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About Carol Muske Dukes


Copyright © 1989
by Carol Muske
University of Pittsburgh P
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Many contemporary poems stage a war between simple and complex styles — a battle in which "simplicity" incarnates the virtues of nature, and "complexity" bears the curse of the sterile and the insincere. Carol Muske, however, nimbly negotiates between these two poles. Though she tends to be straightforward, her fourth poetry collection, Applause, also risks artifice, relinquishes plainness and reaches toward the rhetorical. She tempers glib candor with a recognition that language is inevitably impeded and enriched by all that resists easy saying. — Wayne Koestenbaum, New York Times Book Review

Copyright © 1975
by Carol Muske Dukes
U of Pittsburgh P
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Lies, wishes, fantasies — all the weaponry of compassionate imagination at war with society — deploy with delicious satire in Muske's first book. — Library Journal

Dear Digby
Copyright © 1989
by Carol Muske Dukes
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Miss Lonelyhearts comes of age in this novel — anarchic, energetic, heady: rude and poetic — take your choice of adjectives but read the book! — Fay Weldon

Carol Mukes-Dukes, one of our most gifted poets and critics, has here turned her talents to fiction, and the result is by turns moving and amusing, and always engaging. — T Coraghessan Boyle

Pull up your socks, Rabelais! Pack your suitcase, Swift! Get out of the road, Miss Lonelyhearts! ... Carol Muske-Dukes has written a hilariously comic novel about men, women, and journalism whose harpoon leaves no ox ungored or cow unscarred. — Leo Braudy

Carol Muske-Dukes is acerbic, original, surreal, bizarre and utterly engaging. To read Dear Digby is to simultaneously reach for the jar of painkillers and laugh yourself into a giddy stupor. — Carolyn see

Carol Muske-Dukes' sizzling debut is a tragic-comedy at its best. ... This is a wonderfully written novel! — Howard Norman

Funny and touching about women and craziness. It's Nathaniel West with better jokes. — David Freeman

Carol Muske-Dukes depicts a touching world where sane and insane converge, producing a kind of literary King of Hearts. ... This is the saddest, funniest, most irreverent novel I've read in years. — Mary Morris

Dear Digby's vitality is infectious. ... filled with great wisecracking humor. ... It is a comic testament to the crazy hopefulness of women. — Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Gently satiric ... sassy ... thrives on wisecracks and one-liners. ... This nifty contrivance of a novel well embodies its anarchic spirit. — Kirkus Reviews

Muske-Dukes is a fine stylist. Her sculpted images and energetic prose make her storytelling vivid and compelling. — Los Angeles Times Book Review

Dear Digby is a hilarious romp, even with its serious undercurrent. — Modern Maturity

If books were food, this one would be a Snickers candy bar: full of nuts, hard to put down, quickly consumed ... Dear Digby is lipstick slapstick ... a ribald romp ... [but] the thought lingers that "crazy" behavior can spring from truths, not delusions, and is worthy of our serious attention. — St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Dear Digby is about love and forgiveness, written with wit and style. ... Non-exclusionary, very human ... refreshing. — San Diego Tribune

Carol Muske-Dukes has written a zany, late-twentieth century Miss Lonelyhearts. ... A fast-paced romp through a few months of the life of Willis Jane Digby ... a very entertaining read. ... Ultimately, Dear Digby is an optimistic answer to the grimness of Miss Lonelyhearts. — San Francisco Chronicle

Muske-Dukes portrays her characters with oddball humor as well as humanity. Dear Digby is filled with comic flights grounded in social issues. ... One finishes Dear Digby ... moved ... admiring. — New York Newsday

Funny, sad, and highly recommended. — Library Journal

This silly, sentimental valentine of a book is saved by Muske-Dukes's natural flair for comedy. — Publishers Weekly

...a truly original work of fiction, something fresh — the exploration of a subculture that's baffling, often intimidating, to most of us, and usually ignored by American literary novelists. — Tom DeHaven, New York Times Book Review

