David Mason

Poet David Mason

Expansive Poetry & Music Online Review

The Country I Remember

By David Mason

published by Story Line Press

review by Arthur Mortensen

All poems cited are from The Country I Remember
Copyright (c) 1995 by David Mason

The indifference to narrative poets by the lyric is no surprise, just a proof of who's looking. This is not unusual. One would not expect a critic who described bebop as a cult to note the relationship of elements of classical music to that of Charlie Parker, who helped to introduce counterpoint as difficult as Mozart's into jazz, nor believe that a doctor who thought nutrition a sideshow would research evidence that a high-fat diet is implicated in the damage to myelin in MS. Audiences and players, as any marketer knows, tend to be exclusive in their opinions and in their judgment of who will be allowed to sit or act in their little theaters. And you are no more likely to hear about the glories of narrative poetry at a conference of university lyric writers than you are about birth control pills at a prayer meeting led by Pope John Paul II. This may not be so bad, as nasty as the infighting can be. That there are no "big tents" to hold narrative and lyric poets may be the reason why so much narrative poetry is being written today. One such storyteller is David Mason who, in his book from Story Line, The Country I Remember, offers a considerable narrative poem by the same name.

It is constructed as stories told in the last year of the lives of both a father and his daughter, who died nearly forty years apart. The voices are distinct and plainspoken, as readers have come to expect from Story Line authors such as Mason, and as readers once expected from Robert Frost. It is risky to use small town settings anymore, however. Most small towns are closed down, with their surrounding farms managed by agribusiness cooperatives. Fortunately, Mason's story ends in 1956, a year in which plain-spoken small town settings were still a significant force outside of a poet's imagination. The opening lines set the tone for the entire piece; they belong to Mrs. Maggie Gresham's, the daughter of Lt. Mitchell, a Civil War officer. She is telling stories as she nears the end of her life:

The rattle and sway of the train as it clattered across
leagues of open grassland put me to sleep,
and I dreamed of Illinois where land was flat
and safe as anything that I had known.
I woke to find my sisters counting bones
on the prairie, and the sky beyond our smoke
was a dusty blue. We were heading west.

from "The Country I Remember"

If you were expecting a testimonial about how she was victimized by a drunken veteran, out of control since the bloodletting at the Wilderness, you came to the wrong place. And Mason, as is true of many narrative poets, most likely considers that kind of story to be the grist of the press of exception, as ours is, where the most grotesque stories reported are those least likely to occur in the quotidien lives of television news viewers. Mason, like his compatriot-in-spirit, playwright Horton Foote Ifrom two generations back and still working), presents a big picture view of small picture lives. The psychopath who wakes from a nightmare of war wanting to beat his wife or shoot up a neighborhood, the one in a million, is not the whole picture. David Mason well knows the one/millionth part is the exception to something else, and the something else is where he turns his eye:

You can tell this at once by the tone of the work. When blank verse is written with the kind of care David Mason shows in his opening and throughout this poem, it has a river-like flow to it, appearing to meander from time to time, but always within clearly defined banks. This makes it possible to navigate a narrative without relying on typographical tricks and other special effects. The phrasing Mason uses makes it sounds conversational aloud; these stories are not the rants of the disturbed or oppressed. They are those of two people, a generation apart, reflecting on lives not very different from most of their compatriots. Lt. Mitchell was a man predominantly shaped by the 19th century, from the Westward expansion to the Civil War, from the great public theater of political debate and war to the complete replacement of the public trust with private interest in the postwar period (a period most like our own). Maggie Gresham's view was shaped by a very different time, when the brash and presumptuous claims of both private economic and government power disintegrated in Depression and World War, the latter twice in her lifetime. And yet you wouldn't expect people of such genuinely modest pretensions to engage in rhetorical combat about politics; most likely you'd expect personal anecdotes, such as stories heard from a mother or father, or a great-grandparent such as Maggie Gresham:

In Inglewood we used to have a shop
where we sold flowers, and I remember watching
young men stammer over roses for their girls
and thinking maybe I had let it all
go by too quickly. I had some regrets,
wondering if old age would be as dry
and dusty as the hills.

Depression, war, rations and hard times.
Howard wouldn't let me dwell in the dark.
That's what we had work and laughter for,
he said, to pull us out and land us on
our feet, and keep our dead from sinking us.

from "The Country I Remember"

For those who might prefer Mrs. Gresham to speak about her own motivations, instead of how her husband motivated her, Mason is telling a story with the particular scene set seventy years in the past of the reader, and thirty years in the past of the narrator. If you'd listened to women of that generation, or even of one more recent, you might have caught an interesting schism between the obligatory remarks about how they were motivated by their husbands and a steady stream of remarks about the failings of men and the necessary rescues (of situations, friends, careers, lives) by women. Mason catches that bemused headshaking again and again as his narrator Maggie Gresham recalls her life. He also captures a peculiar trust one can read in Civil War letters (as captured by Ken Burns, and scads of other historians) from such men as her father, Lt. Mitchell, a trust born of a time of mostly unexamined presumptions. Such innocence was not wholly without rewards, even in a scene when Mitchell has been captured as a prisoner of war:

The Chickamaugua prisoners were kept
at Libby Prison down on Carey Street,
beside the James River and Lynchburg Canal,
a brick warehouse built to hold tobacco
where now a thousand Union officers
huddled on its upper floors and learned
to sleep like spoons when nights grew long and cold.

