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Carol Muske-Dukes and the Art of Empathy

ISSUE:  Summer 2015

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 SlateonDecember 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. Her essay “What Is a Poem?” in David Citino’s anthology The Eye of the Poet gives one of the most eloquent and exacting descriptions there is of how poetry’s transformative work is accomplished. She quotes Horace, “Let empathy prevail and lead the listener’s / Heart,” then she extends his definition of poetry:

It is interesting that Horace chooses empathy, the ability of the self to identify with other selves, with universal human delight and suffering, as the primary requirement of art. (“If you would have me grieve, / Then first feel grief yourself.” Horace believes in life experience—and good readers.) In fact, what takes place in a poem is a kind of conversion process—the reader’s attention approximates the attention enacted within the poem, the reader participates as witness, the reader finally “becomes” the voice speaking the poem. 

Muske-Dukes’s writing has been particularly keen in its attention to the issues of women’s rights and the pervasive violence against women around the world. Her poem “Beirut, 1983,” from her most recent collection of poems, Twin Cities, looks with subtlety at a Time magazine photograph from the seemingly endless strife in the Middle East. Its linking of two women’s experiences, so remote from each other, brings the reader into a profound moment of shared and complex grief. The poem’s exacting focus and haunting repetitions convey identification and sorrow without any of the self-consciousness that can sometimes undermine a poem attempting to show what compassion can do at its artistic best. 

Beirut, 1983

The baby was lifted in its flowing shroud
And carried through the red-lit streets,
Floating above the raised fists of men
In headcloths. The wrapped body a cloud,
Pall burden so light, it seemed weightless
Crowning the mad cortege. That shape

Once living in her arms—that shape
I mirrored, newborn at my breast. Shroud
So light it became an unsupportable weight,
As TIME fell open before me. I saw the street
Going up in flames, but couldn’t see, in the cloud
Of fire, her face. What dark veil or wall of men

Hid her? TIME opened to the images of men.
I couldn’t see her; just her grief, unraveling shape,
White streaming from the breast. That cloud
Of chants, bitter witness to the small shroud
Held high. She stood away from the fiery street—
The monument of her shadow, that weighted

Absence. Who shrugged the machine gun’s weight,
Wrenched from her the stopped heart? Which man
Explained their intent? Did she cry out, over street
Sounds unheard, as they lifted the bloodied shape
From her embrace? Sirens, miles of shrouded
Windows, drone of a bomber above the clouds—

Hearts: Flaming paint on the fuselage. A cloud
Of dust blurring the camera lens. Drifting weight
Of dark. Night shoulders the remains of day, shroud-
Lit moon. Then TIME opened, with men
Carrying the future, its lit fuse, that infant shape
Held up like a bomb spinning over bombed streets.

Nothing to say: mother, reader of TIME. Streets
I’d never walked, people and cries, a cloud
Of broken stares, hovering over her nursing shape,
Bent, clinging to the small lifeless weight.
I knew her milk still flowed, unsummoned. Men
With guns stood at her door, opening the shroud.

The poem steadies the reader in part by what one begins to recognize as the form of a sestina, with its six repeating end-words—an ordering made even more arresting in its effects by the rhyme of two of the repeating words, “shroud” and “cloud.” A strict sestina would end with a final three-line stanza in which each line contains two of the repeating words, but in this poem it feels entirely right that the sestina’s ordering remains unfinished, its cry not brought to closure, but left open, like the poem’s image of Time magazine fallen open to the heart-stopping photograph of loss. 

Muske-Dukes’s third book of poetry, Wyndmere, contains the poem “China White,” an earlier rendering of this kind of opening, despite barriers of space and time, to the experience of another. The speaker is a young woman addressing a former schoolmate who was a close friend: 

China White


Lately your eyes watch me
out of animal eyes,
out of the sad clerk’s eyes
at the makeup counter.
She didn’t have the right shade
of shadow, but I charged to my account
the kind of green I chide myself with.

