Skylightby: Carol Muske-Dukes
IN OUR ONGOING SERIES Second Acts: A Second Look at Second Books of Poetry, poet and essayist Lisa Russ Spaar takes a bimonthly look at second books of poems, which are — for an array of reasons and in various ways — often overlooked. Each column will pair a second book of poems that appeared 20 or more years ago with a recent second book, published within the past two years. In Spaar’s first column, pairing Lynda Hull’s Star Ledger and Kerri Webster’s Grand & Arsenal, she writes:
A second book of poems isn’t exactly like the under-photographed second child, the salutatorian, the beauty pageant runner-up, the bridesmaid, the vice-president, the associate chair, the jumped-the-shark television sitcom or movie sequel, the silver medalist, or the second largest car rental company with corporate motto "We Try Harder." But accompanying the writing, publication, notice, and shelf-life of second books of poems are a flock of anxieties, expectations, and other social, cultural, economic, and circumstantial forces that can often lead to their being overlooked and under-reviewed. Given, as David Wojahn once wrote, that publishing a book of poetry in America at all is "akin to dropping a rose petal in the Grand Canyon," what is it about authors’ second poetry books that warrant our special attention?
We play at Paste –
Till qualified for Pearl –
Then, drop the Paste –
And deem Ourself a fool –
The Shapes, tho’, were similar,
And our new Hands
Learned Gem Tactics
Practising Sands –
– Emily Dickinson, Fr. 282
Musical first names aside, this month I bring together second books by two Carols in order to explore the distinct ways each employs “gem-tactics” in the service of poems that are at once ferociously personal and, in the most poetic sense, public — even political. Both Carol Muske-Dukes and Carol Ann Davis engage in a praxis of lapidary syntax, the effect of which is prismatic, uniting interior states of mind with an expansively outward gaze. That both poets accomplish these acts of compressed, refractive imagination in second books, when many apprenticing poets are still playing “at Paste,” is all the more remarkable and worthy of attention.
The luminous Carol Muske-Dukes was, for poets (and perhaps especially women poets) coming of age in the 1970s, a pioneer: a gracious and generous force both on and off the page. Writing first as Carol Muske and then as Carol Muske-Dukes, she is the author of eight collections of poetry, four novels (with another on the way), two collections of essays, and innumerable collaborations, as well as a recently completed play. She has served as Poet Laureate of California and is Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California. Whether teaching poetry in a women’s prison or extending herself on behalf of emerging writers, she is a tireless, fearless supporter of poetry, of freedom, and of the truth as she sees it across a wide spectrum of our culture. Her reviews, op-ed pieces, and essays have appeared regularly in places like The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, and the Huffington Post. Now considered an eminent poet of her generation, she was, even in her early books, already adept at shaping the considerable force of her passion, marrying the velocity of her thought and emotion with an almost Vermeer-like restraint.
I encountered Muske’s second book, Skylight, before I’d read her first (Camouflage, published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 1975), though I soon sought out the latter and eagerly consumed everything she wrote thereafter. Skylight came highly recommended to me by my teacher Donald Justice (I was in graduate school at the time), who noted its “formal, dangerous poise”: high praise from one of the most prosodically dexterous and elegant poets of the past century.
Revisiting my well-worn copy of Skylight (I paid Charlottesville’s now defunct Anderson Brother’s Bookstore $2.30 for it in 1981) provides a glimpse into my own preoccupations as a student poet. Inside the back cover, I had written “lyricism + science, politics, violence, law, process, mechanics, architecture,” and the phrases I underlined or starred throughout the text reflect Muske’s brilliant balancing, as in these lines from “The Invention of Cuisine” —
They are very hungry
because cuisine has not yet been invented.
Nor has falconry,
nor the science of imagination,
— and in these crystalline phrases from a host of other poems: “alight with my privacy,” “the stubborn evidence of light,” “the little tree of my brain / on its stem,” “adoration is small, love’s chaser, / love’s thanks,” “scent unwinds from the syllable / of incense,” “the scaffold of passion,” “morning starts, a shallow machinery / in my skull,” “the brilliant manifesto of your hair,” “the thrust of the verb / heading west toward my thought process,” “the makeshift heresy of language.”