"Well, you'uns look like we'uns, quite a little."
That was our greeting from the Reb commander,
pointing out his cannon aimed at the walls,
his soldiers eager to shoot all Yankees
attempting to escape. But I don't think
the man was evil; that night he fed us
beans and meat, never so much food again --

his men were hungry too, quite a little.

from "The Country I Remember"

The presumption of evil enemies across the artillery-punctured shadows of battlefields, so popular in accounts of war by people who didn't serve in them, is rarely held by veterans. Most veterans, poet and reporter Don Murray has noted time and again in his fifty years of writing since World War II's service in the 82nd Airborne, would probably not have had any interest in hurting one another across the no man's land of political disputes if jackasses in higher office hadn't forced them into the position where they had no choice but to pull the trigger. Of course the jackasses manage to do that, time and time again. The ones in the South wouldn't give up slavery or secession. So, lots of young people, about a million, died to change some minds. The ones in Germany and Japan wouldn't give up the hallucinatory dream of a "pure" Europe or a Co-Prosperity Sphere. Twenty million Russians, six million Jews, and twenty-four million others in Europe, China, the South Pacific, northern Africa, and southern Asia , about half of them soldiers, and most well under the age of 25, died to change such opinions. Soldiers have good reason not to think of their opponents on the battlefield as the most inhuman foes in their lives. And yet Lt. Mitchell's account doesn't stray from the timeless truth of the old cliche "war is hell," as here in digging an escape tunnel:

I'm telling you, to crawl under the earth,
smelling a stink that nearly made you sick,
inching youself along by pulling roots
and wriggling like a worm inside a grave,
you can't lie still to think of smothering
but let your mind go blank and concentrate
on the job...

from "The Country I Remember"

A thousand soldiers' stories from a hundred wars across two thousand years will show a similar fusion of intensified awareness -- Michell's recollections of the war are mirror bright, with that grimness and absolute concentration on the objective that marks so many soldiers' stories. We live in such contrivedly cynical spaces in the United States that we presume all soldiers to be psychotic mass murderers and all civilians hapless and passive victims. But we are all of a piece; it is our demands for change, for safety, or for oil that puts soldiers on the ground to kill each other debating one side or another. To tell a soldier's story as one akin and linked to any other American story is in that sense a radical step; it pushes aside the cant of twenty-five years, most of it evolved out of the Vietnam war, that soldiers are a breed apart, the samurai we don't need anymore, or the mercenaries working for those others who do such things as lay down national boundaries and define national interests. And it is radical because it is a story about lives lived, not about lives made up in an ideological hothouse, whether that of Lt. Mitchell:

This is an account of my experience,
though much is left out: the end of the war
and sorry death of Mr. Lincoln, months
in hospitals spent getting my strength back,
return to Edgar County, Illinois,
where Mrs. Mitchell, who had had no news
for quite a time, was glad to see me home.

I had little enough to show her for
the trouble of my being gone. The sword
I bought in Washington for the last parade
was not as fine as the one that I had lost
at Chickamagua. She told me our first-born
died while I was gone. No one knew the cause
and she had kept her grief for my return.

from "The Country I Remember"

or of his daughter Mrs. Maggie Gresham:

The other day, my niece Alyssa brought
her two young girls along and we had dinner
near Pacific Avenue, then drove out
to the beach where the girls could have a swim.
They were such lovely things, with their long hair
and much more freedom than I ever knew....

from "The Country I Remember"

The rest of this fine book is devoted to shorter poems, some in rhymed schemes, some in blank, others in mixed meters and stanzas. All are designed. And, as throughout, designed is a key word, meaning the artful control of how each poem (or segment) sounds and of how that control allows a comprehension that is rarely possible otherwise. Such efforts at control are likely to fail in prose poetry, because there are too many variables, too many improvisational shifts in rhythm. And critics who compare this prose improvisation to jazz severely misinterpret that music, which is tightly wrapped to both measure and to predictable structures such as key changes and modulations in a song. Some poets, such as Edmund Pennant and Denise Duhamel (reviewed elsewhere in this issue), do succeed, but it is very interesting how close much of their work drifts toward unrhymed tetrameter or pentameter, both measures as familiar to us as they were to Chaucer in the 14th century.

I think an interesting companion piece to The Country I Remember might be a second book, in which the current and immediately previous generations are looked at, perhaps in much the same way, both for their connections to and their lack of connections to those of the Lieutenant and his daughter, much as one gets in those grand southern novels about four generations of a family. The approach Mason uses, virtually a drama, allows an intimacy with the characters that is surely demanding to write, but would become even more intriguing as he followed to the present day that same line as a Union officer and his daughter no longer so distant or so strange. Perhaps it would be called The Country I Know.

The Country I Remember is the kind of book that Story Line has been publishing faithfully for a number of years. One hopes, based on this fine history, that they will continue to do so and will not fall by the wayside to be yet another purveyor of lyrics. Your buying this book might help convince them to stay on course.

Publisher Information The Country I Remember is published by: Story Line Press
Three Oaks Farms
Brownsville, OR 97327

The Country I Remember


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