David Mason’s books of poems include The Buried Houses (winner of the Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize), The Country I Remember (winner of the Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award), and Arrivals. His verse novel, Ludlow, was published in 2007 and named best poetry book of the year by the Contemporary Poetry Review and the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. It was also featured on the PBS News Hour. Author of a collection of essays, The Poetry of Life and the Life of Poetry, his memoir, News from the Village, appeared in 2010. A new collection of essays, Two Minds of a Western Poet, followed in 2011. Mason has also co-edited several textbooks and anthologies, including Western Wind: An Introduction to Poetry, Rebel Angels: 25 Poets of the New Formalism, Twentieth Century American Poetry, and Twentieth Century American Poetics: Poets on the Art of Poetry. He has also written the libretti for composer Lori Laitman’s opera of The Scarlet Letter (which had its professional premiere at Opera Colorado in May 2013) and her oratorio, Vedem. He recently won the Thatcher Hoffman Smith Creativity in Motion Prize for the development of a new libretto. A former Fulbright Fellow to Greece, he served as Poet Laureate of Colorado (2010–14) and teaches at Colorado College.
Fathers and Sons
Some things, they say,
one should not write about. I tried
to help my father comprehend the toilet, how one needs
to undo one’s belt, to slide
one’s trousers down and sit,
but he stubbornly stood
and would not bend his knees.
I tried again to bend him toward the seat,
and then I laughed
at the absurdity. Fathers and sons.
How he had wiped my bottom
half a century ago, and how
I would repay the favor
if only he would sit.
he gripped me, trembling, searching for my eyes.
Don’t you—but the word
was lost to him. Somewhere
a man of dignity would not be laughed at.
He could not see
it was only the crazy dance
that made me laugh,
trying to make him sit
when he wanted to stand.
First published in The New Yorker
Also appears in The Sound: New and Selected Poems (Red Hen Press 2018)
The Soul Fox
for Chrissy, 28 October 2011
My love, the fox is in the yard.
The snow will bear his print a while,
then melt and go, but we who saw
his way of finding out, his night
of seeking, know what we have seen
and are the better for it. Write.
Let the white page bear the mark,
then melt with joy upon the dark.
First published in The Virginia Quarterly Review
Also appears in The Sound: New and Selected Poems (Pasadena, CA: Red Hen Press, 2018)
To the Sea of Cortez
For Robert King
And if I could I would
fall down, fall all the way
down to the breathing sea.
I would pass by the towns
I would pass by the grass
banks where the buffalo graze.
I would fall down, I would
lie down in the red mud
of memory, where Spanish
lances lie with arrowheads.
I would lie down and roll
my being to the sea,
unroll and roll, lap and sing
my body down, and down
and turn at the hard cliffs
and carry the soft soil
with me. Nothing would impede
my downward being, my
desire to lie down like a fawn
in the new grass, like trout
in the shallows, like a child
tired of making letters
out of chalk, or talk
of airy nothings caught
by fingers made of lead.
I would lie down and go,
and go until I found
the sea that rose to meet
whatever thread of me
had made it there, out there
among vaquitas and swift birds,
there where hardy grasses
have not been annihilated,
where the salt tides rise,
looking for currents they
have loved, and finding me.
From The Sound: New and Selected Poems (Pasadena, CA: Red Hen Press, 2018)
Lack, you say? The world will strip you naked.
Time you realized it. Too many years
you worked in a plush denial, head down,
dodging yourself as much as others.
Nobody did this to you.
Trained in deafness, you soon went blind,
but gathered strength for metamorphosis
in order to become your kind.
Now nothing helps but silence as you learn
slowly the letting go,
and learn again, and over again, again,
blow upon blow,
you must go by the way of mountain tides,
coral blizzards and the sunlit rain.
The wave of nausea heaves
and passes through the egocentric pain
and finds you on a tarmac going where
your skin and hair, eyes, ears and fingers feel
a change is in the air.
You are unfolding now, and almost real.
First published in Radio Silence
Also appears in The Sound: New and Selected Poems (Pasadena, CA: Red Hen Press, 2018)
Windblown aridity in early spring,
piñon, prickly pear, the struggling scrub.
