The Buried Houses by David Mason. Story Line Press, 1991
The Country I Remember by David Mason. Story Line Press, 1996
The Poetry of Life and the Life of Poetry by David Mason. Story Line Press, 2000
Arrivals by David Mason. Story Line Press, 2004
Ludlow by David Mason. Red Hen Press, 2007
Since his earliest collection, The Buried Houses (1991), David Mason has been making poetry out of his family roots. Mason grew up in Washington state but his ancestors were from Colorado, which is where Mason lives and teaches now. His latest book, the verse novel Ludlow (2007), is a dramatization of the Colorado coal miners’ strike in 1913–14 and the massacre of strikers and their family members by the coal company’s hired thugs and the state militia. As Mason explains in the afterword to that book, the idea for writing the Ludlow story had been in him since he was a boy visiting the area with his family: “What excited me about this story was not any political agenda, but the elements that have always obsessed me—family, landscape, immigration, language.” Or, as he puts it in a narrator’s aside in Ludlow: “this story hooks into desires / I’ve always felt to know the land I come from.”
Mason’s writing often suggests something along the lines of what Wendell Berry has called “accepting a place properly human in the world as it is.” As Berry has said, place is a form the way a sonnet is a form; we work within the limits it sets, and if we are lucky we give it new life and receive a bit of new life in return. Mason’s collection Arrivals (2004) opens with a version of Cavafy’s poem “The City,” which is about the uselessness and futility of the geographical cure for chronic dissatisfaction: “Now that you have decided you are through / with this place, you’ve wrecked your life everywhere.” And as Mason has his character Maggie Gresham say in his long poem “The Country I Remember” (1996), “I saw how fragile love is, / how easy to uproot from my place, / how hard to plant again.”
Mason has done pretty much the opposite of what Maggie describes here, re-creating his life and art by an ever-deepening return to places and their stories, including the stories he himself invents about them. In The Buried Houses, Mason was still finding his legs; the technique is sometimes awkward or indecisive and subject matter often has more to do with a sense of displacement—the displacement of ex-pats in Greece, where Mason has spent considerable time and which comes up often in his writing, or that of the author himself, in his poems about the breakup of his first marriage: “It’s strange what we can make ourselves believe. / Memory saves; recrimination uses / every twisted syllable of the past” (“Disclosure”). He came into his own as a poet with his second collection, The Country I Remember, three-quarters of which is taken up with the long title poem, a first-person narrative told in twelve alternating sections by two of Mason’s ancestors: Lt. John Mitchell, who fought in the Civil War, and Mitchell’s daughter Maggie Grisham. Mitchell, who tells his story retrospectively, in 1918, recounts his experience at the Battle of Chickamauga and his role in Union soldiers’ escape from Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia. Maggie Gresham narrates her own story in 1956, when she is old. She describes how she eventually escaped from being an unmarried daughter who took care of her aging father and mother, running off and settling in L.A. While Mitchell was a man of action, Maggie is introspective and reads poetry. Her words about herself could apply to Mason:
I learned that I must first talk to myself,
retelling stories, muttering a few
remembered lines of verse, to make the earth
substantial and to bring the sunlight back.
She is “here to be a voice.” It seems that writing this long poem was concurrent with Mason’s discovery of his roots and the consummation of his apprenticeship as a poet.
Anyone who knows Mason’s writing knows that he loves Greece, its language and culture. Modern Greek poets such as Seferis and Cavafy have been important to him (witness the Cavafy poem quoted above). And there have been many poems set in Greece, especially in Buried Houses and Arrivals. It is interesting that Mason, whose family roots are so central to his work, should have this other side—a wanderlust, even a bit of the pull toward the uprooted ex-pat’s existence. Apparently, for Mason, Greece represents a different kind of rootedness. Greece in Mason’s poems is both Epicurean and Homeric; it is an image of intense sensual presence and unreflective vitality—part of his drive to “feel more alive in [his] own skin,” as he puts it in Ludlow. One of the main characters in Ludlow, Louis Tikas, is from Crete, and his Greekness and that of others in the miners’ camp is a main feature of the story. Mason expresses his attachment to Greece through Tikas:
he missed the sea,
the tears of an eternity of men,
the peacefulness of swimming under water.
He missed the smell of grass in autumn rain,
the sacks of dripping goat cheese hung from rafters,
the words like thálassa and ouranós
that felt to him much weightier than English.
