Aisha Sasha John’s most recent chapbook begins with a short page that might double as scrolling titles at the start of a horror film: “In the fall of 2018, I left Toronto for Vancouver—the city where I spent the bulk of my childhood and in whose suburbs my parents still live.”
On a separate line: “I stayed 4 months.”
The pall cast by that line break does something both sinister and silly, which also seem to be the primary modalities of the suburbs as John (re)experiences them. TO STAND AT THE PRECIPICE ALONE AND REPEAT WHAT IS WHISPERED roves formally between dreamscape paragraphs recounting thready causalities of hyperspecific events; all-caps inventories that may be affirmations as much as desire-paths as much as psychological grocery lists; a faux (real?) screenshot of text chain; and the occasional object that looks just enough like a traditional poem to fool you into thinking you’ve been given a moment to organize yourself. The speaker has weird dreams, asks questions and makes lists, does standard home-things like buying milk, vintage shopping, eating chicken fingers, reconnecting with an old love. Things everybody does, and all the time.
I stayed 4 months. I thought about this line as an opening salvo not at all on my first read and obsessively, recursively the second and third—for such a short text, chapbook-length, its capacity for interior expansion is vast—and what it means for a writer to tell you they have been mired. This book does not contain much rest, does not contain much narrative, two things it points out to itself and to us. But John makes the point that she’s been mired. The miring, of course, has been done by choice, yet most of the traceable action of the book is toward movement: John/her speaker are looking for a new place for her mother, seeing her father again after many years, taking a bus to a party by herself despite/to spite feeling sad, alone, bored and friendless. “I am sad, alone, bored and have no friends,” her speaker literally proclaims, just before the exact center of the text. “DOES EMOTIONAL MATURITY CONSIST OF ESSENTIALLY A CAPACITY FOR AND PROPENSITY TOWARD NARRATIVE?” they ask, just after the center. These two provocations at the heart, both sinister and silly, are unavoidable coming-home questions, questions you can only ask when you’re in a place that slams you against all the dimensions of personhood you’ve ever claimed. Questions you can’t stop yourself from looking at, and John’s achievement is making these moments feel tender and bearable; to endear us to our rawest selves.
TO STAND AT THE PRECIPICE exemplifies the unsettledness of recursion, returning to ideas or phraseologies only to confirm that old proverb (cliché?) about rivers, how you never step in the same one. It is a book about obsession and sameness and cataloging and confessional discovery, but maybe most of all banality, and an insistence on recording and learning-from, no matter if the material available is banal. “I’m embarrassed, but whatever, buoyant also,” the speaker says one morning when they wake up too early. Not just recursion here—and many elsewheres—but inversion, and a reminder of some other clichés that are nonetheless truths: this too shall pass, maybe, or that we tend toward being our own harshest critics. A reminder that we’re allowed to come of age, come back, come home again and again, and that we’ll even possibly get better at it.
TO STAND AT THE PRECIPICE ALONE AND REPEAT WHAT IS WHISPERED, by Aisha Sasha John. Brooklyn, New York: Ugly Duckling Presse, May 2021. 48 pages. $11.20, chapbook.
Liana Jahan Imam was raised in Southeast Michigan and finished in Brooklyn. She holds an MFA from the University of Montana and is currently located in Detroit, where she teaches, co-hosts a virtual meetup on hybrid poetics, and works on a long-term project around familial legacy, spatial culture, and inheritance. For more recent work, visit her at lianajimam.com.