Wednesday, July 2, 2008

A Review: Ludlow by David Mason

by David Mason
2007, Red Hen Press

On the recommendation of Dana Gioia, I picked up David Mason’s Ludlow. What is an epic is called a verse-novel for, I would assume, marketing concerns.

To be brief, buy this book.

It is Mason’s tale of the events leading up to the Ludlow Massacre of 1914. Mason brings the principal characters of a struggle between miners and their bosses to life in a powerful way and tells a story worth knowing.

Mason’s craft is exquisite in both its scope and precision. Not only does he paint emotion and action in the same landscape:

So he walked upright the way they all had come,
goggles on, a kerchief tied for breathing
dust that had shaken loose in the first blast.
Swallowed in utter dark, he pushed his fear
into that very mine, and took his last steps,
a man dead set to prove he was a man (26)

he does so in a way that would have been immediately recognizable to Dante, Chaucer, and Milton – he packs in meaning as only a poem can. Mason’s “dead set” echoes not only the imminence of the miner’s death but the inevitability of the whole tragedy. A similar use of juxtaposition and word-packing can be found in the union halls of John Lawson, who says:

“We’re hoarding guns. Now the job’s to win peace.” (32)

This extends even to Mason’s choice of leading characters – Luisa Mole and Louis Tikal – Louis coming from Ludwig which means “famous warrior.” Though historical characters, Mason’s use of them to frame this battle of the Colorado Coalfield War is, at the least, serendipitous.

Mason understands throughout Ludlow that our intentions are often contradictory and what we desire and struggle for is often the very worst for us. It is an epic in the truest sense of the word, containing all that is good and evil in humanity in 200 brief pages.

Again, read it. Buy the book. Mason and Ren Hen Press deserve a reward for publishing poetry that is outside the mainstream – for publishing poetry that is readable and good. It is certainly better than any of the other books of poetry I’ve bought in the last 2 years or so. Buy this poem and praise the poet, for its triumphs and successes far outweigh its faults. For it does have faults.

The first is a strange, intermittent dependency upon the word kcuf. While I don’t want to moralize about what words you can/should use in your writing, I must admit that I’m just tired of kcuf in written form. All it does when I read it is make me think two things:

well, there goes a dozen or so people I would have sent this book to and
gosh – couldn’t he have thought of something else to write?

At any rate, this is a minor flaw. Were I Mason’s editor or reader, I would have counseled him otherwise. As it stands, this isn’t a dealbreaker for me.

The second fault is much more difficult, however.
Mason interrupts the action of the story a handful of times with speaker intrusions. The speaker laments:

By now you’ve guessed this story’s partly mine. . .
. . . I made this trip alone . . .
these are the facts, but the facts are not the story.

Ted Kooser views this as a benefit:

“Some of the most touching passages place the poet, alone at some milepost, struggling to find adequate language with which to reach back through almost a hundred years.”

I, however, echo Mason’s own view – “these are the facts, but the facts are not the story.” I am a little amazed that Mason can write and include these lines that so obviously detract from the story that he is telling. The 20th century intrusions don’t add anything to the story of Ludlow. If anything, they bog it down.

This is not to say that they don’t include some lovely writing. Mason is a master crafter, and his verse is continually uplifting to read. I think, perhaps, that he became trapped in one of his own ideas:

I have a photo of a photo pinned
on an artist’s easel. . .
The photo in the photo’s of a girl. . .
This is my image of Luisa now. . .
. . . this young serving girl . . .
Photographer and subject, bound by a cord
of silence, look[ing] into each other’s world. (136-7)

This idea of a photo-within-a-photo – a frame-within-a-frame is very post-modern and interesting, but it fails as a frame in the way Mason uses it for Ludlow. At no point does it develop the story or the characters. If Mason insisted on keeping the verse, the best solution would have been to present Ludlow in two parts – the first the epic story and the second a “poems about Ludlow” section. As Ludlow now stands, however, the organizational part of the reading mind struggles to see connections between the photographer and subject.


Apple of Carthage said...

Hello, Mr. Palmer. I tried to email your joint venture with OSC about three or four months ago and never got a response. I would REALLY appreciate it if you all would institute an RSS feed for Strong Verse. Each time you get a new poem up on the main page, update the RSS feed, and I'll come see it!

G. M. Palmer said...

Though quite OT, the jist is that I'm not the webmaster. I believe RSS is in the works but, unfortunately, not my realm of expertise. I agree that a feed would be awfully useful.

Thanks for reading!

jh said...

this past year
i worked up a version
of the woody guthrie song
"ludlow mine massacre"
with my own chordal arrangement

thus i am intrigued to
hear that someone has
taken it to another level

i'll keep an eye open
for the book


john hanson

Jim Dwyer, CSU, Chico said...

Yes, Ludlow is arguably the finest American epic poem since George Keithley's NBA winner The Donner Party in 1972. I met David Mason at a conference last year and am happy to report that he's a truly nice guy who is full of poetic brilliance, but not full of himself.

Anonymous said...

Forgive my denseness, but I can't seem to find kcuf in a dictionary. I'm only about thirty pages into Ludlow so far, I haven't noticed it yet -- but then this post primed me for it, I very well could have missed it. I have OED 3.0 on my old computer and I checked there; I still can't find kcuf in a dictionary.

Anonymous said...

Ah, you mean that ol found under carnal knowledge bit. Sigh. It's jarring, no? when the character throws it out. It's meant to upset you -- to throw dirt on your sensibility, to dirty you up like the vulgar plebeian these poor sods are. I think the use is perfectly fitting and appropriate.

G. M. Palmer said...

and boring , , ,