The poem in Arrivals called “Kalamitsi,” which is about Mason’s return to where he lived in Greece several years earlier, avoids nostalgia—”nothing but private memories, after all”; “it wasn’t the loss of time or friends that moved me / but the small survivals I was here to mark,” such as a plank bench under a cypress, “only a small plank bench, but quite enough”—enough, because needs were few and simple. Mason’s Greece is intense but unadorned, like the lives of his ancestors in the western United States.
Greece for Mason is also a source of the ancient tradition of the craft of poetry. In a poem called “The Session,” in Arrivals, the poet responds to a psychotherapist’s advice to socialize more and write less:
I almost founder on his solid fears,
until uplifted by the undertow
of voices whispering for three thousand years.
Mason’s verse technique is Anglo-American; his aesthetic, like his image of Greece, eschews abstraction. He doesn’t dazzle with technical flamboyance—his language is a steady surface, energetic as all poetry must be, but contained. Like his mentor Robert Frost, Mason’s style is characterized by artful plainness; he brings meter to life with American speech rhythms. He is not often perfunctory in his approach to form but he is conscious of participating in an ancient tradition of prosody. Unlike many poets associated with the New Formalists (surely an outdated label by now), he does not write many sonnets, villanelles, or other fixed forms. His staple is iambic pentameter, but he also uses shorter metrical lines or (rarely) free verse. Mason’s poetry essays and reviews, some of which have been collected in The Poetry of Life and the Life of Poetry (2000), offer judicious, jargon-free takes on the art and its practitioners, usually American poets but sometimes also English or Greek. Mason doesn’t assume literary postures: he is inquiring and searching, serious about the questions he asks, intellectually austere, conscientious toward the language and the craft. It is easy, then, to trust the integrity of his vision.
Another recurrent theme in Mason, related to the theme of uprootedness and roots, is memory and duration. Clearly events and people do not last very long, but memory and memorials—stories, in short—do last, at least relatively. Many of his poems reenact the fluid interplay between perception of the present and the ghosts of the past: “The furnace blows a warming reverie / where I drop anchor somewhere in the woods / with a girl I haven’t seen for twenty years.” But there is the awareness that memory’s prolongation of time and experience is itself ephemeral, vaporous: “The years slow down and look about for shelter / far from forests and far from summer ponds: / the mind ghosting out in a shoal of stars” (“The Pond”). And as Maggie Gresham puts it in “The Country I Remember”:
The lamplit face upon the swaying glass
was all that I would ever know of truth.
When Mama snuffed the lamp, my other face
retreated to the land of passing shadows.
Ironically, memory is more knowable than the knower. The self disappears in mutable phenomena. It seems likely that Mason’s concern with memory and rootedness—his sense of urgency about it—is related to or intensified by the trauma of losing his older brother to a climbing accident when the brother was only twenty-eight years old. As Mason wrote in “Small Elegies,” in Buried Houses: “My hands still felt, from earlier that day, / the tension of my brother’s weight on the rope.”
Mason has written many poems, as well as a prose memoir that was published in The Hudson Review, about his brother’s death. Mason and his other brother and his father returned to the scene of the oldest brother’s death and cremation that had taken place a year earlier:
Yet after the year of weather
tiny pieces of my brother’s bone
still lay in clefts of rock.
We found them under our hands,
cupping them once again in wonder
at what the giants left us. (“A Motion We Cannot See”)
With an experience such as this, it would be impossible not to be aware that memory and roots themselves are ultimately transient (“time flows down the mountain like the ice, / a motion we cannot see, / though it bears our blood almost forever”). As Wordsworth says in “Essays on Epitaphs,” we erect tombs to prolong memory of the dead, even as we are aware that the tombs themselves won’t last. Mason’s trauma of losing his brother heightened his sense of the impermanence of things, and of the phantasmagoric quality of memory that preserves the dead and the fleeting: “A second nature rises from the past, / just like the first in that it will not last, / and grips you as it slips free of your grasp” (“The Picketwire”). And the memory of that life is too subtle and protean to be captured in language:
I live in a world too full of elegies,
and find no compensation in these lines,
nor can they map where memory begins
its restoration under winter skies. (“Letter to No Address”)
Mason quotes Darwin in the epigraph to his poem “New Zealand Letter”: “Nothing, not even the wind that blows, is so unstable as the level of the crust of the earth.” The poem depicts how “this metamorphic world” travels like the traveler himself, so that even in moving across the earth’s surface, in this age of mass tourism, where “the spillage of spoiled empires everywhere / rumbles ashore like the redundant surf,” in our frenetic movement we might forget that the earth itself is also moving under our very feet. Earth is “the sort of matter that endures / by changing.” Consequently, as Mason says in the poem “The Dream of Arrival,” we are “always preparing to arrive.” In this poem, which alludes to Cavafy’s poem on journeying to Ithaca, the speaker describes his journey back to Ithaca, archetypal place of return, only to realize when he does arrive that he “did not know the land.”
