David Mason: Review by David Danoff

Sea Salt Cover


Sea Salt by David Mason (Red Hen Press)


David Mason’s new collection, Sea Salt, is subtitled “Poems of a Decade, 2004-2014.” It feels like a long time coming. In the ten years since his last collection of lyric poetry, major projects have included a verse novel on a historical subject (Ludlow), a libretto for an opera (The Scarlet Letter), an oratorio about the Holocaust, a libretto version of Ludlow, and a memoir of his years living in Greece as a young man. In addition to teaching at Colorado College, he’s been appointed the Colorado poet laureate, and he’s spent time traveling through a substantial portion of the state giving talks and readings. He’s also gotten divorced and remarried.

     All of this activity, somewhat surprisingly, has been very good for his poetry. Mason’s new poems speak with an urgency and directness that surpass what he achieved in his earlier work. Midway through the third decade of his career, Mason’s lyric voice has been reborn in this vital, exciting new book.

     Many of the poems deal with the end of his previous marriage and the beginning of his new one, and the unexpected power of love is a frequent theme. But the joy of love is continually shadowed by awareness of mortality and loss:

      The days are made of hours,

      hours of instances,

      and none of them are ours.

      The sand blows through the fences.

      Light darkens on the grass.

      This too shall come to pass.

              (from “Sea Salt”)

     All things shall come to pass, and all things shall pass. These poems make their home in the Heraclitean flux, where every pleasure is transitory, as well as every pain. Pain and pleasure are mixed, and Mason seems to be on a mission to taste them both as deeply as possible. He takes solace in nature, but not in its easy beauty so much as its mutability, its interdependence of elements:

      As night pours in, I hunker on the bank

      below a water birch, and watch the light

      contend with not-light in the pool and channels,

      the way a boulder or a gravel bar


      can bend the current without altering

      necessity, the bed-ward conversation.

              (from “Necessity”)

      Embracing an almost animalistic, moment-by-moment presence in the world, he achieves a sensuous alertness and a release from self-consciousness:

      When I was sick

      my mother let me lie

      about the house all day

      and brought me ginger ale.

      That’s when I learned

      by staying home from school

      to live in the dream-time

      as animals live

      deeper in the world.

              (from “Tree Light House”)

     Sickness and death are frequent presences, with powerful poems about the loss of friends and relatives. In one of the book’s loveliest, saddest, and most memorable poems, he writes about his mother’s death, which occurred unexpectedly while he was traveling. Simple pleasures—the food, the sunlight, the scenery—are superimposed upon the weightiest of subjects, “the whole final drama” that was happening elsewhere, and the short lines and casual tone hint at intense, barely articulated feelings of grief and regret:

      The day of sunlight on the swales

      and lowing cattle, glowing coals

      of hillside sheep,


      the day of fantasies about the perfect hovel

      on the hill, the day we would try

      to keep,


       that day was the day my mother died,

       simple fact—a useful thing, that—

       and became not here


       across thousands of miles of sea

       and air.

            (from “When I Didn’t Get the News”)

     Rhyme is a prominent feature of Mason’s new poems, and the poems are more overtly musical than his earlier work. He has long been a skillful practitioner of formal verse, but it was blank verse that predominated (often used, as in Frost, to deliver extended narratives). He still writes beautiful blank verse, and he still tells stories. But the new poems feel lighter and swifter, like little songs or incantations, even when there are narrative elements present.

     The new poems also feel more intuitive, less intent on making grand statements about the world. In his earlier writing, Mason could be described as something of a moralist. His poems tended to face outward, focusing on people and incidents he observed or read about, touching on big issues (history, politics, cultural conflict), with a current of fierce judgment below the surface. Moral conviction gave his writing power and significance, but it also could lead to a certain stiffness of manner. In his new poems, one of the most striking features is the absence of moral clarity. He’s still interested in the world, in the whole human drama with its varied cast of characters, but personal upheaval has stripped away a great deal of his previous certainty. He’s adrift, in search of new truths, and he probes himself unsparingly:

      All his life he was touch and run,

      word man turned by an inner eel

      that shocked him hourly till he was numb.

      What is a heart but something to steal?

              (from “The Man Who Lied”)

     There’s irony and humor present, and these aren’t exactly confessional poems. But there’s an emotional rawness that can be startling. Mason’s embrace of change and the natural world seems to be a response to powerful feelings of guilt and sorrow:

       I have taken the knife coldly to some I love.

       I have killed beauty, allowing beauty to be

       before the fear could kill me. Storms above,

       teach me. Teach me.

              (from “Prayer to the Air”)

     The pain coexists—and it can’t be separated from—the bliss of his new marriage. Sea Salt is filled with poems of lush sensuality, by turns playful, ecstatic, or yearning. His new wife is everywhere in the book, and imagery associated with her (salt, wind, the moon, the sea, running water) flows through many of the poems:

       I came from an underworld of snow,

       she from a windy dune.

       She dared to look for me below

       the phases of the moon.


       Come walk with me, the journey’s joy,

       she sang with her blue eyes.

       Untie the sarong, my bonny boy,

       and bare me to the skies.

               (from “Sarong Song”)

     This is a beautiful book, at once both delicate and sinewy. It retains many of the stylistic virtues of Mason’s earlier work, while pushing out fearlessly into deeper emotional waters. A hundred pages of lyric poetry might seem like a small harvest for ten years of work, but when the poems are this rich, this rewarding, the only suitable response is gratitude.


David Danoff has had poems and reviews published in various journals, including Measurer, Raintown Review, Antiphon, Unsplendid, Tikkun, Provincetown Arts, Poet Lore, and Pleiades.