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The scholarship, established in memory of the late actor David Coleman Dukes, is awarded annually to a third-year Theater Arts student working toward a career in stage acting. A bronze plaque commemorating the scholarship benefit held in David Coleman Dukes' name can be seen in the lobby of the Bing Theater, off Queen's Court on the USC campus.
— Madeline Puzo, Dean, USC School of Theatre

 © 2012 Carol Muske Dukes

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• Sunday Book Review "Good Golly" (New York Times)

April 29, 2007

by Carol Muske-Dukes

The cover of “The House on Boulevard St.” is a Roy Lichtenstein-style cartoon, a portrait of the poet David Kirby with a furrowed brow, above which floats a word balloon: “Need a subtitle ... No wait I got it ... New and Selected Poems.”

It’s all very postmodern, the poet as Zelig, Photoshopping his way into art history. But there’s a sense of rightfully shared turf here too. Just as Lichtenstein, Pollack and other artists kicked the gates open and invited popular culture into the realm of high art, so Kirby has tried to play host to a similar aesthetic open house in his poetry. (“So this is helpful, having Roy’s example,” he murmurs in one poem.)

Kirby believes in the seamlessness of “high” and “low” art; his poems are filled with references to everyone from Fats Domino and Garth Brooks to Keats and Sylvia Plath. Thus when Kirby was asked for a list of 10 essential poetry books, he included an unusual pick: “I added ‘The Essential Little Richard’ because, as different as his branch of show business and my branch of show business are, I want my poems to move fast and I want people to like them. And you can’t get all of that from Dante.”

Kirby writes long-lined and loose narrative poems that read like talky, whimsical, jokey prose — or as an admirer once put it, poetry that is “perfect for those who say they don’t like poetry.”

Typically, “New and Selected” poetry collections are organized chronologically, ending with the author’s most recent work. As Kirby notes in his preface, he has instead arranged these poems so they explore “periods of time” in his life. He’s imposed a narrative on this work, one that tries to be cumulatively dramatic, albeit in a run-on, self-spinning fashion that resembles a Spalding Gray monologue.

“Stairway to Heaven,” the first poem, functions as a prologue — and also as Kirby’s “Ars Poetica.” He stage-manages the poem as he writes it, riffing on ideas of surprise and recollection, ruminating on his own technique, providing the reader with a didactic history of his work. “ ‘Surprise, surprise!’ says Gomer Pyle, / and Dante Alighieri, too,” Kirby writes, and informs us that he identifies himself with every “musician, magician, poet, / and songwriter.” The poem calls attention to his process (“I think I am inventing something totally new”) even as he detours into the minds of other writers. He slaps himself on the forehead at one point, realizing Marianne Moore has “beat me to” his vision of a jagged left margin. All the while, he steadily argues for a signature genre he calls “memory poems” — apparently a random-associative style focused on linked kaleidoscopic recollections:

The people I know
who are lucky at love are pretty good at slinging it themselves,

and this includes both virtuous people and sleazeball lounge-lizard types,
cut-rate Romeos who come on
with the Barry White tapes and that junk about loving somebody
and then setting them free.

But isn’t every poem ever written a “memory” poem, since remembering and imagining in poetry are essentially the same thing? Kirby thinks he has found an “elastic” shape for his poems, but all poems accommodate to their shapes, and every poem pivots linguistically on “surprise.”

So what is really going on in David Kirby’s poems? What form there is (Kirby describes the poems, in his preface, as “marked by fixed-length stanzas and a sawtooth margin” and a “pendulum”-like tension) turns out to be wave-lengths of volubility, channeled toward vocal performance. Ezra Pound believed free verse embodied the rhythms of the thinking mind. Kirby’s free verse narratives embody the rhythms of a mind striving to create the appearance of spontaneity:

...Think, Kirby, say something
anything, but I’m just standing there like an idiot,

“there” being the courtyard of the Villa Mercede
on the hill of Bellosguardo outside Florence,
a palazzo known as the Villa Castellani when Henry James
not only lived in it but set part of
The Portrait of a Lady there.

Topographically, Kirby’s poems look like landscapes for the voice. “You leave the inkpots alone, and I won’t start / splattering the canvases,” he pledges in a poem called “Seventeen Ways From Tuesday.” (He’s addressing Joan Miró.) Yet these poems have less to do with “inkpots” or memory or innovation than they do with “splattering the canvases.” Kirby stretches his backdrop, then “paints” with breath-long brushstrokes. It seems right that he’s been immortalized in a Lichtenstein-style cameo. Like the cover, these poems may be too cool for words.

Carol Muske-Dukes is a professor of English at the University of Southern California and the author of seven books of poetry. Her novel “Channeling Mark Twain” will be published in July.