JANUARY 19, 2012
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 vision. Taken as a whole, the book becomes a panorama, and that panorama burgeons into a remarkable, extended metaphor. The connections and divisions of places become consubstantial as the poems unfold with the patterns and inconsistencies that make up any person’s life.
The book starts out from, and returns to, those twinned metropoles on the Mississippi River. Here, in the second of three poems that she titles “Twin Cities,” the poet elaborates on that central figure itself:
Two mirrored cities: their symmetry invented as my own
Present, twinned to a past to which it is now forever
Subordinate. Twinned to a future, stunned in its
White eclipse. So they killed the white foxes,
Brought their pelts to market in the one named
For the saint pierced by lightning. The richer
Sister prospered on threshed tons near the shared
Slaughterhouse. If the snow grew steeped in blood,
They raised a court. But the Ojibway said no-one
Out-thinks the two-in-one.
These lines read as an emblem for the rest of the book. The speaker is not only divided between one place and another; the various times of her life stand as contiguous yet divisible regions. As with the California of “Like This,” the literal and figurative geography in this poem rests on top a long and vexed history. To acknowledge that history – a process the speaker sees as crucial to understanding personal and collective experience – means coming to terms with violence and exploitation. But without glossing over such brutality as economic oppression or the massacre of native populations, the speaker suggests that exploring such darkness allows us greater capacity with which to feel and respond. In place of the official type of understanding offered by the early American court – an institution not known for its generosity and fairness toward Native Americans – the speaker finds authority in the Ojibway’s idea of the “two-in-one.”
What is the “two-in-one?” I suspect one answer might be: metaphor. Compelling us to see the connections between otherwise disparate entities, metaphor asks us to bend and stretch our minds. Even something apparently wrong, immoral, or ambiguous may deserve to be included in such a consideration. This, after all, is what Keats meant by “negative capability,” which he famously described as “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Imagine living your whole day in that same, disoriented but stimulated moment of waking in a new city, and you’ll have some idea of what negative capability really means. As conceived by a poet like Muske-Dukes, such “negative capability” never turns into a soft-minded excuse for giving up on discernment, for viewing and portraying life as some kind of holistic goulash. On the contrary, metaphor asks us both to connect and to distinguish between the very things it twines together, like that peculiar verb “to cleave,” which always means its opposite. At the end of “Twin Cities II,” the speaker describes her life, after setting out from the twin cities, like this:
And one irrefutable truth after another –
Obliterated by the irrefutable dual: City and City and
River and river of this, my Ever-Dividing Reflection.
Grounding austere abstraction in the sound of passionate personal testimony, these lines suggest that the expansive and enriching process of awakening to the metaphorical links of people and places also implies division, distance, and loss.
In Twin Cities, the discovery of our connectedness means remaining open even to pain. At the heart of the book lies the poet’s loss of her husband, the actor David Dukes, whose death Muske-Dukes has already chronicled in her moving (and often hilarious) memoir, Married to the Icepick Killer: a Poet in Hollywood. In Twin Cities, the difficult endeavor of living with that loss informs the very structure of the work. The ultimate set of doubles, in this book of seemingly perpetual pairings, reveals itself in the links and the distances between the living and the dead. Take the second poem in the book, “Two Coasts.” Here’s how it opens:
I own them both.
Sometimes I wake up
In somebody’s else’s night,
Somebody else’s day.
These two sentences describe that half-wearied, half-ecstatic feeling of travel. Set near the beginning of the book, they also introduce the nearly Whitmanian sweep – from sea to shining sea – that the entire collection will reach. But as the poem proceeds, the two coasts turn out to correlate with the doubleness of grief, the feeling of having one’s attentions, emotions, and loyalties divided between the living and the dead. Here’s the third quatrain:
I’ve been on the run since
He stopped drawing breath.
You want to be with me?
Boarding pass is my answer.
Travel might be a means of escape, an attempt to outrun grief, but this escape might also keep emotional bonds alive: waking up in “somebody else’s day” might mean to open one’s self to the life of another, whether living or dead.
Twin Cities gathers much of its strength from the imaginative compassion with which the poet cleaves her story of loss to other stories. Many of the most powerful poems in the book deal with the eeriness of living in a nation waging wars halfway across the world. “Pierce County,” for example, portrays a mother and daughter whose father and husband has been killed overseas; the poem draws intentional parallels with, and then diverges from, narrative threads in other poems which a reader might take to be more explicitly autobiographical. Two of the most powerful lyrics in the collection, “To a Soldier” and “The Army You Have,” address a friend of the poet’s in the military, Lt. Col. Edward Ledford. The latter begins as a letter to Ledford, and then, in one of Muske-Dukes’ characteristic doubling maneuvers, mirrors the opening section with a poem that Ledford wrote (one in which he rearranged the dismayingly bumptious remarks of Donald Rumsfeld). “The Army You Have” ripples with righteous indignation, and yet it avoids the self-satisfaction of so many protest poems. In this poet’s estimation, living a conscientious life during wartime means remaining torn between the comfort of our lives at home and the crises that exist abroad and, in fact, in the homes of our friends and neighbors.
For all of the pain and loss in this book, Muske-Dukes continually nuances and brightens the tone with humor, and with praise. As the author of four novels and a memoir, she has a sharp eye for characters and their foibles. In fact, she can conjure up an amusing and detailed portrait with a few syllables, as when she describes a “cracked ex-shrink” or an “Auto-Patriot.” The attentiveness that produces such satirical caricature also tends toward affection. Take the short poem titled “New York,” a speedy chronicle of zipping around the city. Here are the final eight lines:
Starbucks – cab downtown, cab uptown –
Fake sugar, sirens, drunk Library Lions, views
Of the river. Between two: a miracle.
One serious kiss is a city. One.
Chador-clad woman reading Calvino
On the A train. The One City, divisible.
I’ll stand by the kiss & Invisible Cities that
Woman is reading. Pal, they are saving us.
The clipped lists and the jump-cut sentence fragments at the beginning of this passage convey the colorful, rushing, constantly shifting surfaces of Manhattan traffic. Then, without losing that light touch, much less turning somber or didactic, the poem deepens. The image of the kiss may seem cheerful enough, but it turns out that so much depends, for the speaker and for all of us, upon that kiss: “one serious kiss is a city.” Our whole fabric of collective life, the poem implies, rests upon Eros, as personified by that kissing couple, and also upon the creative imagination, as embodied by Italo Calvino’s classic fable of the cities described by Marco Polo. While the speaker seems to remain joyful about the fleeting details she renders, that joy gains depth and vitality from being precarious, or even threatened: the details are “saving us.” In their unobtrusive way, Muske-Dukes’ city scenes imply their own imminent loss. They seem to implore us “to love that well, which thou must leave ‘ere long.”
Many contemporary poets build their books around linked themes and motifs. But in Twin Citiesthe plotting and patterning do more than simply create a web of connections for a reader to follow: they portray and give shape to a vision, one in which people and places are perpetually connecting and dividing, as the real and the imagined, the familiar and the alien, the living and the dead, entwine and fray apart again. The repetitions of key words and themes never appears redundant or willful, because they derive not from a limited palette, but from a unified core of obsessions. That wholeness feels real because it remains unsettled, elusive. Like the fabric of any individual’s experience, or like the map of any city, the shape of this book shifts and recombines when seen from alternate perspectives. But at the same time, the poems stay firmly grounded in their emotional depths. And this is what makes Muske-Dukes such a vital poet. If her masterful work grows from and returns to that divided metropolis at the center of the country, so it finds its roots in our most central and enduring passions.