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. Author of a collection of essays, The Poetry of Life and the Life of Poetry, 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. His poetry, prose and translations have appeared in such periodicals as The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Nation, The New Republic, The New York Times, The Times Literary Supplement, Poetry, Agenda, Modern Poetry in Translation, The New Criterion, The Yale Review, The Hudson Review, The American Scholar, The Irish Times, and The Southern Review. He has also written the libretto for composer Lori Laitman’s opera of The Scarlet Letter. 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 lives near the Garden of the Gods in Colorado with his wife, Anne Lennox.
Late in our journey from the pier at Kos,
I had come up for air. Most passengers
had found their bunks or drunk themselves asleep
in the comfy bar. Adrift and floodlit,
I let suspended time wash over me,
its kitchen smells, salt wind and plodding engines,
as two guys swinging beer cans walked the deck,
singing the liturgy. Christ is risen!
Drunken, genuinely happy, they waved
across cool space at constellated lights
of villages, and greeted me, a stranger.
I answered, Truly He is risen, though
I don’t believe it. Not risen for this world.
Not here. Not now.
Then I heard cadences
of priestly chanting from an Athens church
broadcast to any pilgrim still awake.
Who could explain an unbeliever’s joy
as rockets flared from the coast near Sounion
and music ferried death to life out there,
untethered in the dark?
And that was when I saw them—ghostly, winged,
doggedly following outside our light,
hopeful without a thought of hope, feeding
or diving to feed in waves I could not see.
from ARRIVALS (Story Line Press, 2004)
IMPLICATIONS OF RED
From an old Greek folksong
I kissed red lips and my lips too were dyed,
and the handkerchief I wiped them with turned red,
and the running stream where I washed that kerchief
colored the shoreline far out into mid-sea.
An eagle swooped down for a drink, and its wings
as it rose stained half the sun, all of the moon.
first published in THE DARK HORSE (Scotland)
A SORT OF ORACLE
Late one afternoon between sun and rain
I found the path ascending above Delphi
toward a spring an old man said I would find,
not knowing whom to ask about my life,
the wrongs I may have done myself or others,
and when I’d climbed beyond the yapping dogs
and the last engines of commercial traffic,
I asked an almond tree, an oracle
as good as any, for some forgiving word.
One does these things when nothing else makes sense,
feeling a giddy madness. The tree said nothing,
the cloudy shafts of sunlight stabbed, withdrew,
the cuckoo called from olives down below
its two comedic notes. I found the spring
and drank from it and washed the sweat from my face,
then turned back to the town where friends were waiting.
PRAYING WITH A FRIEND
That gecko panting on the whitewashed wall,
only witness in the little chapel
where I pay my coin and light a beeswax candle—
deference applied unasked for. Given.
Whatever gods have lived at Kalamitsi,
I know, as many locals do, the spring
now hidden by a thorny cloud of brambles.
It fed my garden once. I drank from it
the clearest water I have ever known,
medium of shade and other voices.
THE BAY OF WRITING
And I with only a reed in my hands.
The reed, dried and cut, could make a pan-pipe
on an idle day. I say the word again,
kalamus, that early pen, from breezy
leaf to leaves of nervy writing–Sappho,
Archilochos, their fingering lines,
a silent music till our voices find it.
In retrospect I walk among those trees,
polled mulberries no longer home to silkworms,
the crone-like olives, upright cypresses
above the hammered metal of the bay
called Kalamitsi. There the lazy hours
watching the ant roads through the summer straw
taught me the frantic diligence of mind,
the way it ferries breadcrumbs and small seeds
fast fast to its storehouse in reedy shade.
The way the hand rests on an open book
I’ve disappeared into, takes up a pen
and traces letters in a trail of words.
Kalamus, Kalamitsi, bay of reeds,
music of everything I have not written.
First published in The Times Literary Supplement
July 30, 2004
From the Greek of C. P. Cavafy
The performance of their illicit pleasure
is done. They rise from the bed
and dress hurriedly without speaking.
Going separately, secretly out of the house,
they step uneasily through the street, as if
suspicious that something about them betrays
the sort of bed they fell into moments before.
But how the artist’s life has profited.
Tomorrow, the next day or in later years he will write
the strong stanzas that had their beginning here.
Poetry in this post: © David Mason
Published with the permission of David Mason