YOU WAKE UP IN A NEW CITY, but you don't know which one it is. Before the rational part of your mind kicks in, while the traffic blurs past, your memory shuffles for possible answers. New York? Your cousin's house in Jackson, Mississippi? Los Angeles? Or right at home, wherever that may be? The disorientation can be unnerving, but strangely pleasurable too. Certainly, there's a tinge of glamour: if you don't know what city you're in, you must really be a big shot. But that doesn't completely explain the pleasure; there's something deeper, something more immediately grafted to sensation. You feel that you're waking into the unknown, the possible. Your consciousness and your surroundings have become mutually permeable. Or else, the opposite feels true: the link between consciousness and its surroundings has broken, and now you must struggle to readjust. Either way, in those moments, the relation of the self to the world feels somehow more active, more engaged.
What makes Carol Muske-Dukes' new collection of poems, Twin Cities, so impressive is her passionate attentiveness to this very state. She has a unique ability to reflect and embody how our personal experiences and the actual spaces through which we travel fuse and fissure. Muske-Dukes has long been a superb poet of travel - not in the strictly touristic sense (though she has written some fine poems about tourism) but in the more basic, expansive sense of movement through space. I remember finding her 1997 collection An Octave Above Thunder: New and Selected Poems in a college bookstore and turning to the opening poem, "Like This." Here are the first twelve lines:
Maybe it's not the city you thought
it was. Maybe its flaws, like cracks
in freeway pylons, got bigger, caught
your eye, like swastikas on concrete stacks.
Maybe lately the dull astrologies of End,
Millennium-edge rant about world death
make sense. Look. Messages the dead send
take time to arrive. When the parched breath
of the Owens River Valley guttered out,
real voices bled through the black & white.
The newspaper ad cried, We who are about
to die salute you. Unarmed, uncontrite.
What struck me when I read these quatrains was their movement. The rhymes are managed with formal elegance. But there is not a touch of archaism or woodenness, because the syntax provides such vivacious speed. As they zoom across the line endings, these sentences convey that ultra-modern sensation of driving fast on a freeway. The exhilaration gives way to menace - the swastika graffiti, for instance - and then deepen into dread. Such darkness appears personal, emotional, but also social. Beneath the surface of the city lies its repressed history; in this case, the story of California farmers protesting the annexation of their water rights. Here was a poet who not only joined individual and political experience, but also saw the depth and dimension of each. What I admired was Muske-Dukes' metaphorical sense. I mean her ability to move between the individual and the collective, the realistic and the metaphysical. This seemed evidence not only of artistic talent but also of a far-ranging vision.
Twin Cities is Muske-Dukes' fullest and most passionate rendering of that vis...