Life is no picnic for Willis Jane Digby. The heroine and narrator of Carol Muske-Dukes's entertaining first novel, Dear Digby, edits the letters column for Sisterhood magazine ("a bimonthly cross between a feminist Time and a liberated Ladies Home Journal with an all-woman staff"); lately the letters, particularly those from both male and female crazies, have begun to drive her, well, crazy. She's begun to see something of herself and her own perceptions of the world in letters from, for example, a woman who puts cat food in her husband's cereal every morning, or a woman who writes to complain of being sexually harassed by the bald man on the label of a cleaning product. Digby, like Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts, her literary ancestor, finds these missives from the outer limits of sanity less and less amusing; she begins to take them seriously. On days when she's feeling "in the mood to respond to the Loonies," she dons a tuxedo and a pair of floppy rabbit ears. The outfit makes her feel "like a radio tower....I pull everybody in" and, at the same time, protected. "People look, laugh uncertainly, then watch their step with me."....Dear Digby is a blend of social satire, war between the sexes and mystery thriller. In part, the book is a paean to the virtues of having a "crazy safety valve," particularly for women. The unusual letters Digby publishes are intended to show how women who are "not on the political barricades" have found ways to deal with their frustrations. "Male crazies," Digby explains, "come in predictable (often boring) wrappers, but the women are chattier, more distracted from the solemnity of dementia...weirdly hopeful in a hopeless world....[Muske-Dukes] has written a novel full of sharp insights and surprising images....She is particularly good at writing amusing hit-and-run portraits." — Stephen McCauley, New York Times Book Review

Muske-Dukes is a fine stylist. Her sculpted images and energetic prose make her storytelling vivid and compelling....[her] brilliance...lies in its disturbing redefinition of an American vocabulary. What we had called Manifest Destiny, rugged individualism, freedom...was by another name, loneliness, alcoholism, and the edge of madness. — Linsey Abrams, Los Angeles Times Book Review

Once you've opened Dear Digby, it has to be sandblasted out of your hands before you can resume anything resembling normal life. — The Washington Post Book World

Life After Death
Copyright © 2002
by Carol Muske-Dukes
Random House
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"Why don't you just die?" Boyd Schaeffer asks her husband, Russell, one night during a fight.
The next day, he does just that. Russell was rich, sensitive, charming, but always unreliable and it is not clear to Boyd what emotional legacy his untimely death has bequeathed her.
Boyd already has a complicated relationship to death. A former obstetrician, she fled both her profession and New York City when one of her patients died. Back then, she'd escaped with Russell to settle in Minnesota. Now, she embarks (along with her small daughter) on a journey into the underworld — ajourney of grief, self-reproach, and self-discovery so profound and surprising that her individual life in its quiet midwestern setting takes on the universal lineaments of myth. Boyd's companions on this journey into the shadow world between existence and nonexistence include a lonely undertaker; an unconventional embalmer, who demonstrates his trade for her; and her own daughter, who offers a child's instinctive wisdom about life's mysteries. With their help and her own persistence and courage, Boyd begins to understand that endings are often also beginnings, that the Book of Life and Death is constantly being rewritten before our eyes. — from the jacket

Carol Muske-Dukes's writing is filled with poignancy and humor, achieved through her understanding of what it means to encounter death through the peculiar circumstance of being alive. — Steve Martin

In her passionate novel Life After Death, Carol Muske-Dukes takes us right up against the edge where all lives end. Her prose is stunning, as always; and her fusion of grief and laughter and rage is extraordinary. — Ursula Hegi

Daring and full of surprises, this story takes on the big questions and holds them up to the light, examining them, shifting them. We see life after death and life before death from many angles. In scenes rendered with crisp, lucid prose, we are given a range of perspectives on being human; some are recognizable and some are entirely new. — Elizabeth Strout

Life After Death is a brave novel that offers a panorama about love, hate, birth, and death. Carol Muske-Dukes tells her story in scintillating nuances and shades, for it is her contention that nothing certainly not death is ever black-and-white. — Lisa Zeidner

Muske-Dukes, who is also a poet (An Octave Above Thunder, etc.), has shaped an exquisitely written tale with raw emotional appeal, a deeply humanistic story of death, grief and survival. 5-city author tour. — Publishers Weekly

As in Saving St Germ (1993), her characters are charismatic, and her musings on grief, ritual, the quandaries of abortion, and questions of responsibility charge this riveting, gently humorous, and prismatically beautiful novel. — Booklist (starred review)

... her latest work of fiction is filled with lyric and graceful moments. — Kathryn Harrison, New York Times Book Review

