“WHAT IF ONE woman told the truth about her life? / The world would split open.” Muriel Rukeyser’s lines, from a poem about the still overlooked German artist Käthe Kollwitz — whose etchings of working-class women, in mourning and struggle, made her a pioneer — are a touchstone for Carol Muske-Dukes. Like so much of the feminist literary canon, from Bradstreet to Rich and beyond, she has absorbed the lines and their implied directive.
Carol has been my friend for years. I don’t remember how it happened — would I have been bold enough to seek her out? — but I know it coincided with my moving to Los Angeles in late 2004, and then a frenetic rush of conversation, emails packed with dashes and ampersands, so much to cram in. Sparrow had been published the year before, a stunning, stricken collection (and a finalist for the National Book Award) in which she traced the arc of sudden loss. The book, occasioned by the death of her late husband, the actor David (Coleman) Dukes, is replete with classical, intricate, complex elegies. I understand now that it is a piece of the project she continues to work on, to tell “the truth about her life” and about the lives of female artists.
Sparrow ends with a poem called “The Rose,” which takes the shape of two prose paragraphs addressed to her daughter, Annie, about a time before Annie’s remembering, when she was a toddler asleep in the backseat and her parents drove under a full moon to their new house, singing along with “The Rose” on the radio (“Some say love, it is a flower…”). “Completely sentimental,” the poet knows, and yet I think of that poem as the bulb from which Blue Rose (2018), Muske-Duke’s new collection, her ninth, grew. (Another collection, Twin Cities , was published in between, and tacks between her Minnesota upbringing and her life in Los Angeles.)
Blue Rose begins with an emergency. Sirens wail; the speaker is “[L]ashed to / a pallet”; newborn, the child is “danger blue.” Many of these poems take as their setting a private battlefield: bed, the site of birth and death and death in childbirth. Women are the heroes in these personal epics; recording them, Muske-Dukes recovers their lost narratives. In one poem, “The Year the Law Changed,” she unflinchingly describes an abortion. “I had my life back but covered myself with blood — / mine and some not — but still of me.” The body cleaves, the world splits.
A few weeks ago, Carol and I sat in the kitchen of her cozy townhouse in Santa Monica, drinking tea from an English service she found on a back shelf, and talked for a couple of hours about her work, the women she admires, the women whose stories she wants to honor. We touched upon Emily Dickinson’s notational style, interruption as a generative force, and the place for beauty in contemporary poetry, as well as the first poet laureate of California (a lineage Carol shares, having recently occupied that post), the University of Southern California (where Muske-Dukes founded the PhD in creative writing and still teaches), and Annie, now a research scientist, who looked like a blue rose when she was born.
DANA GOODYEAR: Did you write all these poems in the years since Twin Cities, or are some of them older poems that took shape around the image of the blue rose that occurs throughout this book?
CAROL MUSKE-DUKES: I said something in the notes in the back of the book about the “long journey” to Blue Rose. When I sent the manuscript to my editor, Paul Slovak — who’s wonderful and has been my editor for a while — I wasn’t really that happy with it. It just didn’t feel complete to me, and I think it didn’t to him either. So, in the last year-and-a-half, I revised it and put in new work.
So it’s really a document of the past few years in your thinking?
It really is, despite the “long journey” reference.
These poems seem to be about birth and death and mothers and daughters, if you had to say what the heart of the project is …
Yes, about all that — and to some degree about women who are, I don’t want to say “neglected,” but whose lives have been somewhat occluded by history.
Like Ina Coolbrith, the first poet laureate of California.
Like Coolbrith, exactly. While it wasn’t an overall goal of mine, there were lives that fascinated me, like Paula Modersohn-Becker, the artist who was Rilke’s friend at Worpswede Artists’ Colony.
She’s the one who cried out “Shame” on her deathbed, which was also her daughter’s birth bed.
Exactly. Death and birth in the same bed. Thinking about women of that time — though it’s true now as well — giving birth was a pact with death in a way, and women knew that. She knew that, she had that premonition that it was going to happen.
And then death was also made more palatable by thinking of it as birth — into the afterlife.
Yeah, fetishization of the afterlife [was] very prevalent then. But she did not subscribe to that. She wanted to live. Her art has been reclaimed in a way. She’s thought of now as one of the modernist painters, yet at that time she “couldn’t get arrested,” as they say. Still, she believed so totally in herself.
The stakes in these poems seem to circle around the risk inherent in being a woman, and these passages of birth and death, but also around the questions, “How do you live as an artist?” and “Can you live as an artist?”
Can you live? Is it possible? I don’t know, it shouldn’t still be a question, but it is. Is it possible for a woman trying to be a mother and a wife or partner to also be an artist? A writer. Is that possible? That isn’t meant to be an obvious question in the book, but I think it undergirds some of what the poems are approaching, at least in talking about these women’s lives.
