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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 upon rereading.
"Sparrow" 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.

book currentsReviewed by 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.

Life After Death Reviewed by REGINA MARLER

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 is set.

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 Boom."

Women and Poetry Carol 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 MCFALL


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: "…I read/because 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"…souls 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.





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