Work Done? David Mason’s Pacific Light

/ /

Pacific Light
By David Mason
(Red Hen Press, 92pp., $17.95)

In Pacific Light, David Mason returns to a familiar theme: his conflicting desires to go places and to stay put. This master of the narrative poem, and a well-established voice in American letters, has, after building a reputation as a writer of the American West, moved to Tasmania. As he puts it:

I’m the one who’s gone, the immigrant.
I’ve crossed the sea and left so many books
behind and wonder who will touch their spines
and take them down and love them as I did.

Pacific Light is a gentler, more restrained collection than his previous Sea Salt, and often seeks to explain—or at least to express—the balance of forces that led the writer to where he is now. There is a sense of awe and bewilderment that he’s become a retired professor living in a foreign land. A vulnerable tenderness emerges, and gratitude overrides the other emotions of the work.

Perhaps because of its humble appreciativeness and the softer nature of its rhymes, I thought more than once of Seamus Heaney and the earthy bereftness of the Irish poets. Several solitary figures are presented, without judgement, for our contemplation: a neighbor who died by suicide, a farmer mired in the routines of old age, a cabbie, a widow. But offsetting these are songs of praise: mature love poems; poems appreciating the lived moment; figures of ships, the sea, and memory.

One humorous piece, “Long Haul” speaks to the way in which, for Mason, a desire to promote the regional and the local has long worked in tension with an urge to overcome global distances. This couples with his tendency to view institutional ties and boundaries (marriage, citizenship, poetry conferences, even death) as porous:

In airports everywhere I see
people I think I know.
Someone I used to be married to,
someone who’s dead now.

That one I wrote about,
and blush at what I said.
That one I met at a conference—
no, he too is dead.

I had a friend who looked like that
when we were twenty.
If I spoke to him I’m sure
he’d tell me plenty.

This one made me laugh aloud—it’s such an apt description of the conference-circuit poet getting older. The deadpan skill continues to the end, when suddenly, as the plane takes off, the forward motion of the sentences overtakes the boundary of the line, and individualities blur, until we hear an echo of Prospero: “we are such stuff as dreams are made on.”

But there’s also a skepticism here for bonds and bounds that others may view as nonnegotiable. Because he is childless, his divorced parents passed, one of his brothers dead (a key subject of Sea Salt), family ties are negligible for Mason, and the larger family of the nation disappoints him. Secularly raised, he experienced any metaphysics through direct encounter with the natural world or in the linguistic sonority of a poem. He values the bond across time and space with fellow writers (eulogies for Derek Mahon, Alastair Reid, and Anne Stevenson speak to this), but those shared memories are subject to death, too, as “Long Haul” reminds us. If family and citizenship are so subject to change, and religion a matter of chance—what holds? What keeps us rooted?

One part of Pacific Light’s answer lies in intimate relationship, which has both orienting and disorienting dimensions, as “Crossing the Line” describes:

She turned the world and showed me the equator—

A line I’d never seen in my northern life.
Now look, the Earth is mostly water like us.
An Andean narrowing to the Land of Fire

and then terra Australis, the Southern Land
that Europeans took so long to find,
and next across, the Southern Ocean where

the albatrosses dream between the swells,
unwritten whiteness shrinking toward the pole.
She turned me upside down and brought me here

to walk upright under the Southern Cross.

With its image of the globe on an axis, the beloved becomes the mover, the lover moved—as John Donne once, to his wife’s fixed center, “like th’other foot” did “obliquely run.” With narrative clarity, reinforced by a line of dialogue (a signature Mason technique), the poet manages to convey the tremulous geologic mystery of the whole world, and the smallness of our place within it. Being turned upside down to walk upright—the topsy turvy sense of nonsense—is an old trope, perhaps, but expressed here with the wistful finality of a kind of sailor chanty.

The pentameter of “Crossing the Line” is typical of the pieces in Pacific Light. Like love, immigration involves disorientation, and while some poets might choose to express that through unsettled syntax, Mason anchors himself in his most familiar form. I liked the line experimentation and more ecstatic energy of Sea Salt, but I appreciate the nuances of emotion, too, that the iambic pentameter line can convey. (This is not to say that the entire collection is in pentameters, but their presence is notable.)

Another aspect of rootedness, for Mason, involves letting go of hard-felt ideals and being willing, more or less, to uproot. “The Garden and the Library,” one of the more thematically complex pieces in Pacific Light, explores dying, but also it describes the deep inadequacies and painful interior transformation that comes when the body journeys to a different place.

First, it introduces us to a gardener who knows each of his trees’ “way of letting go”—the unique stages of their annual death. It speaks of a woman he knew on her deathbed, and how “the body turned like wood, efficiently.” Then, he writes:

By then my garden had become a book,
and like all books I felt it come apart
each time I read its leaves. It was a tree
of books, a library of spines in tiers,

so many I couldn’t know or read them all.
I thought they were alive, or would give life
to me if I could only read them all.
The shelves grew tall as trees, and weighted down

with books of every kind—novels, poetry,
dictionaries of arcana, alphabets
and sciences and stories of adventure—
books I reach for now, and find them gone.

And in an unforgettable image, the poet speaks of working in an unfamiliar garden and facing the utter loss of certainty, until unexpected insight arrives:

I know so little now about the dead,
the clay and rock I garden in, the trees.
Work is a kind of blessed ignorance
in which no task is every really done.

