NOVEMBER 20, 2022
A POET KNOWN for his narratives, like Ludlow, the acclaimed historical-novel-in-verse turned opera, David Mason curates the archipelago of intensely satisfying lyric poems in Pacific Light with the skill of a consummate storyteller. His imaginative sweep is evident in “The Air in Tasmania,” set in his adopted home of Australia, where “the land / takes flying lessons from the air / and the air’s great cleanser, the sea,” and where we traverse “from person to bird and back,” but it’s the details that matter. The collection is rich in these details, providing readers with a definite sense of place, yet at the same time, like the birds of the air, we are forever in flux.
How can we reconcile a sense of place with transience? For an answer, we can turn to the details in “A Wren’s Weight”:
A wren lights on a blade of pampas grass
and does not bend it, while the air is rent
by throaty motorcycles on the road.
No gesture I can make will budge the earth,
no rage for justice, no love or fever of grief
will leave so much as a wren’s weight remaining,
but to have seen this day, or tried to see it
just as it is, is all of privilege,
all time alive in the marrow of sunlight.
Notice how “lights,” which echoes the book’s titular “light,” works against the “weight” in this poem’s title. The bird lands but, strangely, “does not bend” the seemingly lighter object it lands on. The image frames balance as a kind of precarious peace, which is broken by the words that follow, as the “throaty” engines intrude. What is the lesson? The next stanza tells us nothing we do “will leave so much as a wren’s weight remaining” — a common theme in Mason’s work — which may be read as a resignation to transience, yet the final stanza changes that, too. Here “privilege,” a word that has lately taken on almost exclusively economic and social connotations, is given otherworldly, sacred meaning, culminating in the breathtaking phrase “all time alive in the marrow of sunlight.” Suddenly we are elevated to a realm of living eternity. The sunlight’s “marrow” feels like something in our bones made bird-light, allowing us to take flight.
In this poem, as in so many others in Pacific Light, we are lifted up to a higher perch, if only for a moment. Such moments in poetry are, in a very real sense, something worth living for. Or, as Mason himself put it in an interview, “the best literature […] makes you feel alive to read it.”
But after this, an alternate voice emerges — that of a critic, who accuses the poet of “the sin of passivity,” mocking “your prayerful nature and your precious wren.” This back-and-forth dramatizes certain modern arguments about poetry as a realm of inaction and self-centeredness. This poem comes down in favor of the value of simply living, presenting the argument against poetry as the embodiment of the very “gated enclave” it denounces.
Certainly there are no “gated enclaves” here, for the poet is fully inhabiting the most visceral and “unprivileged” of things, such as “ten thousand purple crab in a living cast” waiting to be killed. The speaker’s job consists of, in “The Solitude of Work,”
breaking a ten-pound crab apart
on a chest-high blade. They sensed death coming
and slowly fought the blade with claws like fists,
and when their shells were gutted empty things
thrown in a grinder, there was still a smell,
my own grim smell from a day of taking lives —
never a very happy enterprise.
He faces an experience at which others may shudder as they eat the delicacy resulting from this carnage: this is what happens to get food to our tables, the raw guts of the real. We move from the majestic to the “grim smell” of “taking lives,” also a part of life, much as we may wish it were otherwise.
Without such acknowledgment of death, we might not so deeply value life. “The Garden and the Library” begins with this observation: “A gardener grows familiar with the dead / and dying, each tree with its way of letting go.” Then it brings us the following scene:
I knew a daughter once who could not touch
her dying mother’s body. I did it for her.
And while the nurse removed the catheter
and turned the corpse, changing the under-sheet,
the daughter wept and missed the miracle.
I watched the speed with which the nurses worked
and wondered when the immigrant embarked,
now that she was so much like a leaf.
To see death as something upon which one “embarks,” being a new “immigrant,” is very much in the Greek tradition. Mason has lived in Greece and clearly regards the wisdom of its ancient thinkers and poets as a living legacy rather than a merely literary one. To describe death as “the miracle” goes beyond the sad view of Charon ferrying incoming “shades,” approaching something Sapphic: “A longing grips me to die and see the dewy, lotus-covered banks of Acheron.” And why not envision the destination as a new life, even a beautiful one? The last line, “now that she was so much like a leaf,” also conjures the near weightlessness of the wren in its precarious peace, and perhaps even the olive leaves another bird, the dove, brought to Noah as evidence of a nearby place to disembark for a new and better life. But a “leaf” is also a page turning, even a whole library left behind: the speaker wonders “who will touch their spines […] and love them as I did.” Time and again, Mason encourages us to ponder the meaning of death, of memory, of what happens to what we value most as each beloved person, garden, literature, art, and era dies and is replaced by another.
We find another insight in Mason’s interpretation of the Greek parable in which a couple, Baucis and Philemon, showed generosity to two strangers who turned out to be the gods Zeus and Hermes. The gods rewarded them for their kindness. Mason writes: “How do you know that Hermes isn’t walking through your doorway right now? You don’t, and because of that, it’s incumbent on you to live with the possibility that sacredness — that which is beyond human — is knocking on your door.” This translates for him in the Greek word xenia, kindness toward strangers, which manifests in his poetry as a generous attitude reflected in his very tone of voice, both unassuming and somehow reassuring. His Davey McGravy, a children’s book that gracefully confronts the subject of the death of a loved one, movingly exhibits this trait.
In this collection, we sense it in the very first poem, “On the Shelf,” whose title rhymes with and is the same metric length as that of the final poem, “Note to Self” — another indication of the care with which Mason organizes his effects. There we are invited to observe the smallest thing, a spider’s shed skin, which the speaker “thought twice before touching,” because the spider’s “soul” is still “able to frighten.” He wonders if his own “shed skins / in houses where my name has been removed” will elicit an emotional response, if “some words of mine” will thus “go on living,” without asserting it. The question remains humbly open.
In “Words for Hermes,” the spirit of xenia is also reflected in a reverence for life, for possibilities, and for that liminal space (Hermes being a psychopomp that traverses such spaces) wherein lie poetry, art, and more:
Night is leaving and it is not night.
The dawn is coming but it is not dawn.
It’s something in between. Not yet decided.
Like the old is dying and the new cannot be born.
Like a door you haven’t stepped through yet.
Like me. I live in the between.
This liminality is where Mason finds inspiration. His life has been filled with transitions, to the point that, as he once said, “For years I thought I had motion sickness — in this case an illness that means you will always be on the move.” Transition, however, can take forms other than travel — for instance, the death of his older brother in a mountain-climbing accident, his parents’ divorce, and later his own. He knows that in order to transcend suffering and loss, we must accept both the contours of our lives and what lies beyond them, a realm that is inexpressible in empirical terms. As he writes in “The Work”:
Time is the hillside falling away in grass and gum trees,
the current of water, the island behind the cloud,
and there is more of it and less of it than we know.
Time, despite our attempts to quantify, schedule, and otherwise tame it, is as fleeting and everlasting as Mason reveals it to be. One gift of poetry is to help us make peace with that, precariously, and only for a moment.
Siham Karami is the author of the poetry collection To Love the River (Kelsay Books, 2018). Her poetry and essays have appeared in The Orison Anthology, Smartish Pace, The Rumpus, Pleiades, Tiferet Journal, and Poetry International, among others.