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Today's post is by Kristine Ong Muslim, brought to you by Couplets: a multi-author poetry blog tour. It is part of Kristine's daily series during National Poetry Month on poetry she likes.

On Arlene Ang’s “Living Without Water”

Arlene Ang is one of my favorite poets. She has an amazing eye for turning the most innocuous of objects to menacing things, and vice versa. That, in itself, is a unique skill. She has a remarkable sense of humor, too. Her early poems, which I’ve read and reread, exhibit wit, sensuality, and grace.

So, for this Couplets post, I will share with you an Arlene Ang piece. It was a toss up between another Ang poem called “Want” and “Living Without Water.” I chose the latter.

Here’s why:

Published in Boxcar Poetry Review, “Living Without Water” is nourishing and emotionally lacerating. Here, Ang characterizes the horror of abject poverty by pointing out the difficulty of controlling rats because “the objects we can use against them / are limited.” She could have described a decrepit house or a pile of bills. Ang didn’t. She deliberately decided to highlight the helplessness in the face of rats and the un-rats (if we think of the rat as a metaphor).

Note how Ang begins with an as-a-matter-of-fact declarative statement: “The kitchen is a city of tin cans.” Then she talks about sauces. Then the rats. Then the (possibly illegal) activities of the mother. And finally, the mystery of a dead infant.

This piece is impressive because it has a clear narrative thread, it has a central idea, and it does a great job of implying what would have been easier to plainly describe.

There is a clear narrative thread. In short, the poem works like a story. This is why it captivates. It invokes a logical train of thought and not a simple juggling of raw ideas and situations.

There is a central idea: dark family secrets of the urban poor.

The morbidity is implied. Aside from the tragic final lines, please take a look at this section:

Girls, our mother says every day,
don’t stop for me. When you reach the 7-Eleven,
go on walking. Don’t look back.

The mother probably shoplifts every day from 7-Eleven or somewhere in the vicinity. It is also possible that area is her usual hustling spot. Whenever I reread this poem, it changes. I imagine a different back-story to it.

That’s the charm of “Living Without Water.”


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