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David Mason is the former poet laureate of Colorado. His many books include Ludlow: A Verse Novel, The Sound: New and Selected Poems, Davey McGravy: Tales to be Read Aloud to Children and Adult Children and Voices, and Places: Essays. A new collection of poems, Pacific Light, will be published this year. He lives in Tasmania, the island state of Australia.
Translated to Somewhere Else:
An American Writer in Australia
From WTP Vol. X #5
At home now in Tasmania, I have been thinking a lot about D. H. Lawrence, who wrote so well about Australia in the 1920s. He only spent 100 days in this country and wrote the final chapter of his novel Kangaroo in America, yet even as that book wrestled with democratic ideals versus a cult of the strong, notions of society and leadership that first occurred to him in Europe, he seems to have taken in through his pores a powerful dose of Australian-ness, including an awareness of Aboriginality and the soul of the continent. Lawrence, who never stopped moving, is one of the great writers about place, the physical and psychic life of location and the rough unsettled species, humanity, colliding with itself on all Earth’s surfaces.
Lawrence isn’t my guide to Australia. I have Australians and Australian writers, including my wife, for that. Yet he is an unsurpassable guide to the life of change and movement, rootedness and rootlessness in all their ramifications, and what it means to be a living person at odds with the world. I first visited Australia in 2013, my fifty-ninth year, and have lived here only about four years. My Tasmanian wife and I sold up what we had in America and bought a small home on a block of land shaped like the prow of a ship, water on three sides of us, aiming out of the bush toward the Southern Ocean. Previously we owned a house on a wooded dune in Oregon, facing Australia and Asia from the other side of the Pacific. We loved that house and the wild shore below our windows, but it was located in the United States, a country that seemed in the Trump years ever more inhospitable, so we looked at properties online and planned our escape, and in 2018 we leapt. I dropped my wife at the San Francisco airport so she could fly home and buy this place, while I drove to Colorado to wrap up my life as a college professor.
She had lived with me in America for eight years, and had felt from the beginning what a sad country it was, with its mad car disease and guns and legalized bribery and penchant for unnecessary wars, its inability to work out basic social issues like healthcare, its alienated states and class warfare. She was expressing the way it had always felt to me. In my childhood the three most inspiring political and social leaders I could name were all assassinated. I grew up in the era of Vietnam, watched Watergate unfold on the evening news while a college student. I knew that America had produced Nixon, but had also produced the people who brought him down. We were not one-sided in our feelings about the country, which we loved mainly for its astonishing landscapes and animal life. When we drove away from that house in Oregon, both of us shed tears.
Americans did not invent intolerance. It is a human quality, available anywhere, even in Australia. Perhaps in America it feels especially poisonous because it is coupled with such idealism and the ridiculous lie of American exceptionalism. The bright light of America has its shadow side that Americans are too often unwilling or unable to acknowledge. Lawrence was at least partly right when he wrote, “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.” Yet Lawrence also loved America, especially New Mexico, and would have continued living there if his TB diagnosis had not made extending his visa impossible. So he died in Europe in 1930, age forty-four, “a man,” in the words of the late Tony Hoagland, “who burned like an acetylene torch / from one end to the other of his life.” Think of that for a moment. Forty-four. Think of the breadth of what he produced. He is not easy to summarize, and can only be dismissed by the smug and single-minded.
Likewise, America is hard to dismiss. My wife and I love the country, and often miss its astonishing landscapes, from the western deserts to the Pacific coast. In our first month as a couple I drove her through Trinidad, Colorado, where my father was born, into the antelope plains of New Mexico, then over the mountains to Taos, the route Lawrence would have taken. We slept in the Mabel Dodge Luhan house, in Tony Luhan’s bedroom, and she even took a bath in a tub surrounded by Lawrence’s paintings. We drove up to the ranch Mabel signed over to Lawrence’s wife, Frieda, a home they called Kiowa, at 8500 feet altitude. The gate was closed, barring entrance up the road, but we stepped around it and went up to the ranch by ourselves and lay on the pine-needled ground under the tall ponderosa pine. You can see it in “The Lawrence Tree,” a painting by Georgia O’Keefe, who must also have been lying on the ground looking up into the branches and the sky. We walked up the trail to the Lawrence shrine where his ashes may or may not be interred. And there my wife wept, because Lawrence had meant so much to her as a young scholar and writer in Australia, and she had witnessed his cancellation by righteous academic critics who had obviously not read him with care or were simply intolerant of his complexity, his multitudes and rages and loves.
