Carol Muske 1945–
(Full name Carol Anne Muske; also publishes under married name Carol Muske-Dukes) American poet and novelist.
The following entry presents an overview of Muske's career through 1994.
Muske's work is praised for its insights into daily life and close familial relationships. Generally writing from a feminist perspective, Muske is noted for her carefully constructed sentences, unique metaphors, and the use of autobiographical elements in her work. Holly Prado has written that Muske's "contemplation of experience is personal yet moves further, into the spiritual and philosophical."
Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, Muske began writing poetry when she was six years old. After earning her undergraduate degree at Creighton College in 1967, she received an M. A. in English and creative writing from San Francisco State College in 1970. Muske then continued her education at the University of Paris where she studied French literature; during this time she joined a travelling production of the musical Hair (1967) and toured throughout Europe and Russia. When she returned to the United States the following year, Muske settled in New York City where she attended poetry writing workshops, taught creative writing to inmates in New York prisons, and became an assistant editor at the literary journal Antaeus. Her first book of poetry, Camouflage, was published in 1975. The recipient of several prestigious awards and grants, Muske has also lectured and taught English at numerous universities throughout the United States.
The obliquely autobiographical verse of Camouflage reflects Muske's attention to word choice and unique turns of phrase. The poems in this volume deal primarily with the ways in which the speaker's "outer self" is shaped by the perceived need to conceal her tumultuous inner emotional life. Muske's second collection, Skylight (1981), examines ambivalent feelings in intimate relationships, using her own life—particularly her divorce from her first husband—as the source for poems that chart the love-hate nature of a marriage that ultimately dissolves. Portraying the significance of Muske's mother and grandmother, the poems in the first section of Wyndmere (1985) focus on the various bonds that united the three generations of women. In the book's later poems, Muske addresses such presentday concerns as her new marriage, the creative process, and the birth of her daughter. Although Muske uses slightly more abstract language in Applause (1989), the volume continues the examination of what are considered her signature themes: her past; the inner significance of her interpersonal relationships; and the need to appreciate beauty in a world beset by pain and suffering, which in many of the poems in this volume is represented by death from AIDS. Muske's first novel, Dear Digby (1989), tells the comic and poignant story of Willis Jane Digby, the Letters editor of a feminist magazine, who comes to identify with two of her more eccentric, perhaps "crazy," correspondents. The novel asserts that distinctions between "crazy" and "sane" are ultimately untenable and that everyone is more or less "insane." In the poetry collection Red Trousseau (1993), Muske uses witches and the Salem witch hunts of the 15th century as metaphorical devices with which she discusses the emotional vicissitudes of intimate relationships, attitudes toward abortion, and political protest. The poems both represent and examine the ways in which personal and political issues are inextricably bound. Muske's second novel, Saving St. Germ (1993), deals comically with serious themes. The story concerns a biochemist whose comfortable life in her laboratory and in the abstract realm of advanced scientific theory is disrupted by the dissolution of her marriage and the ensuing court battle for custody of her daughter. Muske's main theme in this work is the difficulty of integrating mind and body, intellect and emotions, interior life and the "real" world.
Muske's works have received generally favorable critical assessments. Most critics consider her mastery of form and her ability to convey both passion and self-analysis as among her strengths as a poet. Her early works, notably Camouflage, displayed her formal talent and earnestness, but not yet the integration of form with subject matter. Choice magazine suggested that her first volume showed "a wealth of promise, but … one looks forward to the next collection." Her later poetry builds on these strengths and adds a more sophisticated political dimension, examining the ways public reality and private inner life intersect and influence one another. Wayne Koestenbaum, in his highly favorable review of Applause, argued that the only fault he could find in her mature work is her "reliance on a vocabulary that gives too little tonal pleasure and on a stumbling, start-and-stop tempo. Some might call it concision; to me, it seems a refusal to leap…. I long to hear a phrase tumble beyond its limit." Reception of her novels has likewise been very positive, with reviewers praising her prose style but faulting some of her structural decisions. For example, while most commentators praise Dear Digby for its comic touches and its poignant depictions of quietly desperate lives, some critics have detected a certain ambivalence in the combination of approaches. Linsey Abrams asserted that "one wishes she had decided to write either a flat-out comic novel … or [a] more serious, psychologically acute story." Similarly, Tom De Haven has suggested that Saving St. Germ is an excellent novel marred only by a pat happy ending. He has argued that the novel's resolution is "an artistic false move by the otherwise rigorously unsentimental Ms. Muske Dukes."
