Much of the critical acclaim that Carol Muske’s poetry has merited comes from the vivid language with which she explores family experiences. Although a feminist perspective flows throughout her poems, the ideas that are discussed are not limited to one point of view.
Published in 1975, Camouflage announced many of the themes that would emerge in Muske’s work. Many of the poems, such as “Swansong” and “Rendezvous with a Harp,” are autobiographical. Muske’s strength is such that she is able to elevate the specific details beyond the merely personal. “Swansong,” for example, speaks of a woman who taught ballet to children. She was quite in demand until a cab ran over her toe, ending her career. Totally dedicated to her work, she gave all she had, even after she could no longer dance:
She often wept, sipping brandy,nodding when the needle stuckon a crack in Romeo and Juliet.Those days we stood on ceremony.Mute sisters of the dance, we frozeholding second position till sixwhen the mothers came.
The young girls cannot understand the demands of one’s art or the sacrifices that it requires. The ballet teacher can no longer “speak” in the same way—that is, through dance. For their part, the children have not yet learned to speak.
Likewise, “Rendezvous with a Harp” demonstrates the extremes to which an artist is willing to go for the sake of the art. The player and the harp are almost at odds, in a kind of artistic struggle for dominance. The harp insists on its own selfhood, flying ahead of her as she plays.
Muske’s next collection, Skylight, continued her examination of the nature of art and the role of the artist. Within these familiar themes, Muske interweaves the male-female relationship, in all its complicated variety. “The Painter’s Daughter” sets the tone, telling readers that “It’s a kind of blindness.” Beginning by cataloging the painter’s use of images that he has used before in his work, the poet suggests that such limitation dulls the senses of the artist.
The poet says that she knows “the murder in a painter’s eye/ as he reaches for red.” The painter is her father, who has incorporated her face into his work, teaching her to see the world as he does:
The ventriloquism of color, he said.Purple and green bleeding through white.The plum split in the skeleton’s hand.See through the suspension, he saidand I see snow fences, the red skull of sun.
The poet reveals, at the end, that she has been revisiting a photograph, a tactic that tricks readers, who, all along, participate in the present-time of the reflection. The photograph continues to mislead those who see it:
Imagine my cries in the center of that sight.Though it appears we are carefree,in the photograph we look sleepy—just like any father and daughterour watching the sun go down.
The tension between what the daughter perceives in her own right and what the father wants her to see will bring about the end of the hierarchic nature of their relationship. Even parenthood culminates in a peer relationship between parent and the adult child.
Poems in Wyndmere spring from the conceit of “wind-mother,” the meaning of the title. Indeed, many of the images in this collection center on the mother-child bond, as fragile and unfathomable as it can be. The poem “Wyndmere, Windemere” brings this idea to the surface:
(The entire section is 1713 words.)