By LIZ ROSENBERG
In this season of summer wedding parties, it's touching to find a
pair of books largely about marriage, by two highly prized American
poets. Carol Muske-Dukes's heart breaking "Sparrow" catalogs
the infinite faces of marriage in poems that mourn and celebrate her
husband, the late actor David Coleman Dukes. Maxine Kumin's "The Long
Marriage" honors her partnership to her husband, Victor, while
extending "marriage" to lifelong relationships to other
beloveds: poetry, poets' friends, gardens, the body, and a Noah's
ark of animals, from the "scarlet tanager/who lights in the apple
tree" to cattle, sheep, and horses. Both books are gorgeous,
densely layered, melancholy, comical, and moving - all the more so
is almost unbearably sad in its exact recounting of loss, but I want
to emphasize that "almost," since its beauty and intelligence
keep both the poems and the reader pulling steadily forward. "Sparrow"
circles around the vortex of a particular absence, the death of one's
beloved. "On my study floor, the books were piled high. 'you
stepped over them, smiling, as you came in /to kiss me goodnight."
Muske-Dukes musters her considerable powers to come to an understanding of her
grief- if not a victory over it, at least the momentary stay against
confusion that is one of poetry's gifts."Sparrow"
refuses to rest, to reside in answers. Instead the poet reexamines
the past — "I lift my face, distracted, still, for your
late, tender kiss" — calibrating each of her actor-husband's
mercurial faces, her own shock and grief, hurling questions against
herself: "Was I sleeping, while the others suffered?"; "Where
did I/imagine the heart would go? To danger?"; and, in the dazzling
and deadly poem “The Call”: “That nurse in a distant
blazing room/beginning to take shape before my eyes/paused, then put
my question back to me. /Did I want to be told what was happening
to you?"In the story
of this particular marriage, this early death and all its aftershocks,
Muske-Dukes does for her beloved what Shakespeare in his sonnets sought
to do for his - to capture and immortalize the shifting, mortal beauty
of a living being. Her husband is often figured as a hawk - beautiful,
swift, largely untamable, always on the verge of motion: “You
turned back/once to look at me over your shoulder, opening the Stage/Door.
Not yet made up, but already a stranger, the hawk staring out of your
face." The poet is apparently a more domestic bird: "The
sparrow I brought/home in my hand outlived you." If a sparrow
in her own self-figuration, she is thrushlike in the sad beauty of
her singing - a blue morpho's wings seen "stained with the color
of the afterlife," the actor playing a part: "You are Algernon.
You have been /Algernon before, though not tonight's /Algernon."
She deeply understood her husband's art, and she deeply understands
her own, rendering even deepest sorrow as lovely, as haunting as birdsong.
DANA GOODYEAR The wedding of
the poet and novelist Carol Muske to the actor David Coleman Dukes (who played,
among other stage and film roles, a murderer in "The First Deadly
Sin"), made Liz Smith's column and gave Muske-Dukes a title for her
collection of autobiographical and critical essays: MARRIED TO
THE ICEPICK KILLER: A POET IN HOLLYWOOD (Random House). Muske-Dukes, who was shocked to hear the words "Helen Vendler" in
the mouth of a Hollywood agent, mourns the Californiacation of poetry-the
trophy books on producers' shelves and the creative-writing students
who (worry about "market value" and professional "contacts." These
days, poems may no longer have to struggle so hard to (make themselves
heard above what Budd Shulberg called the "insistent hum of the dream
factories," but they still have to compete with the roar of the freeway.
In the capital of car culture, a group called Poets Anonymous posted
bits of verse on billboards above the streets.
In Greek and Roman myth, rivers serve as the borders between this
world and the next. The newly dead are ferried across the River Styx,
while purified souls on their way back to Earth line up to drink from
Lethe, the river of forgetfulness. Carol Muske-Dukes' third novel,
"Life After Death," is set in these watery passageways between
two states of being, her dead characters not really dead, her living
characters backward-looking, trapped by loss and grief. There is even
a literal underworld for these liminal figures to visit, Carver's
Cave (called "House of the Spirits" by the Lakota in the
book), a large underground chamber with a lake, located under prehistoric
Sioux burial mounds just outside of St. Paul, Minn., where the book
Boyd Shaeffer is a non-practicing physician whose charming, wealthy,
feckless husband Russell dies at a moment when she doesn't love him.
Not only does she not love him (their marriage has been eroding for
years), she has just told him to die: "I'd prefer you dead. Throw
yourself out that window, for God's sake. Swallow some pills! You
think I'm joking?" An alcoholic, Russell had left their 4-year-old
daughter Freddy unattended at a park playground. A neighbor eventually
took the child home. When Russell appears to take Boyd at her word,
dropping dead of a heart attack on a tennis court the next morning,
she enters a condition that she self-diagnoses as shock, although
it has equal parts of anger and guilt.
Sensing that she never really knew Russell, Boyd begins to sort through
her dead husband's library, reading his marginal notes, his journal
fragments and his few mediocre poems. She had never taken his jottings
seriously but now suspects that they were left intentionally, as a
message to her, a reproach for not returning his extravagant love
of her. To complicate matters, Russell insists on hanging around.
Freddy sees him several times, concluding that Daddy is stuck underground
and needs their help to climb back up to the living. Eventually, Boyd
begins to receive spectral visits as well, although at first they
make her even more angry.
