The Colosseum Critical Introduction to David Mason
by gregory dowling
franciscan university press, 232 pages, $12
At a time when most new poetry is abstruse, ignorant of tradition, and syntactically abusive, the lucid, narrative-driven, geographically concrete poems of David Mason are a blast of fresh air. Like Odysseus, he has “wanderd wondrous farre,” and a spirit of ceaseless pilgrimage imbues his plainspoken work. In seven books of poetry and one memoir, Mason has proved himself a worthy heir to the tradition of demotic formalism bequeathed by Wordsworth, Auden, and Robert Frost. As such, the recent publication of Gregory Dowling’s Colosseum Critical Introduction to David Mason is quite welcome.
Dowling’s critical introduction seeks to make Mason’s work more comprehensible as a whole by situating the individual poems in his biography. The result is illuminating and makes for a more intimate encounter with his poems, which can seem on a first reading to require little exegesis. The clarity and forthrightness stems from his formalist ethic. As Mason puts it: “Our greatest pleasures arise from form—the feeling of connection, completion, touch. It seems that the mind naturally rejects formlessness.”
Dowling unwinds the formal arrangements and interrelations of the poems in each of Mason’s collections. He also sheds light on previously unknown aspects of Mason’s biography. Knowing exactly where Mason is in his travels as he writes a particular poem, for example, deepens the experience of its meaning. And while the poems, given their often-confessional nature, do stand on their own absent background knowledge, in some cases their meaning is transformed (or at least expanded) in view of biographical detail. Dowling begins the Introduction with one such instance, a quotation from one of Mason’s earlier poems, “The Buried Houses”:
To get out of a car, thank the driver
And sling the moment’s household on your back,
Looking ahead at open roads and fields
No crows darken . . .
Although this passage is about another man, the person to whom the poem is dedicated, the precise language of the verse is lifted almost verbatim from a passage in Mason’s memoir News from the Village where he is talking about himself. T. S. Eliot said that “mature poets steal,” and Mason certainly enjoys plundering poetic material from the strongbox of his own life, whether it be his sojourning, the death of his brother, his family history, his divorce, or his own writing.
The Introduction is arranged straightforwardly, moving from a general introduction to the poet and his life through the individual collections of his poetry (with attendant exegesis). This gives us a sense of the poet’s maturation over time and the development of his interest in the narrative possibilities of verse, which stems in part from his early attempts at writing a novel. As Mason puts it in the interview that ends the book: “Other than Frost and Jeffers, neither of whom could do naturalistic dialogue, and perhaps as well as Hecht and Walcott, I can’t say my narrative influences are poets. Fiction writers—Tolstoy, Chekov, Maupassant, Hemingway, Faulkner, [Cormac] McCarthy, DeLillo, [Philip] Roth, Twain, Bierce, Cather, Woolf, Joyce, Lawrence, Borges—I have learnt from all of these. All of them. And Homer, too, of course.”
In his exegesis, Dowling often reveals important details of the poems’ creation. We learn of the poem “Fog Horns,” for example, that “Mason has indicated that it is actually an ekphrastic poem, being inspired by a 1929 painting by Arthur Dove with almost exactly the same title.” Dowling’s brisk reading of “Gulls in the Wake” reveals that the poem was inspired by a celebration of Eastertide Mason witnessed near the Greek island of Kos. Read alongside a relevant passage from his autobiography, what originally feels like the poem’s restrained agnosticism is transformed into sympathy with the life of faith. Mason says in the prose work that the “whole encounter damned near made a Christian out of me.”
Too often, however, Dowling is content to paraphrase poems, rather than offering serious exegesis. Perhaps this is a difficulty that arises when one writes about a living author one knows personally. Dowling often seems to take the poems at face value, describing their emotional tone and “action,” but only gesturing toward greater significance. Part of the reason for this is surely space constraints. Disappointingly, one does not consistently learn things not evident in the poems themselves.
The book contains no footnotes, only parenthetical in-line references to the bibliography. I was also disappointed to find no index. This would have been especially useful for looking up the many different poems that are discussed, not to mention place names, dates, and so forth. Moreover, after about 175 pages of poem-by-poem exegesis, a general discussion of themes, tones, styles, and development could have lent clarity. Although Dowling discusses the general themes of Mason’s work throughout his close readings, he too easy loses the forest for the trees.
In the interview that ends the book, Mason claims to have gone through “a rather anti-romantic phase” in his “earlier years.” He then details the importance of the Romantics and early Greeks to his mature work, noting especially Keats, Blake, Wordsworth, and Coleridge. Nevertheless, even a cursory reading of Mason’s work shows that the influence is far from straightforward. In fact, while Mason’s poems often express awe at the inhuman beauty of the natural world, they adopt the rhetoric of clinical Linnean accuracy. The words themselves are beautiful, but they also distance the reader from their beautiful referents, as is the case in this passage from the long poem Ludlow, describing the Colorado desert:
A solitary cone of rock rose up
from lacerated land, the dry arroyos,
scars that scuppered water in flood season
down to a river. In dusty summertime
the cottonwoods eked out a living there
in a ragged line below the high peaks.
The ground was a plate of stony scutes that shone
like diamonds at noon, an hour when diamondbacks
coiled on sunbaked rocks.
Another example comes from “The Fawn,” where Mason describes the suffering of a deer found in a garage:
Maren told us how a neighbor’s dog had caught it,
Showed us the wheezing holes made by the teeth
The spotted fur blood-flecked, the shitty haunch
Where it had soiled itself in the lunged attack.
While both passages evoke emotion, the language is impersonal, even documentary. Mason’s distance from the natural world is motivated by respect for the suffering and horror it contains and his struggle both to understand and exist within it. He is forever playing with the possibility of meaning, even of faith, and forever refusing it. This distance is a hallmark of Romanticism.
Mason’s recent poem “A declaration” applies this same distance to religious feeling. It begins:
For the first time I understand
why some call despair a sin.
Not that I haven’t felt the terrible if.
Not that I haven’t thought
of walking into the woods and not
returning. The pistol shot. The cliff.
Despair is like the weather. It will
change. Or it will kill you . . .
Mason employs religious language frequently enough to make one hope he will someday trade his ambivalence for a living faith. His poetry, like his life, presents a pilgrimage through the questions, uncertainties, and beauties of human existence. Dowling’s Introduction is a helpful travel guide for readers embarking on their own pilgrimage through Mason’s life and thought, one that will deepen their appreciation for the questions he asks, the wonder he expresses, and the artistry with which he crafts his work.
Michael Yost is a poet and essayist living in rural New Hampshire with his wife and children.
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