Toward the end of his life, Lawrence published an essay called “Pornography and Obscenity.” You can find it in Life with a Capital L, essays chosen and introduced by Geoff Dyer (Penguin, 2019). Those who have dismissed Lawrence as some kind of pornographer should at least read what he has to say about pornography, which is extremely reasonable and valuable. He is brilliant on the deadly limits of self-consciousness, and seems in many ways to predict our culture of selfies and scrolling thumbs. Dismissals of Lawrence are unwise because they are rigid in the face of something that is against rigidity, a writer deeply aware of flow and flux. “Man is a changeable beast,” Lawrence wrote in the essay, “and words change their meanings with him, and things are not what they seemed, and what’s what becomes what isn’t, and if we think we know where we are it’s only because we are so rapidly being translated to somewhere else.”
Among writers, I bless the contrarians, the ones who do not conform to their times but resist with every decency their imaginations allow. Lawrence resisted in everything he wrote. He called the novel “the one bright book of life,” and its vitality was his moral compass more than any perception of societal absolutes. Readers like Geoff Dyer and Frances Wilson, whose excellent book on Lawrence, Burning Man, has recently been published, have been making the case that his essays are the foundation of his greatness more than his novels. Perhaps. His beautiful essay, “Pan in America,” distills the environmentalist point of view as well as anything I have ever read, without succumbing to sentimental notions of a return to some Edenic past. A case can also be made for his short stories and his best poems, and I see no reason why Kangaroo and The Rainbow and a few other novels should be dismissed or neglected. He wrote so much, with such intensity and variety, that no critical thesis could outflank him.
So here I am in Tasmania, thinking of Lawrence, who continues to teach me, out of his personal anguish, his clear and troubled spirit, what it means to be translated. I have spent much of my life on the move, living in different places, driven by my own motives and demons (or daimon, as the case may be), and here I reside, on a piece of land like the prow of a ship heading out to sea. I never want to leave.
I grew up in the far northwest of America, closer to Vancouver B.C. than to Seattle, and never felt my American identity was a solid or knowable thing. My identity was always falling off into the Pacific or the Mediterranean or the Tasman. I was in my late forties when I first visited my country’s capital city. I had been invited to Washington D.C. for the National Book Festival. George W. Bush was president, and a friend of mine, the poet Dana Gioia, was running the National Endowment for the Arts. I remember a dinner in a great hall of the Library of Congress. “Hail to the Chief” rang out from a brass band when the Bushes walked to their table, and I stood far away with a group of arts administrators and writers. At the table next to ours, Colin Powell stood alone, leaning on the back of his chair as if he could not quite bear his own weight, and I remember wishing I had walked over to him and shaken his hand and thanked him for at least trying to take the case for invading Iraq to the U.N. instead of letting the war go ahead unilaterally. Did he know the case he made was a pack of lies? Maybe the look on his face that night should have told me he knew. He looked ill and alone. But I was looking at him as a man, and he looked to me like a good man, and I felt compassion for his predicament. Then he was joined by his fellow diners, and I focused on my own table, and never seized the moment to acknowledge a fellow American from a very different camp. Man is a changeable beast.
The next time I went to the capital was in April 2017 with my Australian wife, and now I saw the place through her eyes. Washington D.C. is an unusually beautiful city, in part because there are no sky scrapers, in part because of the monuments to those remarkable men, the founders, many of whom were slave owners. There are newer monuments acknowledging this complex history, reminding any citizens willing to be reminded that, as somebody said, one can be responsible to history without having to be responsible for it. We went into the Library of Congress and read the many mottos in plaques on the painted ceiling:
“There is but one temple in the universe and that is the body of man.”