One of the first people whom Boyd must face in her delayed grief is
Will Youngren, the city's most eligible funeral director. Despite
his skill at comforting his bereaved clients, Will is taken aback
by Boyd's unconventional grieving, her reliance on irony. Her speech
and manner recall his twin sister, Signe, who died in a sledding accident
(an ill-considered act of bravado) when they were 14. Backing Will
up against a wall, Boyd quotes Russell's favorite poet, Keats: "Darkling,
I listen and for many a time/I've been half in love with easeful Death."
It makes sense to Will that the phrase Boyd comes up with, out of
midair, is the inscription he chose for his sister's headstone.
Fairly soon, Boyd must begin to remind Will that she is not his dead
sister. The night of their first dinner out—not a date, exactly,
but an opportunity for Boyd to find out more about her husband's strange
death—Will takes her to the underground cave, a place his sister
had loved. It was Signe who discovered the secret entrance, a hidden
furrow in the earth leading to a tunnel-like passage that opens out
into the caves. After an embarrassing delay in finding the cave opening,
which he has not visited since childhood—a passage rich with
Freudian connotations—Will makes his way inside by lying on
his back and shimmying out of sight. Boyd will not follow him.
One sniff of the musty underworld, one sound of water dripping in
a high-ceilinged chamber, is enough for her. Later, when Boyd asks
Will to bring her back to the cave, this time with Freddy, it is a
sign that she accepts her husband's departure as his own business.
And in engaging Boyd, Will regains something of his intimacy with
his dead sister and so is able to release Signe to death.
Given the persuasive charms of Muske-Dukes' prose, which shifts easily
between graceful, even showy, concision and the rhythms of everyday
speech, it will come as no surprise that she is the author of several
books of poetry. From poetry, too, she may have drawn her taste for
resonances and correspondences. As with a well-made poem, there are
few loose ends in "Life After Death." There is even a subplot
involving life before death, in which Boyd, haunted by a botched abortion
during her training (a patient with an unsuspected heart condition,
like Russell's, died on the operating table), must face her own helplessness
and resolve to become a doctor again.
One of her first tasks, in this most symmetrical of novels, is to
help a desperate young woman end her pregnancy. (The strangest symmetry
of "Life After Death" lies just beyond its pages, in the
unexpected death, on a tennis court, of Muske-Dukes' own husband,
actor David Coleman Dukes, some months after her manuscript was completed.)
Muske-Dukes' fictional world is as well-ordered as the division of
cells, and the result is a beautifully crafted but somewhat chilly
novel. Boyd's recovery is a little too clean, her past troubles too
neatly resolved. The reader can sense her turning briskly away from
her husband's death, relieved to be done with the business. The best
scenes, however, involve Freddy, whose rationality is still filtered
through childhood superstitions, leaving room for the ache and messiness
of lasting grief.Marler
Is the Author of "Bloomsbury Pie: the Making of the Bloomsbury
Muske's collection of criticism (many of these pieces were first published
in The New York Times Book Review) spans two decades of reflection
on contemporary poetry by women who are writing outside the male literary
tradition. Her long essays address, among other topics, the evolution
and influence of poets like Adrienne Rich (the "Great Outlaw
Mother") and Eavan Boland; her short reviews appraise books by
Maxine Kumin, Jane Kenyon, Ellen Bryant Voigt and others. In her thught-provoking
introduction and epilogue, Muske dissects the term "woman poet,"
traces the change in what has been meant by it since the 1950's, and
wrestles with questions or testimony, autobiography and truth in relation
to female identity and experience. With critical insights buoyed by
her poet's gifts for metaphor and wit, she effectively places women
at the center of what is most exciting about poetry today.GARDNER
Reviewed by Holly Prado Ah, that wonderful,
rare thing: a poet who has the ability to deepen the secrets of experience
even while revealing them Carol Muske's third book of poems, "Wyndmere,"
enchants-not with the sweetness of an unconscious sleeping beauty
but with the glint and magic of a highly skilled writer who uses her
knowledge deftly, pulling us in until we're thoroughly immersed in
the alchemical brew of real poetry.One of Muske's
strengths is her ease in merging autobiographical detail with the
inner realm of thought and feeling. Her contemplation of experience
is personal yet moves further, into the spiritual and philosophical;
then it belongs not only to the poet but to all of us. The first section
of the book deals primarily with the past, emphasizing the importance
of a mother and grandmother. Muske is less interested in simple influences
on behavior than on powerful psychic exchanges: "
you said to... Poetry's the air we drown in together,/ mother, poetry's
the turning room,/ the clear field mined with words/ you read first..."
Again and again, she returns to the effect of poetry on Spirit: "Hell is the absence of metaphor," and"
drift in permanent/ transience, in the light-distance of God's photograph,/
which some call Poetry". As the writing progresses, the past
opens into the present, which includes travel, literature, loves,
and culminates with the birth of a daughter.Muske has developed
a reputation as a poet, winning prizes and grants, teaching at the
University of Southern California. There's a temptation to believe
that poets who do well for themselves in the world don't take risks
in their writing, have become careful in order to be accepted. Muske's
work does show her training-these poems are honed. and consciously
crafted But rather than diminishing the heat of the writing, her educated
containment and grace increase it. She's discovered a way to work
magic within the boundaries of technical achievement. That's quite
an accomplishment.Prado is a Los
Angeles poet and fiction writer whose novel, "Gardens,"
has just been published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.