Even if the soil has changed, the work itself endures—the work, presumably, of gathering and articulating the significance of experience. This may be as much now, for him, about foreseeing the patterns of death as pondering the patterns of life, but the two things are surely inescapably entwined.

For him, writing seems to be the most humane of activities, the strongest kind of interpersonal bond. He returns to it again and again throughout Pacific Light, comparing his efforts to that of an old woman who “pushes her wheel barrow uphill every day / moving the rock and soil, at eighty-nine / mucking in dirt to make some beauty grow.” And he cannot think of “The Work” without feeling both fear and resolve at its lack of closure:

Once, work was the thing one rose to by the clock,
the place one drove to, the faces one met getting coffee.
Now there are stones to be moved, but will they be moved?

I have felt as others feel a quiet terror
yawning like a black hole between the trees
where matter falls in and never returns.

We are doing the work no other demands in the light
we are given, forgetting what day of the week it is,
the work all other work was a way of putting off.

In this he echoes Yeats’s “Adam’s Curse,” though perhaps with a less descrying tone:

Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.

But men die before their work is done—surely that is a difficult insight.

Taking one’s own vocation as a theme can be tedious, akin to writing a poem about poetry. In pieces like “The Lion on My Roof,” “Lives of an Immigrant,” and “A Wren’s Weight,” the poet seems a little overly compelled to make a defense for his way of life and for his abandoning certain ideals to resettle in another land. But I am very interested in the “we” in the poem above. Even though it’s the solitude of work that remains, the poet has chosen this plural pronoun as his subject. As insular and interior as his work may be, as narrow as his life has become between the bedroom, the garden, and the “lover pouring tea,” he still does not view himself as essentially alone.

When the poet is actually doing the work, rather than thinking about it, the candor of his gratitude is almost unbearable. In “The Storm Coast,” he hints at the climate crisis and the crumbling of American mores, but having acknowledged those things, seems unable to veer into anything but praise. “In those years we lived so close to the sea,” he says; “It never stopped its roaring in our ears.” He describes the seabirds who flock, and then continues:

We too were still and gladdened to be there,
cracked open by the elements like prayer.
We lived with no more shelter than a rhyme,
one measure of daylight tagging the next
till day was only the echo of the day

but with a difference felt along the skin.
The gimcrack houses and shops of America,
a thin and transitory way of saying home,
were pelted by the horizontal rain
the flow and tumult of the Ring of Fire.

I wonder if the sea will take that house
and fold and drown it like a paper hat.
What light it gave us, though. What years of peace
even when the storm blew clear inside us,
caught up in that coming in, that going out.

The poet wisely puts “peace” in the antepenultimate line, ending instead with the ebb and flow and the sea of the storm. But the peace is so direct and piercing it seems, to my mind, to override all the coming in and going. It doesn’t seem to come out of the poem, with its disappointments and discontents and nostalgia for raw ideals, but seems to arrive into it like a pervading revelation.

Similarly, in “A Birthday Boy,” the poet allows himself a frank, whole-life reflection that ends in praise (and again refers to himself with “we”):

We have come far. We’re not alone in this.
There have been storms at sea. There have been tears
and there will be more tears. There have been days
I could have felt the dark flash in my brain
(and I will feel the dark flash in my brain).
There has been mercy and there has been rain.
I read a book that justifies its art

in every line and sip the tea and feel
the sunlight glowing in my bones, my skin.
I am the birthday boy, enlarged to nothing,
absorbed by everything the daylight offers.
This is the sort of thing that makes men kneel.
Consider me then, down on my old knees,
and this the benediction of an hour.

I admit, this raw gratitude makes me almost uncomfortable, falling, as it does, very near to platitude. I am, perhaps, still in Mason’s old garden, gathering the books that still seem to live, and haven’t dropped their leaves yet. To cope with all the suffering in the world, is fully experiencing the moment, with gratitude and joy, indeed enough? Is it truly sufficient just to “be”?

But the poet does admit that when permanent things—like the convictions of faith, or marriage—are treated as malleable, poetry’s consolation is inadequate. “The Condition of Music” describes his mother’s wedding in Seattle:

Many who had been friends were now,

by virtue of this winter celebration,
family, and in the city’s Christmas lights,

the sheen of wet streets, in houses rising
above us, tier on tier into the night,

red silent stars of passing jets, our breaths
as we joined in singing, all of us floating

on champagne and love of the old words
that must in some dark world have been believed,

we wanted song, and were nearly fortified
for all the suffering that was yet to come.

Music sounds like truth, yet without conviction and permanence behind it, it is just that—a sound. So does poetry and its music and insights—the wheelbarrow we work to push up hill—fortify us, or nearly fortify us? Perhaps it’s the poignance of Mason’s equivocation in Pacific Light that makes it a compelling work.

Pacific Light is not where I’d send someone just starting into David Mason’s oeuvre. For that, I’d probably turn to Ludlow or Sea Salt. But Pacific Light is saturated with a lifetime’s worth of reflection, and mature and complex in its expression. For those who have long admired the poet, it offers a quieter outworking of some of his ideas than one might expect, and a bit of a “drawing in,” but perhaps that is not so surprising when we are still coming blinking out of our global solitude. Maybe we do find ourselves more tentative with our ambitions, ideals, and institutions, more content with the garden’s endless tasks, more apt to put our expectations to sea.