Camouflage (poetry) 1975
Skylight (poetry) 1981
Wyndmere (poetry) 1985
Applause (poetry) 1989
∗Dear Digby (novel) 1989
Red Trousseau (poetry) 1993
∗Saving St. Germ (novel) 1993
∗These works were published under the name Carol Muske-Dukes.
(The entire section is 27 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Camouflage, in Choice, Vol. 12, No. 11, January, 1976, p. 1447.
[In the following review, the critic points to the strengths and weaknesses of Camouflage.]
First collections of poetry are always fascinating. Generally, there is a measure of promise as well as all the faults that occur when a complex art is newly explored by a novice. This is particularly true of Muske's collection [Camouflage]. Her prime gift at this stage is a strong feeling for vocabulary and an instinct for strong phrasing. What she must continue to develop is the concept of structure and the fusion of idea and form. Two of the works in the "Ice" sequence, "Freezing to death" and "A yoga class," demonstrate what she can do when her poetic elements come together in harmony. There is also a feel for characterization, particularly in "Swangsong" (perhaps the best work in this collection). The title poem may be a stanza short of fully working out a significant concept. The long sequence, "Salad days: Nebraska, 1964," busily entangles autobiographical swatches and adjectival phrases to the reader's severe disadvantage. At this point, Muske has a wealth of promise, but then so do a host of other currently published poets; one looks forward to the next collection.
(The entire section is 206 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Skylight, in Western Humanities Review, Vol. XXXVI, No. 1, Spring, 1982, pp. 54-8.
[Santos is an American poet and educator. In the following excerpt, he praises Skylight for its focus on love relationships between men and women.]
The two major concerns of [Skylight]—the revelation (both personal and didactic) of a feminist argument, and the painful exegesis of the love relationship between men and women—account for much of its anger and frustration, and for almost all of its best poems. It is a strong will that wrote much of this book, but it is also a poet who is not less interested in those moments when the will has been subsumed by what she calls, in one of her more moving poems, "the familiar carnage of love."
There are several poems which do not touch on either of those concerns, but they tend to be much less important by comparison. There is one cluster near the middle of the book—containing titles like "Real Estate," "Golden Retriever" and "Women's House"—which is, at best, only a humorous and witty digression from what is this book's really more serious intent. Lines such as "slide // with each slide of the old trombone, / be good to the bald, press up against / the ugly duck-like"—and these from a poem about life inside a women's prison, "Juanita talks / like a lady to a lady prisoner / who cut her baby up. Night struts in...
(The entire section is 1658 words.)
SOURCE: "Carol Muske," in Modern American Women Poets, Dodd, Mead & Company, 1984, pp. 320-29.
[Gould was an American biographer and author of children's literature. In the following essay, she discusses the ways in which Muske's life is reflected in her work.]
Like Freya Manfred, Carol Muske comes from Minnesota, where she was born on December 17, 1945, in St. Paul; and she, too, is of Czech origin on her mother's side, and partially Germanic-Scandinavian on her father's. However, the similarity between the backgrounds of these two poets has no bearing on their respective work. Indeed, considering the fact that both their maternal and paternal ancestries are so much alike, the contrast in the poetry of Manfred and Muske is amazing, and points up the individuality of each poet.
Carol Muske, according to her first volume, Camouflage, claims to regard her poetry "as a kind of protective coloration," and it is true that the reader catches only brief glimpses of her personal life, often obliquely, as in the title poem: not until the last stanza does the poet reveal herself, troubled, transforming her outer self into "a new species" to conceal the suffering of her inner being. There is a sense of power, of passion held in check by strong emotional control, by restraint in revealing all, which in turn lends an aura of mystery to her poems, luring the reader to return a second and...
(The entire section is 3184 words.)
SOURCE: "Motherhood, Magic, and Lavender," in The New York Times Book Review, November 3, 1985, p. 13.
[Kizer is an American poet who won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for her collection Yin (1984). In the following excerpt, she presents a largely positive review of Wyndmere and suggests that the volume may be a preliminary step prior to a truly great work.]