Inside the back cover, I had also written and underlined the word “emergency.” It occurs to me that this word, which appears in several of the poems and is the title of another of them, forms the subtextual bedrock of this book, embodying as it does both a sense of crisis (personal and other) and an impulse of emerging, of rising or growing from one condition and into another. What Muske does — whether working in traditional forms (the book includes sonnets and the ghosts of sonnets, two sestinas, a villanelle) or in her own exactingly lineated free verse, and whether writing about war crimes, child abduction, the death of a friend, the poverty of India, or the speaker’s own emotional urgencies — is to refract that uncut substance into clear facets of aphorism, meditation, observation, and revelation. Here is the sonnet “Fireflies,” dedicated to Edward Healton:
We walked together up that country road.
It was dark. Vermont. Another season.
Then, looking up, we saw the sky explode
with fireflies. Thousands, in one frisson
of cold light, scattered in the trees, ablink
in odd synchrony. That urgency,
that lightening pulse, would make us stop, think
of our own lives. The emergency
that brought us here. The city, separation
and the pain between us. Your hands that heal
can’t make us whole again; this nation
of lovestruck bugs can’t change that. Still, we feel
the world briefly luminous, the old spark
of nature’s love. Around us now, the dark.
In an epilogue to her essay collection Women and Poetry: Truth, Autobiography, and the Shape of the Self, Muske-Dukes writes about the experience of being pushed on a swing by her mother as her mother recited Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Swing”:
I understood that poem viscerally, bodily. I felt it move in two directions at once. I was moving outward on the poetic line and returning on its end, I was swinging inside the poem itself, and I think my mother knew that. She knew that I would overcome my fear of leaving her and learn to love the poem all in one. Am I speculating here? Yes. I am hoping there is truth in this: that one repetitive act embodying what she was both urging me toward and rescuing me from — a shape of a self, flying away. I was the little girl swinging within the ambivalence her imagination made for me, an endlessly fluid negotiation between woman and poet, poet and woman, my self and my source.
This motion between self and world is articulated at the end of the title poem, in which a speaker addresses an ex-lover (now entangled with the speaker’s friend) and revisits in memory a skylight in the apartment she once shared with him:
I have found comfort lately
in the notion of gravity,
how the bread stays on the blue plate,
how my best friend places weight on one foot,
All that is the gift of limit
and beyond it is the scaffold of passion
beyond it is the sky
to which I had right
all that time.
Skylight, already exhibiting the knife-blade perception and nuanced sensuality we associate with Muske-Dukes’s later work, enacts with an astronomer or a clock-maker’s precision its “fluid negotiation[s]” between the “two directions” of emergency and emergence, the twinned cities of ardor and action.
The epigraph with which Carol Ann Davis opens her second collection, Atlas Hour, comes from the painter Max Weber, a teacher of Mark Rothko (whose method of positioning horizontal planes in a contextual field suffuses this book): “An arch, an aperture, the heavens over the arch, what more can you want?” This triangular figure — a body or shape, a lens or opening, and the ineffable — informs every startling poem in Atlas Hour, whether its subject is a painting, a domestic scenario, or a motion of atonement, redemption, and forgiveness. If Muske’s gem-tactics evoke Michelangelo’s sense of faceting extant stone to reveal its hidden glances, Davis talks back, ekphrastically and thematically, to George Oppen’s notion that the poem’s “object is to burst,” an imperative she “follow[s] down // a byway // of strikeouts // // and white space,
the tonal color of an hour and feeling
the certain texture words gain this humanity so uniquely yours
as if in wanting something for everyone you could have lost your footing
quickly but found in fragments remaining a world made
by your gaze something holier than poetry really
(from “So you were saying”)
In the way that the lyric plaint of sorrow, thanksgiving, and praise ghosted Davis’s first collection, Psalm (Tupelo, 2007), annunciation, with its wild mix of miraculous invasion and claustral privacy (annunciation, from the Latin annunti?re, “to make known”), is the matrix, the seedbed, of this new book, which makes a topographical map of ephemera, a Gnosticism out of fractured (w)holes.
