We live in a world which tolerates the past only as costume drama. Politicians, business people and management theorists are always urging us to ‘make it new.’ So it’s a delight to alight on a poet who understands that we can’t shake off the past as easily a dog does water. Neal Mason’s appreciation of this simple truth is one of the many riches of his collection. His poems, with their often striking images and subtle rhymes, feelingly explore the contradictory nature of the past, how it is both remote and ever present; how can it unfold like a rose or go off like a bomb.
‘Lineage’ explores the speaker’s relationship with a man who may or may not have been his father. It is family drama, history and detective story, pulsing with conflicting emotions and packed with memorable and haunting phrases: ‘I accelerate through gaps / in history’s traffic to the cottage whose shell / lies in the future where it fell.’
‘Reflected on Water’ is a journey along the Thames with the speaker encountering key figures and events from British history. It teems with allusions and illustrates one of Mason’s themes, that a present without a past is like a world without gravity. Time travel is the subject of ‘The Stratagem,’ a poem that mixes up past and present in disturbing ways, all the more so because of its elegant setting. Sometimes Mason adopts the persona of inanimate objects such as nitrate or trees and imagines how they might view their part in history. My favourite in the collection is ‘The Museum of Lost Art,’ a witty, moving piece on what can never be retrieved: Venus’ arm, the library of Alexandria.
Mason riffs on Eliot’s Four Quartets but his focus is on the many faces of time rather than its redemptive properties.
Gary Day is a retired English lecturer. He is the author or editor of a dozen books including a two volume history of modern British poetry. He had a column in the Times Higher for a number of years and has been actively involved in amateur theatre for many years.