Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Carol Muske-Dukes and the Art of Empathy

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Carol Muske-Dukes and the Art of Empathy

Article excerpt

FORMER POET LAUREATE OF CALIFORNIA CAROL MUSKE-DUKES, A PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH and creative writing at the University of Southern California who has published fourteen books and edited two anthologies, called poetry "an act of attention" in a 2014 Paris Review interview, adding, "we're in a time where having an attention deficit is the norm. We're bombarded with images and information, but images and information are not knowledge."

Muske-Dukes has written poetry, fiction, and essays addressing a broad range of subjects-from John Keats's "This Living Hand" to Hollywood life on the inside- but what concerns her most is discovering how language used with precision and accountability can effect transformation. She has written, taught, and engaged in social activism, linking each of these efforts to the others. The witnessing power of her work is a reminder that writing of the highest order, involving all the subtleties necessary for making an unforgettable poem or story, can use those subtleties to face the most pressing and complex issues of our time. Consider, for example, her poem "Gun Control," which appeared on Slate on December 18, 2012. Its publication came only four days after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, an event that resulted in the deaths of twenty children and eight adults, including the shooter and his mother. The timing of the poem's appearance was a coincidence, but Muske-Dukes's sense of urgency about our country's stalled debate over gun regulation was not.

Gun Control


When the older brother, horsing around, opened fire

With the 12 gauge and shot his little brother in the back,

my Aunt Anna pressed her open

Hand over the wound, over the blown right lung.

Blood stuttered up

through her fingers. As he began to slide away,

she kept

her hand hard-flat against that death.

At Emergency, they had to pry

It away. He survived that night.

When he takes his shirt off today, at the lake,

You can see the bleach-white stretch where

No hair grows and the skin thins to

Her imprint-a hand-span-just under his shoulder

Where a wing, if we had wings, might begin to unfurl.


I said, "He's going to hurt someone"-and the Director,

As he had been instructed by those far above the precincts

of the Workshop, told me nothing could be done until he did.

So he wrote things that spun his hurt and jagged plan round

Each other like the knife feints of the blood-masked Jack

the Ripper-"surgeon in the bee-loud glade," he wrote.

If the blood jet was Poetry, Jack would sip demi-liters from

My neck and the neck of the girl sitting next to him.

He shouted out in my class that we were married, he

Would prove it "someday." Skipping his meds,

Flinging a lit smoke. At the campus bar, he

broke the bottle kept in his pack-vaulted

over to cut the bartender's throat. They tackled

him. But he shook free, reached for the gun,

ready to open fire. They called the Psych

Center there "Workshop East": I remember that.


Late at a Hollywood dinner party, he leaned in to me,

Hair over one eye, smiling in that boyish seductive style,

So familiar from the Big Screen. Seriously drunk.

He was telling me what he feared most "on this earth":

"Waking up in bed to find someone standing over me

with a gun." Later I heard how he did it-

In bed, pistol to his temple. When the man with the Glock

floated over him: he knew he was all he'd ever feared.

In her Paris Review interview, Muske-Dukes says poetry can "offer a bit of beauty and wisdom shaped from the chaos in which we live, or at least offer insight into the contradictory realities in which we live." Throughout her career, an ability to challenge violence with the power of empathy has brought about writing that shows how poetic attention can fix a moment of terror in the lens of illumination. …

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