It’s a perfect moment because these concerns suddenly seem mainstream, whereas poetry is usually read as private testimony, a series of all-but-repressed voices from the margins.
Exactly. I mean, I’ve been thinking about your work … you are a far more coded, restrained poet than I am, less narrative, but I think you’re on the edge between public and private often in your poems, and it’s a very peculiar place to be, because who writes that line? Who creates that? Who dunnit?
But it’s kind of exhilarating to feel you’re crossing it. And as you bring in a more public voice — or even as you bring more marginalized subjects and artists into the conversation, which is all good, and corrective, indeed — the question becomes, “What is a poem?” What are we talking about, ultimately?
What do you say to your students about what a poem is, as opposed to a different kind of literary document?
Well, I think it’s possible that you can have socially conscious criticism embodied in a poem, there’s no question. I’ve been thinking so much about this line by Neruda, from his poem “I Explain a Few Things,” if you know that poem. It was written about Franco’s bombing of Madrid in 1936, and in that poem there’s a line: “the blood of children ran in the streets / like the blood of children,” to which there is no response, and that’s what he wanted. It’s almost, to my mind, like Adorno saying that after Auschwitz, all poetry is obscenity.
There’s no metaphor.
There’s no metaphor, no simile. There’s no poetic equivalency. Here it is, folks. It’s a dare to try to say something beyond that. But here’s what I also believe, as I tell my students — and some of them agree with me and some of them absolutely do not — that beauty can still occur, that you can still write a beautiful poem, if that is your goal. If art continues to concern itself with the enduring aesthetic, then you can write a poem that says something like “the blood of children ran in the streets / like the blood of children,” that is in a way describing the end of poetry, and still have it be a poem of great art, just as Neruda’s poem is a beautiful poem. In other words, I think these two ideas can coexist.
I know there are a number of reasons you are attracted to classical poetic forms, and among them, I always think about your connection to your mother and memorized poetry and recited poetry. Those rhythms get into your head as a child, and, like anything you learn as a child, it becomes second nature. It occurs to me now talking to you that using those forms allows you to hold that space for beauty in poems, musical beauty, and at the same time deliver a kind of manifesto.
What you’re referring to is that I grew up listening to my mother recite poems by heart. She was part of that last generation of Americans who memorized whole poems, in a course called “Elocution,” in a prairie school house in North Dakota. I grew up in Minnesota, but she learned those poems and dramatic soliloquies on the prairie. Poets talk about poetry “saving your life,” and these words in a way saved my mother when her own mother died, when my mother was a teenager, poems of Christina Rossetti and Emily Dickinson.
I grew up in this ocean of words. I remember her pushing me in a swing and reciting “How Would You Like to Go Up in a Swing?” by Robert Louis Stevenson, so I felt I was swinging within the arc of the poem, back and forth. On the other hand, she was very distracted … she had six children! She’d always wanted to be a poet, but she couldn’t go to college because it was the Depression, there wasn’t enough money even with a full scholarship, so she was very frustrated. She was a — I don’t know how else to say it — she was a very anxious mother, and she was half-mad in a way. When she recited, say, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, it would be like, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds” — “Put that down right now!” — “admit impediment.” So in a way, she gave me the sense of the classical traditional form and at the same time the emergency of poetry, as in the term “emerge.” You know, a new strange half-spoken poetry, filled with angst.
… and interruption.
And interruption and disjointedness emerged, so that … I’ve never talked about this before, I’ve always praised my mother and that bath of words, that ocean of words — but really it was more a troubled ocean. It was a turbulent sea.
In your poems, I’ve always noticed and loved that there is such urgency. You’re not afraid of an exclamation point, and you’re not afraid of a quick turn, and I wonder what the relationship is to what you just described and some of those dashes and modes that are kind of Dickinsonian … even in your emails.
If I can impose myself, which is arrogant and wrong, on Dickinson, if I tried to identify with her use of dashes, I’d say that it’s like the mind moving just above the material, or just riding it in a way.
It’s like you’re annotating something that has no concrete form, as if the writing were a score for the music.
Exactly. That’s perfect. God, we’ve just written a critical exegesis. [Laughs.]
From the sublime to the mundane: What year was your first book published?
Oh my god, it was like 1975 or something like that. The University of Pittsburgh Press used to have a prize called the International Poetry Forum, and I was a runner-up. But they had so much money at that time from the NEA that they published it along with the winner, and gave me 500 free copies. I still have some on a bookshelf somewhere. [Laughs.] Camouflage is its name, which I misspelled in the manuscript.
Do you feel that the project of your poetry as changed? How did you see it in 1975 and how do you see it now?
Well, I certainly have changed. I hope. I mean first books tend to be very derivative. I was trying to write like Merwin, and I don’t even remember who else!
