You drive a vacant road and hear a song that takes you back;
realize, here and now, that you’re past innocence. Never return.
It’s a hollow feeling. Empty and strange. Like being on a cliff; maybe slipping
a bit. Wonder for a moment if you might be able to get it back.
If you drive the truck fast enough, if you make enough dust.
But you can’t.
Mourn the loss of this feeling: asking a girl or a boy to your room. Trembling and shaking together for the first time. You don’t want to, but you wonder how many first times of anything you’ll have again. This is the sickest pain there is:
wanting life to back up–wanting another moment as a child. This is the naked
we dream: the stark slap of darkness.
Reading Micah Ling’s poetry for the first time could be categorized as one of those experiences. Settlement, published by sunnyoutside, gives Canadian readers a sober North American perspective on Aboriginal and foreign affairs. For her latest book, historical elements of America’s and Palestine’s cultures help her to synthesize a thesis that appeals to her interest in foreign politics and her motherland’s culture. East and West political history mix with the exotic and the erotic of characters that sometimes come off as too weakened to be heard, perhaps lending itself to a theatricalization, more so than the theatrical format of the poems. Her thesis is synthesis.
Before introducing her book’s epigraph (Sherman Alexie’s ’Poetry = Anger x Imagination‘) she inserts to the left of it a critical remark under Acknowledgements:
‘This book is dedicated to the ongoing hope that there will be forward movement–justice, peace; something radical.’
It’s with the ire that the proper resolutions have yet to be achieved in American and in Israeli-Palestinian politics that the book commences.
There are two acts that compose this hypothetical play, like a thought experiment. The cast of Act One is made up of characters from all perspectives of the Dawes Act and Pine Ridge Reservation. The Dawes Act, enacted 1887, raped the Lakota Sioux Indians of their land by dividing it ‘into 40-180 acre allotments’. It was only the beginning of the government’s crimes, for in 1890, ‘Approximately 300 Lakota Sioux Indians were killed, including women and children, by the United States Cavalry’. It’s about the Wounded Knee Massacre, named for its proximity to Wounded Knee Creek, found on the reservation.
So, when Leonard Peltier, a member of the American Indian Movement, speaks about his view on the murder of two FBI agents near Wounded Knee Creek, which he was convicted for, it’s all contextual:
One sweet day, many years ago, more than one hundred years ago,
many people–hundreds of people; women and children–were killed
by United States Cavalry. One lovely day, many years later
nearly one hundred years later, two FBI agents were killed
in that same place. Place is what’s important–lives
of course, the hundreds many years ago, and the two, much later–but
about that place: Pine Ridge: Wounded Knee Creek: South Dakota.
Place yourself there. You’re tiny: you don’t get in the way
of wind or grass or emptiness. You’re barely in
that scene. But the day is gracious, for sure. It leads you on
to better days–you might not remember the place
but it will remember you, and notice you’ve passed it by.
There’s only one other Peltier poem in the book which also avoids the controversy of his innocence. But, as the poem above shows, Ling doesn’t focus on it. She is focussing on something more subtle, more vague, something with less conspiratorial inspiration. The idyllic element is certainly something that Canadian poets would find solace in. She focusses on the calm poetry of Peltier’s mind, opposite to his memoir My Life Is My Sun Dance, which focusses on his innocence and hardship.
This choice in tone helps to achieve Ling’s appeal to universalism: ‘Place is what’s important’. The poem comes under the title “Settlement”, which titles poems in both acts. Race and nationality aside, it’s the poet’s task to establish a humanistic idyll to advocate the needs of the people.
Returning to her Acknowledgements: Mahasen Nasser-Eldin, a Palestinian filmmaker born in Jerusalem, the status of which is a central issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “I’d like to thank everyone in both casts–especially Walid Husseini and Mahesen Nasser-Eldin, who have changed my life.” So, it’s no wonder that an article whose title is an allusion to one of Nasser-Eldin’s films, From Palestine with Love, contains the reader’s key to the book’s ties:
“It is abundantly clear that the oft-used Israeli canard of ‘no partner for peace’ is a complete and utter fabrication. Not only has Israel had a partner for peace, said partner has been rolling over making poodle eyes. The myth of America as honest peace broker has also been shattered irrevocably. When Erekat [Saeb Erekat, former Palestinian Chief of the Palestine Liberation Organization's Steering and Monitoring Committee] offered Israel the ‘biggest Jerusalem ever’ — including all settlements in the East Jerusalem save for Jabal Abu Ghneim, or Har Homa, it was turned down by Tzipi Livni, Israel’s then foreign minster, with full American backing. The peace process is not just farce but a fantasy.”
The political inconclusiveness kicked up like dust in Act One becomes inherent in Act Two, and follows Wyne’s view that “To be a Palestinian, whether Muslim or Christian, is to float in a grey zone of quasi-statelessness at the whim of bureaucratic apparatchiks.”
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 in protest, circled
with razors. They climb the steps of a stinking bus
and hope they’re not followed. They sit in traffic
for the light that’s programmed not to change,
they pray for that light to finally, finally let them home.
