Carol Muske Muske, Carol - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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."

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Choice (review date January 1976)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Sherod Santos (review date Spring 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1658 words.)

Jean Gould (essay date 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3184 words.)

Carolyn Kizer (review date 3 November 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 591 words.)

Sandra M. Gilbert (review date December 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 603 words.)

Holly Prado (review date 1 December 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 367 words.)

Stephen McCauley (review date 16 April 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 723 words.)

Linsey Abrams (review date 21 May 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 593 words.)

Wayne Koestenbaum (review date 24 September 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 583 words.)

Tom De Haven (review date 11 April 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 832 words.)

Sandra M. Gilbert (review date April 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 900 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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):...

(The entire section is 164 words.)