Always preparing to arrive,
I suffer the deaths of many friends,
survive, surprised to be alive.
My story’s told, but never ends
Mason intentionally omits the closing punctuation; as in Cavafy’s poem, inconclusiveness is the nature of the journey.
So, Mason pays attention to what lasts beyond the individual’s life span but acknowledges that even on a larger scale forms mutate and pass on. The Country I Remember has a poem about a river in Colorado near which his ancestors settled (the same river appears also in Ludlow): “My people’s home beside the Purgatoire / was brief—far briefer than our scattering.” Even long-term settlements were once founded by people who had wandered there. In this case, the Spaniards who had been at the location before the coal mines attracted other settlers are now remembered only by the river’s name, El Rio de las Animas Perdidas en Purgatorio, the river itself being an image of time’s inexorable flow:
No one recollects where the Spaniards died.
A rescue party found their armored bones,
thought their souls estranged from the love of God;
so the river was named and flowed on past,
bearing no knowledge of its wandering spirits,
cupped to baptize newborns in the valley.
This theme has been present throughout Mason’s work: “Much is known by now about the buried houses, / less about the people who uncovered them” (“The Buried Houses”); “The past I would recapture is a land / whose contours changed the further I moved out” (“Letter to No Address”).
Mutability is obviously a perennial, inevitable topic of poetry; the response to it is one of the defining characteristics of a poet. I have already mentioned that part of Mason’s response has been to pay attention to the continuity of mneumonic forms: memory of the bonds between people, including their stories; memory of nature; memory of languages and poetic traditions. Yet all these forms are subject to loss and forgetting—a fact that for Mason has been especially palpable since losing his brother. From this it is a short hop to identifying with those who know no permanence, whose lives are haunted by a sense of not belonging anywhere. Many of Mason’s poems identify with people who are dispossessed in one way or another. As he writes of a beggar in India: “What roll of the dice made me the healthy one / placing a rupee on his left arm’s stump?” (“A Beggar of Chennai”). And another poem in Arrivals—a ballade the craft of which is worthy of Mason’s former teacher Anthony Hecht—identifies with tramps, schizophrenics, and other outsiders:
A Dunkin’ Donuts denizen,
Phil diagrammed conspiracies
in which the country had a plan,
contrived by top authorities,
to generate our mass malaise.
When I would ask him why or how,
suspicion flickered in his eyes.
I don’t know where he’s living now. (“Ballade at 3 a.m.”)
As these quotations demonstrate, Mason does not choose these subjects to show off how compassionate he is or because of middle-class guilt. He uses the craft to give these experiences a name and a voice.
There is every indication, in any case, that these subjects actually choose him. I have already mentioned that Mason was drawn to the Ludlow story since he was young. The two main characters of Ludlow—which, by the way, is a thoroughly engrossing read from start to finish—are Louis Tikas and Luisa Mole, he an immigrant from Crete, she the daughter of a Welshman and a Mexican woman. Tikas is a historical figure, killed by state militia during the Ludlow massacre; Luisa, an orphan from age twelve who is taken on by a middle-class family as a helper and nurse, is Mason’s invention. Mason has written novels and has worked in film production, and his sense of character development shows it: both these characters make a vivid impression. Such outsiders and immigrants inhabit Mason’s poetry like personas for his own sense of loss:
How long, O Lord, how long
must one man journey till he finds his home?
Their lives are part of my life’s inventory;
my role grows smaller when I glimpse the whole.
Today I pocketed a lump of coal.
These are the facts, but facts are not the story.