So, it was a book of apprenticeship, basically. You were entering the temple by enacting the ritual.
I was entering the temple. That’s a very nice way to talk about my own ignorance. But Merwin said somewhere: “I’ve learned the same song at the feet of many masters.”
But I think, for young poets, writing the poems is the only way to figure out what you think.
Maybe for all poets. You’re figuring out what you think by writing it down. What you change, and what you leave.
E. M. Forster said, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”
With a first book, it is the emergence and first outing of your written identity.
I called my first book when I was 25 or 26 Camouflage because I knew I was hiding. I quote Merwin in the epigraph: “Unless I go in a mask, how will I know myself among many faces.” So it was a mask, but the mask was a way somehow to find out exactly what I was saying, what I thought, and who I was.
Do you wear a different mask now?
I think we always wear a mask in our poems, maybe as we are being most ourselves.
Or a slipping mask?
Yes, that’s great. A “slipping mask”! The appearance of semi-revelation, the suspense of desire. I was married to an actor, and I think the actor obviously acts as medium for the words he or she is given. Wallace Stevens’s wonderful poem “Of Modern Poetry” compares the poet to an actor onstage. This is apt, for both disciplines. The words come to us and then we “test” what we’re saying by weighing the words in “the innermost ear of the ear” until they are found to be “sudden rightnesses.” That mystery of “hearing” in the ear as an actor, what is meant to be said, what is the sudden rightness, makes the vessel, the form, the mask, essential for an actor and the poet.
When David, my late husband, was alive, the mask saved him. He came from a very troubled background, he was abused as a child, so as he was trained as a Shakespearean actor at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, he found the self that had run away inside him in the roles that he played. He was one of those actors who said, “It’s the words, it’s how you say the words, that’s it.” I believe that Stevens was right saying we’re like actors on a stage. We’re putting out a version of ourselves or a version of our aesthetic in the poems. We are the mask.
Do you let yourself say things in poems that you wouldn’t say in other forms?
You mean other forms, like just prose or ordinary speech, or yelling at my dogs? Or arguing with my daughter? I think so, do you?
Yes, for sure.
Yes, of course. Well is it true that you hear the voice in your head, as everyone says? And sometimes that gets in the poem and sometimes not, but usually it’s stuff you wouldn’t say in everyday life.
Do you find yourself being interrupted — speaking of interruption — by that voice in the middle of reading something else, in the middle of teaching?
Absolutely, all the time. I think that poetry is urgent as we’re saying, and it’s vital, and we do need it, but we can’t really say it’s necessary.
I think it has to feel necessary to the maker, but it can’t insist that it’s necessary to anybody else.
So you feel when you write your poems that you must write them, right?
Yes, and then I want to go back and practically smell them, like they’re a very interesting-smelling thing, you know? They feel physical and fascinating to me. But then of course some of them stink, and not in a good way, and then I despise them, and can’t go near them.
[Laughs.] I know what you mean. If they don’t have that energy …
A dead draft is a very sad thing.
Unmourned, and yet you’re very aware of it. I have so many sad, dying poems around somewhere. My study’s always a mess, but I sort of love the chaos. But there are many dying poems embedded in piles up there.
I’ve actually started writing poems again for the first time in a few years.
Now. In the last year-and-a-half. But how about you? Do you have a disciplined approach to making work? I mean we talked about how the voice can interrupt you, but are you one of those people who knows that from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. you’re going to be in your study, transcribing the voices you’ve heard in your head all day, or finding the scrap in your purse where you wrote it down?
I always say to students that I’m completely disorganized. And I always work in medias res. I guess I am to some degree superstitious about not being that person who works from X hour to X hour. You know, when my daughter was little, and my stepson a teenager, I was in the middle of it — you don’t get to have a “schedule,” right?
And then once you sit down in your office, all you want to do is sign them up for AYSO and order them new socks. [Laughs.]
Exactly, you know your focus is so much on other things. When my daughter was quite young, I wrote novels and books of poems. I don’t know how the hell it happened. I know I didn’t sleep, I mean I stayed up really late. This hurts your health, but it’s the only quiet time. I would even go back and forth between a novel and a book of poems, cross-pollinating, so crazy! I really feel I’m A.D.D. yet was never diagnosed with it, and I try to use it to my advantage. I really feel if that distraction were taken away from me, and I was forced to write on a schedule, I would never write again.
I want to make sure we talk enough about your book, because it’s so good. One of the things I’m responding to in the book is the assertion of California as a place for you. Twin Cities drew a lot from your native environment in the Midwest, while this book lays claim to a place where you’ve been making your work for a long time.
