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."