This drive to use poetry to explore human lives on the margins, or simply people without a voice, has been in Mason’s work since the start. In The Buried Houses, for instance, there is a poem about a disillusioned middle-aged divorcée from Chicago who lives in Greece and is a tour guide for American students. The poem depicts her loneliness in contrast to the students’ hopefulness and camaraderie: “Why should they want to know / one’s hair grays, one’s husband leaves, one’s tongue / turns to stone?” (“The Nightingales of Andritsena”). She is uprooted, dissociated from the traumas of her past: “I do not think I have let myself be young. / I am a woman whose father committed suicide / in Chicago in 1939.” “The Collector’s Tale,” an eight-page narrative poem in Arrivals, is about Foley, an American Indian drunk and seller of Indian artifacts. The story is told by another collector who has known Foley for just two months. Foley shows up one night at the narrator’s home, drunk, having just bludgeoned to death (with a souvenir buffalo bone) another dealer named Rasher. He tells how he hated Rasher for being a white guy who sold phony Indian artifacts: “The stuff is fucking new, / pure Disneyland, not even off the Rez.” Rasher had shown Foley a horrific item: “a black man’s head with eyes sewn shut— / . . . a metal ashtray planted in the skull”— and Foley became so enraged over it he went to “some Yuppie bar / that charged a fortune for its cheapest bourbon,” where he got riled up even more. Mason’s method here is typical of his narratives: out of Foley’s speech he creates a convincing character, backed up with naturalistic description. Here is Foley from the outside:
I still see him, round as a medicine ball
with a three-day beard, wearing his ripped jeans
and ratty, unlaced Nikes without socks.
I see him searching through two empty packs
and casting them aside despite my scowl,
opening a third, lighting up—he careens
into my kitchen, leaving boozy tracks.
These rhymed stanzas of the narrator are interspersed with Foley’s blank-verse speech, a strategy that works well for this poem since it sets off Foley’s speech as a drunken rant.
Mason has included longer narrative poems in all his volumes to date (Ludlow is one long narrative poem, with no lyrics). His penchant for this genre was evident in The Buried Houses, which includes four narrative poems of three pages or more: “The Nightingales of Andritsena,” mentioned above; “The Next Place,” which is about a traveling charlatan who sells bogus remedies and beauty lotions and is run out of town; “Spooning,” about a small-town old man, who relates his memory of a girl who became a famous actress; and “Blackened Peaches,” in which a western pioneer woman tells her story of hardship and loss, including the death of her husband. These all show clear signs of Frost’s influence—Mason has stated that Frost is his favorite American poet. Narrative poems after this first book, while still indebted to Frost, are more clearly Mason’s own.
Interestingly, all of Mason’s narratives are in the first person, until Ludlow, which is told in the third person. His lyrical voice—and Mason at his best is as accomplished at lyric as he is at narrative—is often melancholic, nostalgic even, qualities that contrast or clash with the storyteller’s extroversion that should be evident from the quotations I have already given. Like Frost or Robert Browning, Mason often discovers what he most wants to say by being someone other than himself. I have already stated that the sense of personal loss is a central force in Mason’s poetry. The restrained (yet deeply felt) tone of much of his lyrical poetry may be a way to balance the pull of nostalgia. In the longer poems, through which Mason enters the lives of others, he escapes this.
Mason and other recent poets have written in defense of the verse narrative; the afterword of Ludlow has something to say on the matter: “Narrative verse is not inherently harder to read than narrative prose. In the right hands, verse actually has more clarity, drive and economy than prose, and it can offer literary pleasures of a sort unavailable in other genres.” It seems obvious that there are advantages to stories in verse—to me the wonder is that this would have ever come into question. Maybe the paucity of verse narrative in recent decades has had something to do with people no longer reading aloud to each other. As every poetry lover knows, poetry isn’t static print: it is a vibrating column of air. Our lungs resuscitate the words on the page. I read Ludlow aloud to myself, the better to enjoy the interplay of number and measure with the literal story:
From the naked bed of a Denver whore
named Alice—weazened and tubercular—
Ilias Spantidakis moved back in
to his American skin and his new name,
from leading man in Greek to character
in English who confused the tenses, lost
the proper names for abstract principles
and left some articles to faith.
Mason tells his story in a naturalistic manner (there are remarkably few metaphors or similes in his narrative poems)—with the blend of American speech rhythms and blank verse that he has mastered. In the process, he demonstrates why verse is still an excellent medium for telling stories. His role in resurrecting the genre is his most distinguished achievement to date, and Ludlow is the peak of that achievement.
