Reviews, Vol. 3.3, Sept. 2009
Sunnyoutside, Sept. 2009
Paperback, 96 pp., $15
Review by Cynthia Reeser
Micah Ling, deputy editor of Keyhole Magazine and an instructor at Indiana University, releases her first full-length collection of poetry from sunnyoutside, the brilliantly insightful Three Islands. Ling’s collection is comprised of three parts: poems that speak from the viewpoints of Robert Stroud, “The Birdman of Alcatraz”; Fletcher Christian, leader of the mutiny on the Bounty and friend of William Wordsworth; and Amelia Earhart, the legendary, lost pioneer pilot.
Three Islands is impressive, not just as a debut collection, but in its ability to invoke the voices of three long-dead figures from history who, until now, have largely remained just that: figures from history. Ling brings Stroud, Christian, and Earhart to life, her language transcending time and oceans. The islands are both physically isolated landforms, and symbols of emotional isolation. Earhart is an accidental expatriate; Christian risks his life and sacrifices his society of upbringing for a new life that is fundamentally apart; and Stroud is imprisoned, isolated, and expurgated.
Stroud, a murderer, deserves the confinement he is subjected to. Ling’s language provokes the sense of what that confinement means for Stroud. Stroud’s isolation and experience is bloody, gritty, graphic: real. The reader can almost feel what it is to be Stroud, in “On Killing a Man: March 26, 1916”:
The instrument was silent,
choked by my awkward left hand,
dripping, bloody, like it knew
how to be ashamed.
And I was just alone, alone
like a crucifixion.
From the prisoner’s desire to escape to the silence of penury, Ling charges each poem with electric language and imagery.
Amelia Earhart’s disappearance during the final part of her round-the-world flight in 1937 meant an unwanted isolation. Confined not to a prison in the traditional sense, but to what Ling posits as an unknown (and unknowable) island, Earhart through the poet’s eyes does not disintegrate. Ling captures the essence, strength, and verve of the pilot, notable in “Thoughts on Myself”:
A woman should be spicy and shy
As good rum,
As chicken wire
The ocean and three shots of gold—
A woman should never have to
Ling navigates Earhart’s pre-flight, take off, crash, and post-flight selves. The pilot’s love of flight in “Take Off” (“I have no control, / and it’s that loss that I need”) stems from the need for letting go, a need that comes into full flower when she finds herself stranded on an island with the wreckage of her one true love, the twin-engine Lockheed Electra, which in crashing, she laments, “I’d sacrificed the only love of my life.” The carnage of her co-pilot, Fred Noonan, is beside the point, as she finds herself “beautifully alone” (in “The Lure of Flying Is the Lure of Beauty”). After Earhart’s crash landing, many lines are extended to the exploration of confinement and freedom, to desolation and isolation, themes that surface in Fletcher Christian’s portion of the book, though from a much different point of view.
Many of Christian’s poems are epistolary, addressed to his friend, William Wordsworth. Ling presents a Christian who is searching, for truth and beauty. On shooting an albatross, the poet writes through the voice of the seafarer in “October 3, 1788,” “The sound of my gun is louder / on the open sea, where there is nothing to kill / but this massive beauty.” Fletcher’s decision to lead the mutiny is driven, at least in part, by this need for beauty and truth, as it is island society (Tahiti) that is the most authentic. In “March 31, 1789,” Christian “just can’t enter the world of socks / and belts again. Women are flower-clad, / they let rain roll down skin without thought.” Here, the symbolism of the island comes into focus, and that of the sea as a place of liminality—an area of division between island life and civilization.
Through her use of language, the individual crafting of each poem, the attention to form and point of view, and the imagery and composition of her book, Ling has created something of a little masterpiece. This reviewer highly recommends Three Islands.