Married to the Icepick Killer
Copyright © 2002
by Carol Muske-Dukes
Random House
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Poetry and Hollywood seem like the ultimate odd couple, and once upon a time the accomplished poet, novelist, and critic Carol Muske-Dukes might have agreed. But no longer.
This is a collection of real-life adventures and meditations on literature and landscape. In Married to the Icepick Killer, Muske-Dukes explores the uniquely Southern Californian approach to poetry, including the random appearance of poems by Emily Dickinson and others on L. A. billboards; the hiring of poet-consultants to “top off” the final scene of a submarine action film; and the wonder of teaching a genius surfer poet. She also illuminates the pure poetry of falling in love with actor David Dukes, who introduced her to the City of Angels and its poetic paradoxes. Poets from Dickinson to Brecht, Robinson Jeffers, Arna Bontemps, and Randall Jarrell make appearances in these pages, and are seen in rapid close-up as the author reveals her talent as “camera,” witness, and learned and intrepid adventurer and social critic.
Muske-Dukes is a wise and hilarious diviner of correspondences and contradictions. In Married to the Icepick Killer (the title is taken from Muske-Dukes’s wry, loving remembrance of her late husband’s exceedingly varied career), she provides a geographical (and commercial) context for cultural counterpoint and shows how it both complements and collides head-on with a poet’s sensibility. — from the jacket

If poetry thrives on solitude and odd brushes with reality, what better place for a poet than Los Angeles, where no one knows you exist and your neighbor’s garden fence is topped with multiple copies of Michelangelo’s David? In these clever, engaging, beautifully written essays, Carol Muske-Dukes writes of teaching poetry to surfers, living on a street that regularly turns into a movie set, and staying loyal to the word in the kingdom of the visual. — Katha Pollitt, author of Subject to Debate

A modern-day Poetics for Los Angeles and beyond, Married to the Icepick Killer is funny, tough, learned, and lyrical. Whether reporting on the breaking news of a Grecian ode or the semiotics of a cocktail party in Brentwood, Muske-Dukes is scarily smart, and wise. — Sandra Tsing Loh, author of A Year in Van Nuys

A writer of depth, precision, and wit in her poetry and novels, which include Life after Death, Muske-Dukes turns out to be a piquant essayist. — Booklist

An Octave Above Thunder
Copyright © 1997
by Carol Muske
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An Octave Above Thunder presents a collection of poems spanning more than twenty years in the career of Carol Muske, who has won acclaim for work which marries sophisticated intelligence, emotional resonance, and technical craft. What most distinguishes Carol Muske’s poetry is her awareness of the complicated web into which the personal and the political, the familial and the feminist, are woven. Filled with audible contemplation — invocation, echo, dreamsong, dirge — Muske’s lyrical precision, assured touch, and exacting clarity make her one of the most talented poets of her generation. — from the jacket

[T]he current collection includes the terrific new sequence from which the book takes its title, the ten-part poem "An Octave Above Thunder." Beginning in a storm cellar in Minnesota, where her mother's inexpert recitation of poetry triggers the poet's meditation on poetic voice, the sequence zigzags across time and space: a stunt horse trained to fall on a Santa Fe movie set shows the poet "how to unbalance what is built into the heart"; a wild and potentially suicidal car ride through Western mountains reminds her "You just slide out of the self — then fly." It ends with a nod towards Marina Tsvetaeyeva — a line ("The poet's voice is heard a long way off"), an evocation of her suicide, and the enigma of translation, which allows individual words, but not the poet's inimitable intonation, to pass through the barrier of separating languages. "Let us praise a long way off, the long shadows / in a poet's voice," Muske writes.
Where are Muske's shadows? Her poetry seems often to try to find transcendence in the midst of injustice, cruelty, and failures of human spirit; in the violence of Los Angeles, of the war in Czechoslovakia, of the inmates and gang members and "troubled youth" whose participation in poetry workshops is chronicled in a number of these poems. — Hungry Mind Review

The poet who walks these pages isn't a poet of ecstasy and exuberance but, in a lineage that extends back in this century to the later Yeats, a poet of responsibility. Her diction is clear and distinct; her stanzas are well formed and Cartesian; her poems develop with a kind of classical inevitability; and, especially in her more recent work, she occasionally exhibits a full-blown, stately formalism.
An Octave Above Thunder presents a collection of poems spanning more than twenty years in the career of Carol Muske, who has won acclaim for work that marries sophisticated intelligence, emotional resonance, and technical craft. This volume brings together new poems and a generous selection of work from Muske's five previously published collections....In a poem called "Dream" in Carol Muske's new book, the speaker finds herself "locked out, / on the snowy fire escape, looking through / the glass at my life." This image offers a defining metaphor for the rest of the book. An Octave Above Thunder is a volume of new and selected poems culled from over two decades of writing; it's an act of self-scrutiny by a poet in midstream and also an invitation to readers to peer over her shoulder and look at what she has made of herself as a writer, to think about her choices and compulsions and trace her evolution. — New York Times Book Review

