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,
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
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