The first poems in Carol Muske's Wyndmere are concerned with her mother, a grandmother, a grandfather, in the new light of what it means to her to be a parent. This is a lighter book than Skylight, her previous work, not just in its length, but in that it doesn't contain those glittering arias that made us sit up and take notice. One senses the poet marking time as she stretches to her full stature. If Miss Muske takes her time, her next book will show the flowering. This one opens with "Wyndmere, Windemere"—Wyndmere the place in North Dakota where her mother was born. "Windemere," meaning "wind-mother," a lovely conceit, expresses the fragile and volatile nature of this most profound human tie—we know her intimately; we shall never know her.
The world's wrong, mother,
Shelley said it when, at the end,
he got it right. And you, who knew
every word of his by heart, agreed.
(The entire section is 591 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Wyndmere, in Poetry, Vol. CX-LVII, No. 3, December, 1985, pp. 163-64.
[Gilbert is an American poet, critic, and educator. In the following excerpt, she arques that despite its strengths, Wyndmere does not display Muske's full ability as a poet.]
Ironic yet sincere, meditative but oblique, "leaping" through "confessional," [Carol Muske] does what I suppose they tell young writers to do at Iowa (and I don't know whether or not she went there): she's 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. Wyndmere includes pieces on many standard recent topoi—the mother poem, the grandmother poem, the husband poem, the newborn child poem, the feminist revision of a fairytale, the poem to a former lover, the poem(s) about foreign travel, and so forth—but the works we encounter in this volume aren't just smoothly finished, they're often freshly imagined.
In section I of the book, for example, Muske associates her own initiation into poetry with her literary mother, who, when "The washed dresses stood on thin air, / … plucked them with distracted grace"; she associates her own growth with, that is, a punningly defined "windmother" who explained "'I'm a tough farm...
(The entire section is 603 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Wyndmere, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, December 1, 1985, p. 11.
[Prado is an American poet and novelist. In the following review, she lauds Muske's ability to combine technical literary skill with the passion needed to write vital, risk-taking poetry.]
Ah, that wonderful, rare thing: a poet who has the ability to deepen the secrets of experience even while revealing them. Carol Muske's third book of poems, Wyndmere, enchants—not with the sweetness of an unconscious sleeping beauty but with the glint and magic of a highly skilled writer who uses her knowledge deftly, pulling us in until we're thoroughly immersed in the alchemical brew of real poetry.
One of Muske's strengths is her ease in merging autobiographical detail with the inner realm of thought and feeling. 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. The first section of the book deals primarily with the past, emphasizing the importance of a mother and grandmother. Muske is less interested in simple influences on behavior than on powerful psychic exchanges: "… I read / because you said to … Poetry's the air we drown in together, / mother, poetry's the turning room, / the clear field mined with words / you read first…." Again and again, she returns to the effect of poetry on...
(The entire section is 367 words.)
SOURCE: "Love Letters from the Mad," in The New York Times Book Review, April 16, 1989, p. 13.
[McCauley is an American novelist, educator, and critic. In the following review, he explains why Dear Digby "doesn't add up to the sum of its many appealing parts."]
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...
(The entire section is 723 words.)
SOURCE: "Miss Lonelyhearts Meets the Feminine Mystique," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 21, 1989, p. 3.
[Abrams is an American novelist whose works include Charting by the Stars (1979) and Double Vision (1984). In the following review of Dear Digby, she argues that the novel's half-comic, half-serious style undermines the reader's identification with the protagonist.]
Dear Digby, the poet Carol Muske-Dukes' first novel, makes its most obvious literary reference to Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts. The impossible predicament of he, or in this case she, who must answer in print the painful cries de coeur of strangers is one of enduring interest. It's a story with a built-in irony: that mortals can petition only other mortals to redress life's wrongs. But the greater irony lies in the predicament of the respondent, who by definition is inadequate to the task. Inevitably, the story is his or hers.
Willis Jane Digby is the Letters editor for SIS (read Ms. Magazine), a glossy feminist bimonthly, whose staff biographies taken together read like a compendium of the women's movement in its heyday. We learn immediately, from Digby's first-person narration, illustrated by several of the spicier letters she receives (here termed "Ink Theater"), that a lot of the correspondence is from "crazy" people, many of them sexually fixated....
(The entire section is 593 words.)