I always thought the imagination was portable. I thought of myself as a New Yorker for so many years, and to some degree I still feel that. I certainly matured there as a young writer. I worked on Antaeus with Dan Halpern, and I came up as a poet teaching at Columbia and NYU. I fought against moving to California when my late husband and I moved here when I was pregnant with Annie. My husband had a house here, and I got the job at USC. We always said we’d go back to New York, you know when Annie grew up. So when he died, I went back to New York, I bought an apartment, but it didn’t work. I realized that California had become “my” place. I’ve come to understand California differently over the years, and I love it now, and I see it as home. You must too, right?
I do, I mean it’s …
That’s an equivocal …
I moved so much growing up that I’ve now lived here twice as long as I’ve lived anywhere else. I’m surprised, I never thought I’d live the majority of my life in California, but I didn’t think I wouldn’t. I’m fully here, and both of my children were born here, but there’s also part of me that doesn’t feel totally contained by it either.
I don’t feel totally contained by it either, but I feel like I never really gave it its due. I always thought of California as, you know, a place where you could be isolated.
I agree with that. There’s a lot of intellectual freedom here, because you can’t really receive your ideas from anyone else. In a city like New York, you can feel like you know everything without ever having worked for a single opinion.
Where you go out of your apartment, and you’re swept up in this cultural tsunami.
Sometimes something will happen in Los Angeles, and an editor will call me from New York, and say, “Can you just write a quick little thing about what everybody’s saying about this event?” and I’ll think, there is no “everybody.”
You’re right. I think about Coolbrith, coming to California in 1851, a child in a covered wagon. California was the end of the Earth for them, it was heaven, a “kingdom,” as their scout and guide James Beckwourth, the freed slave, called it. Yet Ina Coolbrith had a hidden life. We were talking about the mask earlier.
It was her domestic life that was hidden.
She was the niece and the daughter of the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, because her mother was sealed to Smith after his brother, her father, died. Her real name was Josephine Donna Smith. When Joseph Smith was murdered, she and her mother fled polygamy across country. That’s when she meets James Beckwourth, who’s an incredible mountain man, frontiersman, who leads them across the High Sierras. The Donner Party had just happened, and everybody was terrified to go across, and he found a way through. It’s still called Beckwourth Pass. Coolbrith arrives in California, free and clear, but what she does — this is what is crucial I think in terms of what we’re talking about — she hides behind her writing. Her mother makes her take an oath to never write about her identity, being Joseph Smith’s daughter — not to tell anyone until she is on her deathbed. So she lives like that, she changes her name, and then she has this very fraught domestic life when she marries in Los Angeles and has a child. But the child is lost and under very violent circumstances, as the husband is abusing her, but she never allows any of this into her writing. Her poetry is — it’s masked, but not in the “slipping” way that allows dramatic tension. She never lets it slip.
The mask is not only too fixed but too ornate; nothing comes through it.
Nothing comes through, I mean Dickinson was the mask: she’s got power with those dashes. Ina Coolbrith at essentially the same time …
And also she tried to make the mask too pretty, probably.
She tries to prettify the mask, and I don’t want to call it Georgian but it’s, as you say, over-ornateness. Where is her real voice? The mask is the end. What I tried to do in the poem about her was to try to point to that, quoting her, but not in a critical way. I’d quote some of those lines, where she seems to be just hinting at the possibility of letting the mask slip. For god’s sake, she was also the secretary of the Bohemian Club, where women were not allowed (still aren’t!), where all these alpha males trusted her because they knew she wouldn’t expose them. So her life was almost entirely about keeping secrets, and being the repository of secrets.
And then having this incredibly public role —
First poet laureate. Buddy of Mark Twain, John Muir, Joaquin Miller — all editing each other and publishing in the Overland Monthly together. She was also an Oakland librarian.
— a woman, trotted out in public to be the secret-keeper.
She was set up as this symbol. But I just kept thinking, and I would never presume to try and write someone else’s poems, but when I wrote that poem about her I just kept thinking: What if? What if she had written about her real life?
Why don’t you? That would be so interesting!
Well, I tried, but it’s not fair to take another poet’s life. Do you think? And try to pretend that you’re them?
Why not? Why not as a persona, as a mask of your own?
Because they’re her experiences. You know that oath sort of reverberates in the ear, like …
You’re not bound by it.
It’s her secret. But she did reveal it on her deathbed. She revealed to a journalist, to a San Francisco journalist.
The deathbed revelation is such an incredible tradition.
All these things that you must not say except with your dying breath. That line sounds like a poem, doesn’t it?
Dana Goodyear is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of two collections of poems, Honey and Junk and The Oracle of Hollywood Boulevard. Anything That Moves: Renegade Chefs, Fearless Eaters, and the Making of a New American Food Culture, a work of nonfiction, came out in 2013. Her work has been nominated for a National Magazine Award, and she has twice won the James Beard Foundation Award for journalism.