Particularly provocative in a second book, Davis is driven back to first things, to origins, even as she remains grounded in a riveting present and is unable to not envision in all moments a future. And what is an annunciation, after all, if not a conflation of desire, the somatic, the divine — of history and forgetting, of unveiling, and of making/preparing a way? Here is Part One of “Upon Seeing the Terezin Children’s Drawings, Two Parts,” in which the speaker describes the experience of viewing some of the more than 4,000 drawings done by Jewish children incarcerated in a Prague ghetto between 1942 and 1944:
it was something I wanted
hem of a skirt prehensile and its antecedents
the story of the annunciation told backward
and with feeling the wind a little
pent up inside us an undersea world
stitched on register paper and drawn by a child
most of them gone now the house of the minute
and a thousand sirens calling them
toward what little protection a devil offers
the basement full of yard goods
the third floor storm drain
the day on the street we walked a little ahead
of the rain that was coming remember
your mother still lost somewhere
our boys barely thought of
but safer for it that’s when I saw the detail
thought to tell you its secret Christ in Limbo
a museum full of names our own children
in an apartment full of bees
but here the names of the dead so many children
their pictures on postcards
perfect jellyfish-bunny-ears-starfish-electric-eels it was like
listening to the music of their childhood
or walking out into the deepest
possible water strange fish if I could I would follow you
stitch your name into history somewhere
This poem, like many others in the book, “unspools / [its] quiet story // along a side margin” (the phrase is from “Daniel in the Lion’s Den, Bible of 960, San Isidoro”) while at the same time pushing out from a flush-left margin into long lines full of white space, phrases “floating // ecstatic ////nowhere to sit down” (from “Seeing Rothko and Thinking of Crusoe”). The effect in this poem, and in others, is to bring into one moment — one open, vibrating field — forces of yearning, visitation, history, the as yet unborn, and the consequences of all of these forces.
Tupelo Press has embodied Atlas Hour in a large format (7 ½ by 9 inches) to accommodate Davis’s own unique, annunciatory visual incarnations. And while many of the poems in the book are strophic and stichic, many also come to us in this blown-open shape (one thinks of the parable given in Matthew 5:15: the word mesh these poems create are like baskets through which illumination streams all the more intensely for the latticing), a form Davis began to use tentatively in her first book in poems like “Columbarium.” Interestingly, though, Davis’s predominant syntactical unit is not the fragment but the sentence. For example, “Seeing Rothko and Thinking of Crusoe” takes up one full page (with white space runneling through the shards of phrases like rivulets, retinal floaters, ambages, serpents, letters), but actually consists of a few long and intricate, grammatically suspended sentences. The opening seven lines, full of caesura, might be written out as one punctuated sentence: “The one child-angel who needs only a spear to cast the naked damned with their long fingers into void of air, into bands of color, floats there, above locust claws, needs only a spear to start the picture’s motion, nothing so free as knowledge, nothing so bright as confession, but we are done with talk at the abyss already, and whoever stops to blame in Indian yellow, in green made on a press, balances to near a locust’s tail its tip cuts the scalp.”
The effect of fragmenting and opening up complex sentences in this way is not so much to unparse or deconstruct as to reveal meaning, “this time mine // coming and going // on the expensive paper //// in the end // so much that’s porous // a sieve” (from “Portrait”). The effect is unsettling, hallucinatory, ecstatic, recreating an almost hallucinatory and holy experience of doubt, consciousness, and faith. Here is the last half of “Rothko’s No. 1 (1949)”:
It’s easy to admit the overblow to want back
the now-lost Annunciation its gessoed hands
its mosaic-laden question of faith the lambent grown historical
the new born bright as day a blue-yellow so and so inside us
it doesn’t matter what gets lost and what hides anymore
These lines, which refer not only to Rothko’s No. 1, with its nestled, almost fetus-filled, womb-like center, but to a Rothko painting of an annunciation, now believed to be lost, and inspired by Byzantine mosaics. But Davis could well be describing her own practice and process in these lines: a lapidary expression of negative capability that is uniquely arresting and full of promise.