Reviews, Vol. 6.2, June 2012
Perfect bound, 68 pp., $13
Review by Cynthia Reeser
Winner of the 2011 Indiana Emerging Author award, Settlement is Micah Ling’s third poetry collection. Ling, as with her Three Islands, proves once again the depth of her historian’s eye. Settlement is an intriguing intellectual treatment paralleling the displaced and examining the situations of colonial-era Native Americans, and Palestinians walled in by the Israeli occupation.
The book is divided thematically into two Acts: “Act One: The Reservations of the United States” and “Act Two: Palestinian Territories.” Each act has a “cast” of characters who serve as speakers through the poems that follow. The poems are set up like speakers in a play (hinting at the play “Our Town”) and each poem signifies a character. In each act, the land itself speaks, and the result is unfolding levels of interpretation.
The first poem titled “Reservation” in Act One seeks only definition, listing the various meanings of the word:
: an arrangement to have something (secured, withheld).
: a limiting condition (doubt, misgiving).
: something reserved: a tract of public land set aside.
After the definitions, Ling starts riffing:
: reserving a reservation must cause reservations.
: only the reserved can possibly stand for reservations to
: if you’ve got reservations about reservations, don’t
: reserve the reserved for reservations.
What happens after the definitions in the first three lines of the poem is a sort of conjugation, an exploration of the word or concept in all its forms: a search for meaning. There are other poems in the section titled “Reservation,” and they speak for the reservation as a character itself, allowing the voice of the land, its history, and its people to come through.
The other voices that come through the poems in the first act are also searching for meaning, are exploratory. Those voices include Sacheen Littlefeather, Marlon Brando (Brando, in protest of Hollywood’s treatment of Native Americans, had Littlefeather give a statement at an awards ceremony in his stead), several other Native Americans of note, and of course, the reservation itself.
The voice in “Leonard” (Leonard Peltier was convicted of the murder of two FBI agents near Wounded Knee in 1975) comes through vibrantly and with a sense of purpose, the history of the Native American people underlying all nuance, character, and description. In the poem are “wolves” and “sheep”: the drum is silenced with the fall of the gavel, and Leonard’s realization is that, when the beat is silenced, “the wolves slow their pace,” which means “the / beginning / of real destruction. The too-slow slaughter of sheep.”
Act Two, its construction parallel to that of the first act, also boasts a representative landmark (here, the wall), a pop culture icon (Banksy, the ubiquitous graffiti artist with a political bent), and native persons of note. As with the first section, “Wall” appears throughout, speaking for itself, as does the settlement.
Banksy in this section is given voice several times, and he is by design someone who understands the wall:
The people here hate the wall;
there are snipers in towers
and enough sharp edges
to slice every finger in the world
off. And if there were a pile of fingers,
bloody and cold, they would be painted
too. This is why the wall is painted.
People look at it: and because it’s painted
they see something.
But inasmuch as the main trope is about (the very real) concepts of walls and borders, of within and without, it is that much more about the displaced themselves. Ling drives it home in “Walid” (after Walid Husseini, a restaurant owner in Ramallah):
When you meet a man with
let him tell you about the ridges, let him smile. Do
you can for this man–he won’t ask for this, but he needs
you’d write a beautiful poem for him and you’d burn it:
you’d play a perfect song for him and then you’d break
your old guitar.
The occupation itself is even given voice. In one of the poems titled “Settlement,” from the second act, the voice is “scared of getting old and slowing down, failing.” The parallelism of, not only form, but voice begins to resonate, compared with this excerpt from a “Settlement” appearing in Act One,
there was our name: before leaves fell,
before men hunted gold, before sun shone
on rocks, all was well.
Through the parallels drawn between the two displaced peoples, Ling is bringing home the message that humanity is in it together. Whether from this corner of the globe or that, displacement is displacement, and its effects are similar on the human spirit, regardless of the accompanying ideologies. More subtly, and never directly stated, we all have an obligation toward each other, to uphold our values as humans, rather than to move someone out of the way who has a different belief system or culture, to move them into forced oppression. Yet this forced, systematic oppression is an all too familiar theme in world politics, past and present. We are reminded of how humanity has been walling off, pushing out, and otherwise displacing members of its own kind for countless centuries.
Ling is a writer of the intellect whose work evidences a deep understanding of human nature. This body of work is a dialectic that strikes a balance between head and heart. Settlement is not just about history, it is about now, and it is about us, no matter what side of the fence we are on. No matter how technologically advanced we have become, we still clearly have a long way to go. Ling is a fine writer who here serves as a medium for the voices of history to speak through. Settlement is, in short, a necessary work.