal or not appropriate. But you know what? She “barely even cared.” We can’t help but admire that she’s speaking directly and bluntly, but she is not speaking to us.
As the Griffin judges couch it, “John writes poems that are resistant to overwrought aesthetics, poems that have popular appeal yet are uninhibited by audience …” Even though we are not her audience, or she barely cares if she has an audience, we’re still drawn to listen to her pain, her boredom, her hunger. We’re attracted to the unvarnished voraciousness that strikes us from the outset in the title of the book, which is like a refrain woven throughout the collection.
By quite steadfastly focusing on herself, her feelings, her appetites, John gives us new perspectives from which to view ourselves and those around us.