“We, the Source”: Tara Ballard on the Resilience of Women in Maggie Queeney’s settler

In “Homestead,” Maggie Queeney writes: “We settled where stranded: / the hollow / Where the horse fell leg-by-leg” and “Now what holds us / Is the sweet water-swelled well”; before illustrating “the shape made of two bodies—one arm / Coiled round the other held down.” Like the well keeping the unnamed “us” of the poem in place, I, too, am held by Queeney’s evidencing through verse: her speaking existence into acknowledgment. Queeney’s settler is a captivating chapbook of nineteen sonnets; and in settler’s sonnets Queeney immerses me in a US-American patchwork of settler colonialism, a permeating landscape that is harsh and unbending in its demands of women.

As I read Queeney’s provocative work, I remember one of my mentors—a poet—telling me, “Everything returns to the power dynamics between man and woman.” I am reminded, as well, of one of my teachers, years ago, saying, “Conflict revolves around the control of women and land.” It is in Queeney’s settler that the colonization of the body is confirmed as prefatory to the colonization of land: prefatory and parallel. In settler, Queeney depicts the occupation of women’s bodies by the men who engage in colonizing land not their own.  

settler, in both diction and form, is a collection of composed restraint, much like the women within the poems. The collection is divided into three sections, with a balance of six, seven, and six poems in each. In Queeney’s ordering, there is a sense of resolute equilibrium, again mirroring the determination of women in settler’s time and space. There is, in this, a center. The very spine of the book is found in the poem “Cloth,” which confirms the symbolism cultivated via Queeney’s employment of particular word families: drawing a likeness between the careful actions of sewing, weaving, and quilting and the difficult piecing together of women’s lives:

                                    our parts separate
Along the seams, flattened into maps
Over the table. Unraveling threads expose

The unbroken wax of unsunned skin beneath
The pull and balance of warp and woof and weave.

In fact, interlaced throughout, the language employed in nine poems contains explicit connections to the relationship between fabric and women’s hands, epitomized through these related images: “needle / And thread to mend the tearing / Wearing our emptying clothes”; “In the hook and eye”; “honed points / And loops soft as stitches, tight as a knit”; “strange tracks in ticcing stitches” and “her lines pulled true”; “cuts / Of last years’ dresses, felted denim” and “Legs of our scissors, the black we stitch”; “crosses / Like stitches darkening the far field”; and, “Lives quilted / Of news from alien continents.” It is through these decisions of word choice that Queeney herself participates as a maker in the process of weaving, the same process that consumes the women brought to the page. In doing so, Queeney calls to surface the generational occupation of women’s bodies: the “ghost of our mothers bent / Over the faces of their men.”

This intimacy between the poems’ speakers—in many instances, the first-person plural “we”—and the material they use to seam together warmth and shelter is cemented in the visuals present at the collection’s opening and closing. The first poem, “Female,” begins with these lines:

We buttoned shut along our spines,
Padded skirts swinging bell-like
Along the knotted, the hewn plank walks
Above the mud

and the collection ends with an echoed illustration: “… and, in the dark, skirts / Pulled into burrows about our waists, / Future dead are drawn from our body.” From the introduction to the women, to the final revelation, the women of settler armor themselves in what they have: their skirts and buttons, as if in this aspect of identity, of womanhood, they might find strength and unity. Their clothing, literally and metaphorically, holds them together. This unity is evident in the ultimate word: “body,” being one, singular, despite the women being many.

I cannot think about the togetherness of the women in settler without addressing Queeney’s chosen form: the sonnet; the sonnet, of course, famous and infamous for being the fixed form of love in the Western European and US-American traditions, whether the speaker’s love is reciprocated or unrequited. When it comes to sonnets, my mind turns to Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Shakespeare, but the sonnets in settler are a stark, deliberate departure from the expected. The relationships between the women and their husbands in Queeney’s poems are not ones where romantic love, or mutual desire, resonates. Rather, there is “Only the hand that stills / Us like livestock” and

… naked legs seen
Only by our husbands as they held
Our wax-white thighs on our wedding nights
Like two knives …

The absence of marital affection, combined with the absence of comfort and the presence of struggle, makes me reconsider the purpose of the sonnet. Queeney challenges my assumptions about the form and its historical use—regardless of stanzaic structure being English or Italian—and pushes me to accept a new definition, a new resonance, and why? For the sake of these women’s voices. What is love if not the solidarity between women, between wives and mothers and those in community with one another, seeking survival?

Maggie Queeney’s settler reveals a human experience that I had not much considered: the daily lives—the sorrows, the work—of the women whose husbands engaged in settler colonialism, women whose bodies, like land, were occupied and expected to comply, produce, and continue. The history is uncomfortable. The setting identifiable. The women: familiar, in their hope for something more, something better: their living despite of, and in spite of. It is in settler—through Queeney’s beautiful, poignant gathering of sonnets—that these women’s lives become documented as both domestic and wild, hopeful and grieving, willing to learn and troubled by what’s lost.

settler, by Maggie Queeney. North Adams, Massachusetts: Tupelo Press, December 2021. 30 pages. $14.95, paper.

Tara Ballard is the author of House of the Night Watch (New Rivers Press), winner of the 2016 Many Voices Project Prize in poetry. She is the recipient of a 2019 Nazim Hikmet Poetry Prize, and her work has been published in diodeMichigan Quarterly ReviewNorth American ReviewPoetry NorthwestTupelo Quarterly, and elsewhere. She is an affiliate editor at Alaska Quarterly Review, a reader for Ruminate Magazine, and a teaching and research assistant at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she is pursuing a PhD in English.

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