Book Review

Micah Ling, Settlement, Sunnyoutside, 2012

Reviewed by Lou Roach

“Poetry = Anger x Imagination”

This quote from Native American author Sherman Alexie proves to be a prophetic
description of the poetry in Micah Ling’s newest presentation of her work.  The book is simply titled Settlement, but is in no way simple.  These poems are written with deep sensitivity and understanding of the subject—the comparison of the oppression and losses suffered by Native Americans at the hands of the United States government and the occupation of territories once owned by Palestine by Israelis and the subsequent forfeiture of many of the Palestinian ways of living.

Ling received a master’s degree in 20th Century American Literature  and an MFA degree at Indiana University.  She has authored two other collections of poetry—Three Islands and Sweetgrass. She now teaches in the English department at Franklin College and in the MFA program at Butler University.  She was named Indiana Emerging Author for 2011.

Ling writes of her subject with respect, empathy and recognition of the endurance of both peoples.  Her knowledge of those individuals whose thoughts are captured in the two sets of poems suffuses every line.  The individuals are real.  Each one is living or has lived in real time.  Both parts of the book, “Reservation” and “Palestinian Territories" speak clearly of the experiences of people isolated by their identity and their cultures. Their despair, their strength, tenacity and courage are tangible. Readers will sense the situations described; they will comprehend the depth of emotions involved.

In a 20th century plea for reform of the Dawes Act of 1887,  Elouise Cobell, former treasurer of the Blackfeet Tribe of Montana, worked throughout the 1980’s, hoping the U.S. government would reconsider the law.  Made without consent of the Indian nations, the Dawes ruling was a deliberate attempt to break up tribes.  Micah Ling speaks as Cobell might have in “Elouise,” elaborating on the word “versus” as an entity:
                Woman, when it’s you versus
                history, versus so many years.
                When it’s you versus
                the state, the nation,
                parcels (of land) and money and law.
                . . .
                You versus trial
                and responsibility and appeal,
                litigation and reserves.
                When it’s you versus
                allotment, lease and bank,
                how do you keep versus
                from haunting your days
                and your dreams:

                the ongoing hope
               that someday, it will forfeit?

In “Reservation,”  Ling offers possible definitions of the word “reservation”--
       :an arrangement to have something  (secured, withheld)
       :a limiting condition (doubt, misgiving)
       :reserving a reservation must cause reservations
       . . .
       :if you’ve got reservations about reservations, don’t
        make reservations.

The poet gives examples of the real limitations by law that confront the Indian people all too often in the words of “Settlement:”

        You may be a part of this Settlement
         with certain rights in this Settlement
         if you are an:

      interest in land held in trust or in restricted status,

Then Ling adds some comments about the implications of the above:
         We’d like to note that if you don’t fit neatly
          into one of these bullets it will be difficult to care.
          It will be very close to impossible to see you
          as anything but dust, or worse. If you cannot,
          for the life of you, fold into one of the above lives,
          then form a line out the back.

The pain, humiliation and frustration of Indians, past and present registers more
strongly in another poem, also titled “Settlement.”  So powerful and so full of pathos is this piece, I wanted it to end, but then I wanted it NOT  to end, because it spoke so plainly:

                  When we’re talking about land stolen,
                  as in 54 million acres of land stolen, then
                  stolen isn’t the right word at all
                  and certainly not past-tense.  Rape:
                  raping: tearing small folds of flesh,
                  making blood.  Apples
                 are stolen; candy bars, even watches.
                 This is rape without end. This is forced,
                 physical horror.
                 . . .
                 This is what we fear, the fear
                 that’s not talked about: it’s too coarse.
                 This is what we have nightmares about
                 and choose not to recite—not even
                 to a mother or a brother or a wife. This is rape.
        Part II

For years, Palestinian people have experienced disputes over borders, security and the right of return for those who experienced expulsion.  In 1967, nearly 2/3 of the Palestinian population were driven into camps in the West Bank or in neighboring countries.

The Israelis occupy East Jerusalem, where their military maintains strict checkpoints, curfews, cuts in electrical power and the Palestinians living there maintain a diminished lifestyle.  Despite living in what amount to prison camps, the Palestinians have remained strong and dedicated to their own culture.

For this section of the book, Ling spent time with a CEO of the Palestinian Securities Exchange, an owner of a restaurant, a filmmaker, an American who has been in the area since 1999 and others, including a man who helped paint the wall that cuts the area off from the privileges they might want.

Micah Ling provides a set of definitions in the poem “Occupation” with some twists:
              : An activity that serves as one’s regular source of liveli-
                hood: vocation.
              :  The act or process of holding or possessing a place.
              : Invasion, conquest, and control of a territory by force.
              . . .
              : The occupancy of being occupied constantly occupies.

The poem “Walid” reports his own questioning of someone he appears to know well. It speaks subtly of Walid’s hope:

               You say that when we die, our poetry dies,
               but I don’t know.  I mean, you also threw yourself
               four birthday parties in one weekend.
               Who’s to say that when you die
               we won’t all keep throwing parties for you:
               we won’t  carve everything you ever said

               into marble?  We just might. How would you feel
               about those words, in stone?
               How would you feel, being dead and wrong.
Ling describes life for most present-day Palestinians in “Settlement:”

               In Ramallah there is a line of people: always.
               Children and elderly.  Tired, tired people.
               They push and ditch, anything within reason
               to get through faster.  Two to a tiny wedge-space,
               turn-style.  Clothes get caught, skin pinched;
               they are screamed at, poked, despised for being,
               but they’re through, today.  They’re free
               to walk past a wall covered with protest, circled
               with razors.  They climb the steps of a stinking bus
               and hope they’re not followed.  They sit in traffic
               for a light that’s programmed not to change,
               they pray for that light to finally, finally let them home.

The images in Micah Ling’s poetry are vivid.  They leave a distinct imprint in the mind and heart of the reader.  I will not forget her palpable descriptions of survival in the face of injustice.  Nor will I forget her name.  She speaks the truth without vehemence, but with compassion.        

Lou Roach is a retired psychotherapist, now living in Poynette,WI. She writes, reads and loves spending time with family and friends. She has published poems and reviews in small-press mags. Her most recent book is For Now.