Poetry of beauty and integrity that tells the truth of art. — The Nation

Ah, that wonderful, rare thing: a poet who has the ability to deepen the secrets of experience even while revealing them. — Los Angeles Times Book Review

Red Trousseau
Copyright © 1993
by Carol Muske Dukes
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Carol Muske has been called one of the best poets of her generation. The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Carolyn Kizer, commented that her technical dazzle and virtuosity are "one of a kind: Mozartian." The poems in her new collection, Red Trousseau, use Los Angeles as a symbol for the seduction of appearances; in the title poem, reality crosses from the Wallace Stevens notion of the sun "hovering in its guise of impatient tribunal" to a director's reshooting of a tarnished sunset, so that "the scene, infinite, rebegins." In Carol Muske's work, red, blue, and yellow dominate, serving to link such disparate things as a soundstage's fake prie dieu, a precinct station map of gang activity, and a schoolgirl's model of the planets, all of which take on the red of Salem burnings, the self-immolation of a political dissident in Prague, and Eros itself, moving like a red shadow over the body of love. Fate in Red Trousseau is drawn by a biochemist as a chemical, recodable spiral inside us, looping back and forth like a mobius of DNA or a movie reel; like a director or a lover, a rebeginning. Muske's Hollywood, also deriving much of its spiraling energy from another modernist, Marianne Moore, circles around its version of reality, infinitely rebeginning, until it becomes wholly the form. Life is made into an object — beautiful, but no longer life. Until, of course, the writer begins a new story, spiraling around a new apprehension of the world that is dangerous, political, and most of all, erotic. Stylistically brilliant and emotionally resonant, the poems in Red Trousseau display the work of a master poet at the peak of her craft. — from the jacket

Carol Muske-Dukes achieves the insight, emotional accuracy, and terrifying sureness of moral discernment she has always sought. She surveys human relations with an acid clairvoyance through which the reckless currents of personal and cultural history course, ripping away all but the essential tones of the human conversation. — Jorie Graham

Muske's poems have an eerie style and wit; they glow with a sophisticated intelligence that is elegantly displayed in deft word choice and nimble technical effects. — Library Journal

... pure, taut style. — Publishers Weekly

The world in Red Trousseau is also dark and threatening. Carol Muske elects to confront it directly in order to clarify, neutralize and, where possible, transform it. Her intention is announced in "To the Muse," the powerful opening poem, in which a "drunken girl," dancing topless on a pleasure boat before an audience of sailors on an aircraft carrier, initiates a meditation on "the sex of politics," the nature of narrative, war and the subjugation of women....This collection oscillates between "the worst of it" and the dream of trying somehow, through intelligence, understanding and imagination, to "make it right."....Ms Muske's metaphorical explorations and interrogations unfold swiftly, often in the form of sequences. "Red Trousseau" — the title alludes to a witch's execution at the stake, "the flames wrapped / about her like a red trousseau" — is a five-part sequence in which the mundane reality of a man and a woman seated at a table dissolves in the intensity of the speaker's revivification of a martyred woman of the past. — New York Times Book Review

Saving St Germ
Copyright © 1995
by Carol Muske Dukes
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Having made her fictional debut with a book so compulsively readable "it has to be sandblasted out of your hands" (The Washington Post Book World), Carol Muske Dukes gives us a new novel that is even more engrossing — and also funny, sad, and ceaselessly provocative. Esme Charbonneau is a brilliant chemist who teaches at the University of Greater California, in a suburb of Los Angeles. She's married to a technical director for television and has one child, Olivia, who has been described by one or two clinicians as "autistic," but who really isn't — she's an odd child, a creative child, definitely unlike other children; but not impaired, just indefatigably herself.
Esme has been chemically "deconstructing" the world for some time now. It seems she's taken refuge in chemistry psychologically to the extent that she is finding it harder and harder to stay focused on the "real" world. She can't stop taking things apart chemically — food, cosmetics, people's faces. What she is afraid is a kind of scientific nervous breakdown is, in fact, the very seeds of brilliant theoretical inspiration.
What happens to Esme is this: her marriage breaks up, her child gets sick, she has trouble keeping up at work, eventually she loses her job. The irony of her demise is that it comes at just the moment that she is strongest, most herself. She makes an important research discovery at the precise moment she is fired by her university. She discovers information about her past, renews her relationship with her mother, and reaches a point of insight into her child's character, as well as her own. What happens to Esme doesn't happen because she is crazy, but rather because she is a powerful, unusual, creative woman who begins to live her life the way she must, the only way she can. On the one hand, she is extraordinary. On the other, she is part of the new, growing class of "ordinary" women who are single mothers, heads of households, involved in careers. Where theoretical science and domestic life come together, where Esme carves out a life for herself and her daughter — that is where the heart of the story beats. Her eloquence misheard as madness, her most deeply held beliefs brought into question, Esme Charbonneau becomes as unlikely — and most appropriate — a heroine as we're likely to see for a long time, in this masterful novel whose subversive wit is edged with razors. — from the jacket