At noon my shadow pooled beneath my boots,
my eyes surveying ground a step ahead
for arrowheads or any signs of life,
out walking a friend’s ranch with Abraham,
the land a maze of dry arroyos, slabs
of pale rock, the flints exposed by weather.
There too the terrible remains of winter,
dead cattle caught in a raging blizzard
lay unthawed in postures of resignation.
I was so intent on treasure that I stumbled
into a ditch and fell across the corpse
of a calf the wild coyotes dined upon,
a gutted leathery thing—it had a face
and I started backwards, stifling a scream.
What was I? Twelve years old? The age I dreamed
Luisa Mole out foraging for water….
On our visits south
I begged to be taken to the mesa country
as if those afternoons on skeletal land
put me in touch with some essential code,
the remnants of a people who moved through,
migrating hunters five millennia past.
Look for a bench, land flat enough to camp on,
a nearby source of water—there you’d find
the silicates in flakes, clear fracture marks
where fletchers made their tools, the midden washed
by wind and flash floods all across the scarp.
Nothing remained in place here. Even trees
had shallow roots. In dustbowl days my father
picked up points by the dozen on this land,
pot-hunting like his neighbors, half in love
with science, more with the electric touch
of hands across receded seas of time.
What had we found? I knew this evidence
of other lives had meaning of some sort.
I saw the strangers, grew among them for years
in my own mind. But was it love or envy?
Was it only pride of place? A kind of theft?
Always looking at the ground beneath my boots,
always listening for the call of Abraham
who’d find a point and let me think I found it,
whose meaty, sun-burnt hands would leave the pool
of wide-brimmed shade, point beyond scarred boots
to the perfect knife, worked like a stone leaf
and left there by the ancient wanderers,
original, aboriginal, and magic.
Excerpt from Ludlow: A Verse Novel (Pasadena, CA: Red Hen Press, 2007)
When Quanah Parker’s mother as a young girl
saw her family lanced and hacked to pieces,
and was herself thrown on the hurtling rump
of a warrior’s pony whipped to the far off
and utterly unwritten Comancheria,
the little blond began her life, outcast
only when the whites recaptured her and killed
the man she loved, the father of her children.
The language she forgot would call her ruined
and beyond redemption like the young she suckled,
among them the “last Chief of the Comanche,”
a man who died in comforts his mother spurned,
but who, like her, remembered how the manes
of the remuda caught the breezes as they ran,
and how the grass caught fire in the scalp-red sun.
First published in The Southwest Review
A Big Chief tablet and a Bic
between us on the car’s back seat,the scaffold drawn, and underneath
a code of dashes in a row
for seven letters. Part of a stick-
figure fixed to the noose’s O
for every letter missed, until
if I’m not careful my poor guy
will hang with x’s for his eyes.
My brother parlays his resource
for big boy words with taunting skill:
“It starts with d and rhymes with force.”
But I don’t know the word, don’t know
the wet world being slapped away
by wiper blades, or why the day
moved like an old stop-action film
or an interrupted TV show
about a family on the lam.
I let myself be hanged, and learn
a new word whispered out of fear,
though it will be another year
before I feel the house cut loose,
my dangling body and the burn
of shame enclosing like a noose.
First published in The Times Literary Supplement
And what of those who have no voice
and no belief, dumbstruck and hurt by love,
no bathysphere to hold them in the depths?
Descend with them and learn and be reborn
to the changing light. We all began without it,
and some were loved and some forgot the love.
Some withered into hate and made a living
hating and rehearsing hate until they died.
The shriveled ones, chatter of the powerful—
they all go on. They go on. You must descend
among the voiceless where you have a voice,
barely a whisper, unheard by most, a wave
among the numberless waves, a weed torn
from the sandy bottom. Here you are. Begin.
From The Sound: New and Selected Poems (2018)
If wind were wood it might resemble this
fragility and strength, old bark bleeding amber.
Its living parts grow on away from the dead
as we do in our lesser lives. Endurance,
yes, but also a scarred and twisted beauty
we know the way we know our own carved hearts.
First published in Valparaiso Poetry Review