If I had to pick one word to describe Kristine Ong Muslim’s poetry collection, Lifeboat, it would be haunting. While this collection of poems divided into eight sections does have elements of the otherworldly, the type of haunting present is very much one of what haunts us as we live. Nightmares, lost connections, illness, the grit and grim of life paired with secret selves that harbor sadness, loneliness, and destruction are all present in this collection.
Some sections evoke a more ancient anxiety; in the second section Look for the Ferryman there is clearly an anxiety about our collective journey towards death. In the poem “City of Rivers” Muslim describes how “like landlocked savages, we wave at faraway boats as water laps at our feet, as water fills every bucket we carry from this lifetime to the next / We shall gurgle our prayers from now on, calling to the gods of river….” Other poems invoke alchemy and magic, while others paint a grey landscape filled with brokenness. The most pervasive theme is that of loneliness, but one of a communal nature (if that makes any sense at all). Essentially we all have these pockets of isolation and otherness and because our grey broken world is filled with strange broken people we’re all in it together, we’re all fumbling towards finding some sort of meaning in our brief lives. The poem “Endurance Test” echoes this when it pleads, “We have earned this loneliness, have / known what it represents: a spilt bowl of suns / dissolving a table, burning its way across the floor.”
My favorite poem of the collection is entitled “Role-play” and it is part of the last section of the book. It is filled with memory, loss, anxiety, and a sort of tragic beauty. With worry, anxiety, and violence we rush our lives towards an end, “this ghost town plunders our waking hours. We have been asleep since birth; we only dream of waking.” We’re all waiting for our true lives to begin, but we’ve spent so much time role-playing and worrying that we miss out on life but, “[s]omeday, there will be warmth. Little pale, little sullen bell, it is time to wake up.”