“The inquiry, knowledge, and belief of truth is the sovereign good of human nature.”
“Books must follow sciences and not sciences books.”
“Words are also actions and actions are a kind of words.”
The building presented its own complicated rhetoric of America. One can read Washington D.C. as a layout of contradictory texts.
In Lafayette Square, the little park across from the White House, we saw a young black man break-dancing for a crowd of students and teachers. We saw the motorcade of Donald Trump speeding off somewhere, sirens wailing. We walked across a bridge meant only for cars to Arlington National cemetery and read the names of soldiers on the graves, and my wife shed more tears at the grave of JFK. Her first memory was as a three-year-old girl in Hobart asking her daddy why he looked so sad one day, and her daddy saying, “The President is dead.” Imagine that: a man in Hobart, Tasmania, in shock about what had happened in Dallas, Texas. We saw the monuments to Lincoln and to Jefferson. On one wall of the Jefferson memorial these words are chiseled:
“I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind.”
And we were moved by these things, which are still foundational to the arguments that make the United States what it is. The mob attacking Congress on January 6, 2021, largely comprised people who thought they were being patriotic. But when patriotism is based upon lies and bigotry, it is no longer patriotism, merely the behavior of a mob.
It was hot in Washington, where I was giving a poetry reading at the Greek Embassy. Our days were spent looking for shade, appalled by the poor maintenance of monuments in a nation founded by tax rebels. But the nation is large and does contain multitudes. We flew to Denver, picked up our Chevy van in the parking lot, and drove north into Wyoming for another poetry event. From the April heat of D.C. we were translated to an April blizzard in Wyoming, at times unable to see the edge of the Interstate highway in front of us. This too was America. America was weather, and it was also words. In a gallery in Buffalo, Wyoming, we saw a painting by “The late William Pawnee-Leggins, a Sun Dancer,” and a quotation by his grandfather, Fool’s Crow: “The survival of the world depends upon our sharing what we have and working together. If we don’t, the whole world will die. First the planet, and next the people.”
Lawrence was lured to New Mexico by Mabel Dodge Luhan because she wanted him to write about Native Americans, and Lawrence obliged, but only in his own terms, refusing to see anyone sentimentally. He accepted the essential strangeness of other people and their rituals, and never presumed to understand them or to have absorbed the lessons of their way of life. For my own part, I believe in learning from indigenous cultures, as a form of respect for life and the earth. I believe “The Uluru Statement from the Heart” is one of the world’s most important documents. That does not mean I understand anything. But I can feel kinship with what I do not understand, and I think Lawrence did as well. He felt more kinship with what he did not understand than with what he did understand, and he knew that the English coal miners his father had worked among were also participants in the mysteries, traveling deep into the bowels of the earth. He is a reliable guide to the state of being lost.
After leaving Buffalo, Wyoming, we pulled a U-turn on a narrow highway in order to visit Devil’s Tower, the huge basalt laccolith you might have seen in the Spielberg movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. We circumnavigated the monument on foot and in silence, taking note of sacred Native American offerings hung in the trees, or the landscape of wild turkeys and prairie dogs, buffalo pastured with longhorn cattle. We saw the carcass of a deer half-eaten by a cougar. Our journey, which began in Washington, now became a pilgrimage in search of America.
We drove to Mount Rushmore. I had seen it before, and had also seen the evolving monument to Crazy Horse, one of my heroes, thinking how crazy it was to honor a great Native American by carving up a mountain. But I had not seen any of these things in the company of my Australian wife, who is gifted with visions. You might say she translated me in my own country. She looks at her surroundings with rare intensity and accuracy. She pays attention where many people stumble in a dream. It was she who noticed not only the giant busts of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Abe Lincoln with a herd of white mountain goats below them, but also the landscape those august fathers gazed upon. As the few off-season tourist cameras pointed at the presidents, she turned and looked at the pine foothills and the vast prairies running away like an eastward sea, and said, “They’re looking back at America. They’re looking back toward the capital, as if to see how far the nation has come.”
