Ludlow: a tragedy in verse

Fact is braided with fiction in David Mason's retelling of the 1913-1914 union strike in the Colorado coal mines

From Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County to Marquez’ Macondo, all the way back to Ulysses' odyssey through Homer's archipelago of Sirens and god-tossed seas, place has imbued imagination and history mapped place. These inspired geographies are always rich with what writer and historian Wallace Stegner called the "choral comment" of battles, catastrophes, "hopes lifted and hopes dashed".

David Mason's verse-novel, Ludlow is a lyrical mapping of history in this tradition, but as he tells us in his "Afterword", the tragic climax of the 1913-1914 coalminers' strike in Ludlow, Colorado, USA was not the sole motivation for the work; more fundamentally there were, in Mason's words, "the elements that have always obsessed me family, landscape, immigration, language."

If the central event in Mason's 221 pages of verse narrative is the 1913-1914 union strike in the Colorado coal mines which cost the lives of 18 people, including children, shot by the National Guard or smothered in the death pits, the story is layered and dramatised by history's formidable pull on the poet/speaker as it resonates in the landscape of the place and the psychology of the writer. We are told that "the story of Ludlow has lived in my marrow for forty years," that Mason's intention was to braid fact with fiction, since "facts are not the story" as we read at the end of "Interlude: January 15, 2003". The story comes out of "the language of desire" that inspires Mason's journey as much the journey of those who crossed seas and oceans to make a future in the new world.

The uniqueness of Mason's Ludlow lies in the multiple strands that feed into this epic braid; one not only asks what is fiction, but more interestingly, at least to this reader, is, why this fiction (as opposed to the facts).

Ludlow's narrative is framed and interleaved with the imagined character of Luisa Mole, a Mexican-Welsh hybrid called La Huerfana, who titles the first section of the book; she is, like Dante's Beatrice, the muse that seems to lead the poet through this chronicling of years and events. She is also that source the poet, half in love with his muse, follows as a kind of foil and point of reference for his own quest.

Luisa, the immigrant outsider orphaned in girlhood, never fits in; saddled with loss and tragedy, she is marked, like the poet, to bear witness. Growing from girlhood to womanhood through the tale's unrelenting drama, she figuratively and emotionally keeps him company in the long and difficult telling.

The stage of this drama is crowded with those Scots, Italians, Welsh, Mexicans and Greeks, to name some of the many who migrated to the United States in the early 20th century

... wanting

only what the redneck wanted, only

the decent life America had promised.

Among this list of migrants are Mike Livoda, Too Tall MacIntosh, Lefty Calabrini, the late John Mole (Luisa's father) and, most spectacularly in this cast of fallen heroes, Louis Tikas or Ilias Spantidakis from a small village in Crete:

I'm not a Greek, I am a Cretan, though

I'm far away from home. Ap'to horio.

Each day this inner dialogue, the boy

he became in dreams reborn an immigrant,

rechristened Louis Tikas in New York,

hopping the westbound freight Chicago, Denver,

everywhere Greeks said he could find a job.

We are almost hurtled through time and space in metered verse that packs in the accumulating events of what took place in Trinidad, Walsenberg, in the Berwind and Fredrick mines, stories of individuals like Tikas who gambled everything to gain everything and found themselves up against an America of "ruthless struggle, men who only cared / for power" the William Howard Tafts, the Rockefellers and Guggenheims who used their dreams "as capital".

We experience "the muck of March", the Colorado cold and coke-oven fires. We see the "clutch of shacks", the kerosene and dust and "diggers of all ages" and how the miners

... wore hats

with candles in glass cases at the front,

and when the lights went out [how they] felt the air,

darker than any burial."

We live the militia's open fire on the tents, the mothers dashing to snatch children, John Lawson's delay in getting help, Karl Linderfelt's sadism and violence, families scattered in the arroyo, the tents' burning canvas and wooden platforms, and Tikas finally shot in the back, running in the burning camp to save those he could. But this past comes forward ingeniously overlapped with the poet's voice in the present, an "I" that positions itself sometimes tenuously and other times more firmly in a context that seeks to pay homage to the story of those who built the nation with their legacies of sacrifice.

By now you've guessed this story's partly mine.

I'm forty-eight years old, a college teacher.

In this present the ovens, "once an aqueduct of fire, / are smothered by an avalanche of slag."

Trinidad attracts hippies, there's a commune "called Drop City. Geodesic dome / made of the sun-bleached hoods of salvaged cars", but Mason the poet/traveller juxtaposes his world against what it meant, and means, to be part of a nearly overwhelming inherited cultural history: What does it mean nation of immigrants?

What are the accents, fables, voices of roads,

told by the smallest desert plants?

It is this question that Ludlow comes to grips with, and it is Mason's achievement that while

Their lives are part of my life's inventory;

my role grows smaller when I glimpse the whole.


That whole is what Ludlow sings in all its fugue of differences.

* Ludlow by David Mason can be purchased on http://www.amazon.com/ and directly from Red Hen Press http://www.redhen.org/

ATHENS NEWS , 02/03/2007

© 2006 Adrianne Kalfopoulou, Author. All Rights Reserved