SOURCE: "Distortions in the Glass," in The New York Times Book Review, September 24, 1989, pp. 50-1.
[Koestenbaum is an American poet, critic, and educator. In the following excerpt, he praises Applause and Muske's ability to combine simplicity and complexity, straightforwardness and abstraction.]
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.
Even the volume's first sentence shows Ms. Muske's desire to place poems at an oblique angle to her own "I," to disembody her voice, to speak and to watch herself speaking: "It's my old apartment, Gramercy Park, / but then it's not." The divisions that trouble her are sometimes metaphysical—"little 'you's and 'me's, / estranged suddenly from the vanity of their motion"—and sometimes historical. In "Monk's House, Rodmell," for example, she confirms (and questions) her own poetic vocation by visiting Virginia Woolf's house, where,...
(The entire section is 583 words.)
SOURCE: "For Love of a Protein Sequence," in The New York Times Book Review, April 11, 1993, p. 18.
[De Haven is an American novelist, screenwriter, and author of children's literature. In the following review of Saving St. Germ, he explains that the novel's "unconvincing, hurried conclusion can't spoil what in all other respects is a truly original work of fiction."]
"I've always believed that science requires its practitioners be in a state of despair, informed despair," says Esme Charbonneau Tallich, the narrator of Carol Muske Dukes's second novel, Saving St. Germ. The Harvard-trained biochemist is proof of her own hypothesis. For someone who longs only to "putter or theorize," and who often forgets she has a body as well as a mind, a job as well as a calling, a family as well as an advanced degree, the laboratory of daily life can almost seem like a torture chamber.
In Esme, Ms. Muske Dukes, the author of five books of poetry and a previous novel, Dear Digby, has created a character as likable as she is off-putting, with habits, quirks and observations that startle you with their strangeness but always feel true. Here's a woman who mentally builds "the chemical architecture of nicotine" when she craves a cigarette and "the skeletal structure of Tylenol" if she has a headache, a woman who likens marriage to "an unremitting gaze" and strolls home from work...
(The entire section is 832 words.)
SOURCE: "Family Values," in Poetry, Vol. CLXIV, No. 1, April, 1994, pp. 39-53.
[In the following excerpt, Gilbert faults the narrative obscurity of many poems in Red Trousseau, but praises the ways in which Muske "analyzes the politics and poetics of the family."]
[Carol] Muske is a writer of prose fiction besides being a poet; she has published two accomplished novels. So I'm particularly bemused when the basic plots, as it were, of some of the most ambitious pieces in this book [Red Trousseau] elude me in places: portions of the often powerful series of "Unsent Letters" with which the collection concludes baffle me because I'm sure I'm not grasping the situations out of which the works arise, and even the story line of the beautiful title poem, "Red Trousseau," could be clarified and sharpened. Yes, the latter piece begins with a man and a woman talking, and it isn't surprising that it turns into a meditation on witchburning since it features an epigraph from the notorious fifteenth-century treatise on that subject entitled the Malleus Maleficarum (Witches' Hammer). Nonetheless, the opening section strikes me as needlessly (albeit perhaps stylishly) provisional in its delineation of a relationship that is mysteriously central to the poem:
Because she desired him,
and feared desire, the room
(The entire section is 900 words.)
deCrinis, Mona. "You've Come a Long Way, Baby!" West Coast Review of Books 14, No. 5 (May-June 1989): 18-23.
Omnibus review of contemporary novels by women, including positive remarks on Dear Digby.
Review of Saving St. Germ, by Carol Muske. Kirkus Reviews LX, No. 23 (1 December 1992): 1462.
Positive review in which the critic faults Muske only for being too obvious with her affection for the protagonist.
Seaman, Donna. Review of Saving St. Germ, by Carol Muske. Booklist 89, No. 9 (1 January 1993): 790.
Brief, highly positive review.
――――――. Review of Red Trousseau, by Carol Muske. Booklist 89, No. 13 (1 March 1993): 1151.
Positive review of Red Trousseau.
Solomon, Charles. Review of Dear Digby, by Carol Muske, Los Angeles Times Book Review (15 September 1991): 10.
Brief review arguing that, despite "flashes of first-rate writing," the novel "fails because the author attempts to tell too many stories in too few pages."
(The entire section is 164 words.)