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.
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. As with Donald Hall's Without or Ted Hughes's The Birthday Letters, the poems can vary widely in quality, and are best read as if constantly moving between verse memoir and poetry, with real people standing behind the poems' personae. And that is particularly apt here, as many of the poems knowingly engage Dukes's profession "You give me up/ You go away/ You walk on a stage/ and are re-made." Coming almost exclusively in quatrains, tercets and distichs, these 43 short lyrics are suffused with remembrances of daily married life, of "ow we ate together, slept together, sank/ into the distraction of distraction. Twenty years." Longing and grief produce concentrated moments of terse, wry observations on grief ("Death was a critic, like me./ Death could never be the actor "; "everyone, Catullus,// I mean everyone, tells her to shut the fuck up") and grasped-for metaphor: "the shadow of the parachute of/ my desire, this rip-cord of your photo-/ blink." The best poems capture the darkly ambiguous ruminations of a partner left behind, with an imagination has been turned upside down. In "A Private Matter" the speaker flits through the characters her husband still embodies in video images, but can't quite insert herself: "Serge cries, 'Red Seneca!' Laura is alone/ in the space station, weeping. I am not weeping./ I am emptying my pockets of my own monologues." It is a process that, often enough, readers will find tensely drawn and heartbreaking.