Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, July 4, 2016

David Mason, _Ludlow_

I CANNOT REMEMBER exactly why I bought this. When I come across a poem that I particularly like in a periodical, I often go online to get a recent volume by that poet, and I assume something like that happened in this case.  I must have really liked whatever poem by Mason I read, because I would  certainly not otherwise have picked up a "verse-novel" about one of the grimmest episodes in the already grim enough history of American capitalism.

I do remember opening the package when the book came and thinking, "you idiot, when do you think you are going to have time to read this?" But as luck would have it, I was reading an issue of The Baffler focusing on violence in American politics, and there were some references to the massacre of the striking coalworkers at Ludlow, and I remembered I had a verse-novel on the subject right here in the house somewhere, so... I sat down and actually read Mason's book.

It's good. A brisk read, strong sense of the place and the time, situated mainly from the point of the view of the miners, a couple of memorable characters--Louis Zikas, who was historical, a Greek immigrant and one of the strike organizers, and Luisa Mole, fictional, orphaned daughter of a miner killed in an accident, taken in as maid-of-all-work by the Reeds, who operate a company store.

The language is plain and modern, verse relatively traditional, blank-verse pentameter in eight-line stanzas, although Mason uses rhyme in a few spots (and very effectively, too, it adds a discernible intensification) and shifts to hexameters (if I'm scanning it aright) for the story's violent climax, perhaps recalling western narrative poetry's blood-spattered origins in Homer and Virgil.

The eight-line stanzas seem to me a counter-intuitive choice for a long narrative poems, as the stanza form would tend to lock you into a set narrative pace, a challenge not even Spenser consistently overcame. Mason makes the pace work to his story's advantage, though; that the narrative never seems to speed up noticeably or slow down noticeably lends gravitas to the story, a seriousness reinforced by Mason's rhetorical restraint. There is plenty to say here about the desperation of the miners' lives, plenty to say about the ruthlessness of the institutional forces brought to bear on them, but Mason's keeps his tone subdued and lets the specifics do the talking.

Mason's book has done well: my copy is from a second edition, published by Red Hen Press, and it won a couple of awards. Still, undertaking the writing of a novel-in-verse seems peculiarly quixotic to me...but this post is already lengthy, so that may be a subject for later.

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