There’s nothing ambiguous about it: the sense of the word ‘home’ is empty while the future of the Palestinian state remains ambiguous, a contingency always felt in the provisional Palestinian capital. Ling poetically expresses the injustice of the situation through poetry.
Another pertinent headline, “Eden Abergil Facebook Pictures: Israeli Soldier’s Photos Cause Outrage“, is followed by the opening statement: “A former Israeli soldier posted photos on Facebook of herself in uniform smiling beside bound and blindfolded Palestinian prisoners, drawing sharp criticism Monday from the Israeli military and Palestinian officials.”
It’s something already covered in poetry by Steven Heighton, which invokes, directly and indirectly, international contexts, German, Palestinian, and American, of the word ‘wall’:
Eden of Ashdod, you only did
what any young recruit might do —
what I might have done myself, a little scared, a little
stoned (on your own strength, Eden,
as if each beautiful bullet you packed
were a pill — designer hybrid
of Percocet and blow, to anneal you against all
that’s frail and slow, that’s bound,
beyond help) —
And so these Facebook pix
and that bit of bad press (don’t worry, Eden, the news —
save on Al Jazeera and in the tabloids of Tehran —
has already moved on).
You don’t get it. You protest. Your little shoot
killed no one! So, then, why are the great Jews —
the poets and performers, the scientists, inventors,
philosophers, reformers — those truest
People of the Book — all weeping quietly
in their tombs: Paul Celan,
Hannah Arendt, almond-bitter Mandel-
stam, Marx and Einstein, all of them sad
insomniacs of the hinterlife, tallowing
hours away in the earth
to understand this “Facebook,” as well as the smirk
this now-world wears: failed future that won’t leave them to sleep,
not even the adamant suicides — Benjamin, Levi, Celan —
especially not the suicides.
And you yourself sit baffled in Ashdod,
Eden, wondering why no one did
quite catch the joke — meantime the army’s marketing folks
Photoshop your face to a blur, but
too late, you’re famous! Your poses
pathogenic, spreading via tweets and texts, and sickening…
sickening no one at all — we’ve all gone immune — all
but the hopeful dead, though of course
they’re dead and can’t die again
of our indignities.
Eden of ash, your grand-
parents were the Nazi War — Eden
of Ashdod, der Tod
is still in the story, the frontier
between millennia didn’t keep it out,
the Human Future didn’t phase it out,
now it’s posted, grinning, on your wall.
Let every wall wail.
“Palestinian Authority spokesman Ghassan Khatib condemned the photos and said they pointed to a deeper malaise – how Israel’s 43-year-old occupation of Palestinians has affected the Israelis who enforce it.
This shows the mentality of the occupier,” Khatib said, “to be proud of humiliating Palestinians. The occupation is unjust, immoral and, as these pictures show, corrupting.”
But Micah Ling doesn’t compromise her subject matter by making an appeal to every context of the word ‘occupy’, the more important matter behind the Eden Abergil controversy:
:An activity that serves as one’s regular source of livelihood: vocation.
:The act or process of holding or possessing a place.
:Invasion, conquest, and control of a territory by force.
:An occupation that occupies is actively occupying.
:The occupancy of being occupied constantly occupies.
However, Heighton’s verse is more forgiving that his audience, present and future, may be less in the loop. Khatib and Ling seem to be on the same level, although Ling’s verse is dependent on further context.
Heighton’s allusions to literary figures seem impertinent to the political matter; Micah Ling reinforces her own poetry with allusions of the actual. She describes in Act Two’s forward that “there is rich culture and prospering business; however, the Israeli military maintains strict checkpoints, curfews, electricity cuts and is a general disruption to normal life.”
Micah Ling seems to strive for a concluding settlement, in spite of coming off as critical of the economic prosperity, which is already becoming integrated with the Palestinians in her play. It’s perhaps a distraction from a possible conclusion to the Israeli occupation. The quotidian life, simple equilibrium, is what they cheer for, and it’s heard in the bittersweet phrase “Yallah for the hot sun, / for changing clothes / three times a day.” Other times, she makes a subtle reference to the current situation of Native Americans in the post-industrially distracted American society: “Yallah / at the end of it all, past / the end of the day–into tomorrow.” ‘Yallah’ has the sense of ‘on y va‘, or, ‘unbelievable’, or more literally, ‘Oh God’. Sometimes, it’s like the sound of untranslatable hope.
Yallah. Yallah for a clear night
and the bobbing sea. Yallah
for the man picking plastic bags
from the sand to burn in the dumpster.
Yallah for skinny cats, all of them
trying to find scraps of sour meat.
Yallah for the hot sun,
for changing clothes
three times a day. Yallah
for the olive trees still there,
and the ones pulled up.
Yallah for dust in the clean laundry,
for the wind that mimics
the scattered day–the day
wasted, trying to exit. Yallah
at the end of it all, past
the end of the day–into tomorrow.
Yallah for meeting friends
at the bar on the other side. Yallah
for a meal and too much to drink.
Tomorrow is already here,
and you are happy. We are all happy
to see it: bright sun, brilliant sky,
too-clear sea. Yallah new day. Yallah.