This is not to say that long verse narratives don’t have their own aesthetic pitfalls. Mason himself points out in the afterword to Ludlow that such poems tend to sag, that they cannot be keyed to the steady intensity, verbal or emotional or both, of lyrical poems: “The truth is that it falters on occasion, just as prose novels have their peaks and valleys. Rising and falling language, like rising and falling action, is part of the experience of the longer work.” One risk of long blank-verse narrative is that the author is likely to resort unintentionally to metrical filler; for example, “he felt the air / darker than any burial, gone dead / like air unfit for healthy men to breathe.” How can air be “like air” unless there is an extra metrical foot to fill in? And, sometimes, line breaks or stanza breaks in Ludlow are arbitrary, not really serving the function of setting off verse lineation against syntax: “I took a bullet for the cause. We lost // because they sent militia with their guards”; or “By the time he drove / across the rusty railroad tracks at Ludlow // everyone he saw was soaked to the skin.” Is the stanza (Ludlow is divided into eight-line stanzas) really a meaningful container when it leaks like this?
Drama is supposed to present conflict arising from a clash of characters, paradoxes of characters’ temperaments; it should define the conflict also by emotional mood, and show how conflict is resolved. Mason does this well. In Ludlow, the gradual transition from the initial introduction of the main characters; to the establishment of their various story threads; to the slow buildup of tension between the coal company and the Baldwin-Flats security agency on one hand and the strikers on the other—while the individual stories, especially those of Tikas and Luisa, continue to spin out against the larger background—all of this is deftly and unobtrusively handled. The reader is drawn into the collective story of the miners’ strike and the personal destinies of the characters, convinced of the connections.
Ludlow combines historical fact with personal destiny in a way only fiction can do. Mason’s identification with and interest in outsiders and immigrants, which I discussed earlier, has born its best fruit so far in the creation of Ludlow’s two main characters, Louis Tikas and Luisa Mole (Mason perhaps chose her name to echo “Louis,” so that she represents the invisible face of his more public existence). Tikas’s real name was Ilias Spantidakis. He is an immigrant from Crete. He lived through a civil war there. He is intelligent, knows how to read, and works at a coffee shop in Trinidad, Colorado, reading the newspaper to customers. He is in America for economic reasons, not because he really wants to be. Only when he visits the prostitutes does he feel truly alive; otherwise he is “uncertain of his skin.” The narrator of Ludlow, who occasionally steps out of the story to reflect, offers:
What does it mean—nation of immigrants?
What are the accents, fables, voices of roads,
the tall tales told by the smallest desert plants?
Even the wind in the barbed wire goads
me into making lines, fencing my vagrant thought.
A story is the language of desire.
A journey home is never what it ought
A land of broken glass. Of gunfire.
Luisa Mole’s story runs parallel to Tikas’s—they meet only toward the end and in passing, close to the time the massacre takes place. Her father, John Mole, has died in a mining explosion, and her mother died before that. We follow Luisa as she goes to live with the Reeds, a middle-class family with five children she helps care for. As already mentioned, long narrative poems rise and fall in intensity. Mason has good timing; he knows how to heighten the intensity when it’s called for, such as this scene, when Luisa Mole is newly adjusting to having lost her parents. She is living with a miner and his wife until she is taken in by the Reeds:
Out of the rockfolds, the scrub, the deep sky,
out of the junipers that loosed the dark
when the sun crept over the mountaintops,
out of the mouths and tipples of the mines
where men still worked, inquest or no inquest,
where coke ovens glowed a stone inferno,
out of the train that wailed to Trinidad
and back to Denver with its load of news
came the sound that was not a sound, a muted
scratching for life.
At the end of Ludlow, the author fantasizes over what might have become of Luisa, imagining her still alive in the 1970s, sitting alone in a coffee shop, not really belonging anywhere. She never had her own family, remaining la huerfana, the orphan, to the end: “She could give and give / and make of giving something of a home . . . . / all she knew for certain she was good at ever.”
What gives people a sense of belonging? In Luisa’s case, though it wasn’t enough in the end, it had to do with feeling needed. Friendship, family, community—all three are ways to it. There is also tradition (that bugbear of pluralistic society) including the language tradition one uses for everyday communication. I.A. Richards called poetry a “house of the soul”; people who are drawn to poetry live in it. At midcareer, Mason is still building his particular house—narrative rooms with lyrical windows. It’s a house built on the family plot, with side doors to Greece, and—unlike a lot of the poetry-houses on offer these days—it’s livable.