My new rule: if you ever want to see your own country, see it with a foreigner.
We spent hours driving another back road that had been engineered with tunnels aimed precisely at the presidents. The man who laid out the road wanted you to have that vision whenever you came around a corner or looked ahead through a tunnel—the same four giants carved in rock. You could feel the pride he felt in America, the sense of awe he wanted to convey as he shaped the landscape. Even for a skeptic like myself, it was hard not to be moved by the thought of what America could be.
We drove on to the Badlands of South Dakota, a maze of dry broken rock, then to the haunted space of Wounded Knee with its old wooden sign of commemoration—the word “Battle” had been covered by another slat of wood bearing the more accurate word, “Massacre.” It had started to rain. We were silent for a while, then visited by a young Lakota woman with a beautiful face and very bad teeth. A year later, my wife (whose pen name is Cally Conan-Davies) published a poem about it called “Wounded Knee, South Dakota”:
Her bracelets made of bead and buffalo bone,
sunbursts arcing a way into the dark,
blue for sky and water, green for meadow lark.
She ties me to something I can never own.
Painted on a board above the ditch
the agony of speech in one changed word—
battle recharged into massacre.
A boy appears holding out a dream catcher
but the soft archery of rain begins to fall.
The stacked grave bears a single cross.
Cars rot in the field. The sky is enormous,
and a tree—feeling the air for a lost touch.
America is a country given to forgetting, and now in its anger and division, alternative histories are pelted back and forth like brimstone. I may feel hurt by stories, but I am not harmed by them, and the stories of Wounded Knee, both the massacre of 1890 and the protests of the 1970s, serve to remind me of my brotherhood with all the lost.
So what does it mean, now that I have been translated to somewhere else? I look out my windows in Tasmania and see a landscape not unlike the San Juan Islands of Washington State, my childhood home. Having grown up on land still inhabited by Lummi, Nooksack and other Salish people (though they were generally segregated on reservations), I now live on land of the Nuenone and the Melukerdee. Not long ago I participated in a fire workshop led by a young man descended from one of the Aboriginal bands in the northwest corner of the island. What is the degree of his blood relation, and what is the accuracy of his cultural memory? I do not really know. I can only respond to it with respect and attention, hoping to learn from him how to live less destructively on this land. We are all, to some extent, inventing our stories as much as remembering them, and we needn’t assume knowledge of absolute truth to know that truth matters, and story matters, and meaning matters. I learned as much from a very young Englishman named John Keats, who called it Negative Capability, a way of residing with “uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” God bless John Keats, I say, and God bless D. H. Lawrence.
I am just beginning to learn how to love my home. I love it as much as I love anywhere I have ever lived, and more, but I am newly translated and have much to learn. Australian people are the best help, including Australian writers and artists. I love the best fictions of David Malouf and Kate Grenville, Tim Winton, Patrick White and Richard Flanagan, the essays of Helen Garner and the late Clive James (who was translated to England), the poems of Les Murray and Kevin Hart (who has been translated to America), Judith Wright and Dorothy Porter and Gwen Harwood, Peter Porter (translated to England) and Kenneth Slessor and so many others I haven’t the presence of mind to name. This could become a list poem when it should rather be an anthology of quotations, all the many words that are teaching me to live and write. I bow down to Yothu Yindi and Paul Kelly and Archie Roach. Because I am hard of hearing, I am slow to learn the words of the songs. But that does not prevent me from singing and dancing to them. The best artists teach me not to judge too hastily, but to reside with beauty, as well as my uncertainty and doubt.
None of this prevents me from loving the best in America, even with its errors and troubles. As I write, the war in Ukraine reminds me again how violent societies can be, how vigilant we must be against the arrogance of the powerful everywhere.
Every day, I am translated anew. Every hour, every minute, the river flows by me and the Southern Ocean surges toward me and the stars roll overhead. There is work to be done. I am not one thing, and I have never been one thing. I am a man who loves, and love is in motion.
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