‘Living Space’ is a poem penned by Imtiaz Dharker that expresses physical poverty in the form of a poorly constructed home. As basic as this notion might seem, Dharker does not just discuss the structural integrity (or lack thereof) of the home in question. Instead, she uses that rundown home as a springboard to comment on those who are in poverty—something that is beyond the objects that showcase poverty. We, as readers, are introduced to the financial circumstance through the home, but by the end of ‘Living Space’, we have exchanged the literal for figurative to reveal that the poem was always meant as a commentary on people rather than things, both their present states and their future possibilities.
Analysis of Living Space
There are just not enough
straight lines. That
is the problem.
The beginning of ‘Living Space’, which can be read in full here, is so distinctly to-the-point that the reader automatically has insight on why there is a problem, even before the problem itself is addressed. Dharker could have begun the poem by focusing on the home in a more direct way, but the decision to first give information regarding the reason behind the home’s faults speaks volumes to what she is trying to say. Before the reader can know that any fault exists in the structure of this building, he needs to understand that the fault has a definite explanation and cause.
Things are not just abandoned or neglected in the home. Those kinds of rundown issues could logically be blamed on the people living there who refuse to care for it in the way it needs. Rather, it is the very structure that is the problem—the lack of “straight lines”—that causes the dilemma. In order to fix a home where the structure is off in such a way, a largescale renovation or a rebuild would be in order, and these are things out of reach for someone who cannot afford grand fixes. In essence, Dharker is saying, “don’t blame us,” before she further addresses details of the home, almost as a disclaimer. On a grander scale for poverty, this could be taken as an indication that the problem of poverty is bigger than those who are impoverished and includes things that they cannot fix themselves.
Nothing is flat
thrust off the vertical.
Still, in these lines of ‘Living Space’, the focus remains at first on the structure being the blame rather than the residents of the home. What can someone with limited resources do when their home is not “flat or parallel” in order to make it steady and strong? The answer could understandably be nothing, and once Dharker has solidified that the issue is based in structure and form beyond the family’s reach, she is ready to start describing more specific details of the home.
She begins this transformation by still building on the notion of structure—things that would be done to combat the poor structure, like “Beams balanced crookedly”—like she is easing the reader into other aspects that without these underlying structural issues might have come across as a lack of care or effort from the residents of the home. It is a step-by-step process, and now that she has discussed what might be the most visible means of fighting that structural battle, she is ready to move on to the more trivial parts of the home.
Nails clutch at open seams.
The whole structure leans dangerously
towards the miraculous.
This series of lines begins with the tiny idea of “Nails,” expressing yet another—but smaller-scale—issue of the home that an onlooker might think critically of, but there is something deeper to be seen in that very first line of this set. Those “Nails clutch at open seams.” The choice of the verb, “clutch,” is drastically important because it implies holding on tightly, like in desperation. In regard to a home that is falling to pieces, it would make sense that a feeling of desperation exists therein because so much of the residents’ lives are fragile from their financial capabilities.
But those nails are not falling downward. Rather, they are connected to “open seams,” which can give the reader the feeling of possibility, like an “open” world where more can be accomplished. Together then, that one line showcases the idea that the people living in the home are desperately holding to the idea that things will improve, that they are “clutch[ing] at open” potential of a future that is better than where they currently stand. In the midst of this disarray, there is hope.
That concept is reflected again in the last two lines of the arrangement since the setup “leans dangerously towards the miraculous.” If the reader attempts to apply this wording in a literal sense, it could come across as an insult, like the very idea that the house standing is amazing because there is no logical reason as to why it should be. Figuratively, the statement reflects the notion that something brighter can happen in the days to come, but it takes that notion a step further. The poor state of the home is not just something that can be overcome. It is also something that can be used as inspiration to do more. This idea is evident in the verb choice for “leans” since that verb reveals the “whole structure” is pointing at “something miraculous.” The current state “leans…towards” the future, as in the situation can provide the motivation to overcome and strive for something better.
Into this rough frame,
the bright, thin walls of faith.
While it might seem like a switch to take so many lines at a time for the analysis, the structural setup of the poem leaves little organized option. All of this information is presented in one sentence, and that concept does more than complicating the analysis steps. It also hints that whatever the topic of this sentence is, it is exciting enough to Dharker to be presented in a rushed format, as she can hardly get the words out quickly enough. Whatever is presented in this series of lines then is the culmination of ‘Living Space’.
That culmination seems to be with people in the home. The wording, such as the “fragile curves of white,” provides evidence that the specific people being discussed are children due to the common mentality that children should be taken care of. Just as an “egg” needs to be treated kindly and delicately, children also can require thought and care. If the reader becomes convinced of that age of the considered residents, picturing the scene becomes a sadder concept. Children are in a broken-down home—somewhere they were “squeezed” into—where they huddle together like “eggs in a wire basket” as they try to find “light.” All around them, it is “dark” and “slanted,” but they try desperately to see past it by “gathering light unto themselves.”
Beyond the children’s reaction though, the final lines of the poem make their search for goodness seem as though it concerns more than their own dreams and happiness. The final words of the poem are “as if they were the bright, thin walls of faith.” The article choice of “the” in that statement is vastly important since it shows that this is a specific title given to specific people. They are not being described as just any of the “walls,” but rather “the…walls.” Out of all of the people in the home or neighborhood, these have somehow earned that title, and if they alone are the keepers of this name, they alone are the ones who can carry this “faith.”
Even the adjectives listed before the noun, “walls,” matter because they almost disagree with one another. These children are “bright,” which is positive. In the darkness, they can shine. But they are also “thin,” and that idea can be taken to mean that they are fragile, that they could break. The entire situation is unstable, like the house, but the possibilities for a better future will always exist in the midst of that darkness, so long as the “bright, thin walls of faith” still shine and look for better things.
This overall message could be taken as a statement toward poverty in general as well. People in these states could be in hardships, but possibilities can still prevail against the dimness. With that in mind, Dharker has created a poem that uses such simplicity of wording and circumstance to offer commentary on something much larger than one broken-down home. ‘Living Space’ is about bigger ideas, like life and hope.
About Imtiaz Dharker
Imtiaz Dharker is a poet who was born in Pakistan, but has lived in Scotland, England, and India. In addition, she has been awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry. Beyond her work as a poet, which has been impressive, she has also gained public attention for her drawings and her film writing. Artistically, her resume then is varied and noteworthy.