A prescient novel for the 1990s. — New York Newsday

Accomplishes just what art is supposed to accomplish: it makes the world new. — The New Yorker

Copyright © 2003
by Carol Muske Dukes
Random House
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Sparrow, a luminous new volume of poetry by acclaimed poet, novelist, and critic Carol Muske-Dukes, draws the reader into a mesmerizing world of love and loss. In the wake of personal tragedy, the death of her husband, Muske-Dukes asks herself the questions that undergird all of art, all of elegy. “What is the difference between love and grief?” she asks in a poem, finding no answer beyond the image of the sparrow, flitting from Catullus to the contemporary lyric.

Beyond autobiographical narrative, these are stripped-down, passionate meditations on the aligned arts of poetry and acting, the marriage of two artists and their transformative powers of expression and experience. Muske-Dukes has once again shown herself to be, in this profound elegiac collection, one of today’s finest living poets. — from the publisher

Marriage is a pact with an other both beloved and unknowable — and loss, therefore, means losing both what we know and what we can never circumscribe. Sparrow is a stunning elegy for the actor David Dukes, but like all great poetry, it reaches beyond the specifics of a life, or a death. In poems haunted by Lear and Godot, Catullus and Oscar Wilde, a chorus of shades, art’s animating phantoms, ghost this brooding, loving book into startling life. — Mark Doty

A private matter Sparrow may invoke, but it reaches to the center of so much loss — personal and public. — Adrienne Rich

Sparrow is an act of retrieval, a way of reviving David Dukes through memory. The lines of the poems are, in effect, life-lines, and within them he is brought back into a second life, one that will last.  Mark Strand

Sparrow is a powerful, compelling journey from the loss of a personal paradise to the regaining that follows. Carol Muske-Dukes shows us how grief can be stabilized by craft and sense brought to bear on anguish, one careful line of poetry at a time. — Billy Collins

Dedicated to her late husband, the actor David Dukes, Muske-Dukes's seventh collection of poems follows Married to the Icepick Killer: A Poet in Hollywood (a collection of critical and autobiographical essays) and the novel Life After Death, and is devoted to poems of mourning. ... The best poems capture the darkly ambiguous ruminations of a partner left behind, with an imagination has been turned upside down. ... It is a process that, often enough, readers will find tensely drawn and heartbreaking. — Publishers Weekly

Women and Poetry
Copyright © 1997
by Carol Muske Dukes
U of Michigan P
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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, New York Times Book Review

Copyright © 1985
by Carol Muske
University of Pittsburgh P
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The linkage of blood and blood; the hummingbird symbol of all that is luminous, swift and ephemeral; the light, sure touch — these are characteristic of Carol Muske's art. — Carolyn Kizer, New York Times Book Review

...honed and consciously crafted. ... she's discovered a way to work magic within the boundaries of technical achievement. 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. — Holly Prado, Los Angeles Times

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 thought-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 of 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, New York Times Book Review

Ironic yet sincere, meditative but oblique, ... [Muske is] never bombastic, isn't too self-consciously literary, understands form, doesn't make syntactic blunders, and is sparing in her use of adjectives. Surprisingly, however, despite such trendy credentials, she's much of the time very good. ... Theworks we encounter in this volume aren't just smoothly finished, they're often freshly imagined. ... Throughout, her explorations of often, by now cliched encounters (the raped friend, the wedding ceremony) are consistently interesting and lively. Most frequently, moreover, what makes them so is a carefullycultivated gift for phrase-making that converts accurate observation into decisive declaration. — Poetry

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