I kept thinking—
Why did you take so long to cry?
You were just fifteen
when it happened.
Still, you insisted on indifference,
like the Stoics, you said. 

Next day, in class, leaves fell
from your Latin book.
He had gloves on, you said later,
when I held you, in that strange room
where you finally wept. 
There were leaves beneath,
I couldn’t breathe.

As usual, I got you laughing—
we made up our eyes,
you disembodied your gaze
with China White, and gray.

You didn’t cry again.
That night you sang the Magnificat
for Glee. It wasn’t in your voice
to rephrase the Virgin’s words
but there’s a part where she accepts it,
accepts the miracle they want her body for

and your eyes came looking for mine
as you sang, moving slowly at first,
then faster: face to face to face.

The poem quietly starts to influence the reader with its intricate patterns—recurrences of sound, word, and rhythm that affect one subtly, viscerally, making the communication feel like a discovery one is drawn into almost before realizing it. The long I sound in both title words reappears with unusual frequency throughout the poem (“China,” “white,” “eyes,” “eyes,” “right,” “I,” “my,” “kind,” “I,” “chide,” and “myself” in just the first stanza), affecting us beneath consciousness at first—especially because the language feels entirely like natural speech, whose denotative meaning carries us along its surface. Other subtle patterns join these linguistic effects under the surface, most notably the gradual building up of long A repetitions, emphasized especially at the very end of the poem, along with the consonance of S and F sounds (“as you sang, moving slowly at first, / then faster: face to face to face”). None of the poem’s recurrences of sound break the spell of one voice speaking directly, across time, to another—on the contrary, repetition deepens the spell’s hold on us, the way repetition works on us in song or prayer. As we hear returning words and phrases (“eyes,” “face,” “accepts,” “out of,” “face to”), images come around again and again, similar yet slightly different in each instance, like the many sets of eyes: “your eyes,” “animal eyes,” “the sad clerk’s eyes / at the makeup counter,” “our … made up” eyes, the eyes scanning the audience at the end—“your eyes came looking for mine”—even the eyes of the “he,” though those eyes are absent from the victim’s spoken recollections, yet we feel them as a withheld image hidden among the specifics the girl relates:

He had gloves on, you said later,
when I held you, in that strange room
where you finally wept. 
There were leaves beneath,
I couldn’t breathe.

So much subtle repetition in such a brief utterance is part of why a great deal can remain unsaid and yet affect us powerfully. The “it” that took place is never directly described as rape, but we understand what happened to “you”—we feel the physical effects of the poem’s voice dwelling on certain sounds and words and phrases. Just what kind of “gaze” was “disembodied” with “China White, and gray” is also something that comes to us through subliminal linguistic impact, while drama has our primary attention. What “wasn’t in your voice” and isn’t quoted from the Magnificat (whose lyrics convey the voice of the Virgin Mary, “My soul doth magnify the Lord”) is apprehended with an immediacy that defies paraphrase, particularly in the repetition of the word “accepts” (“but there’s a part where she accepts it, / accepts the miracle they want her body for”). The pronoun referring to other in the poem shifts from “he” to “they” at the end, communicating a complex awareness beyond anything either girl could have articulated straightforwardly at the time the speaker is remembering. 

“China White” causes us to feel something of how sexual violation can induce disembodiment, a sense of obliteration, erasure of the self. Inside this poem is an unspoken story and also a wish to understand relationships between events and between people, as well as the need to know how sudden change accumulates meaning over time. These kinds of concerns appear throughout Muske-Dukes’s work, and are the core of her 2007 novel, Channeling Mark Twain, a book that keeps the mind reexamining drama and image, sound and phrase, in the search to understand how a life can be altered entirely in a moment.

Channeling Mark Twain contains scenes in activists’ apartments, bar booths, and college classrooms in the Manhattan of the 1970s, but its primary drama takes place in a poetry-writing workshop started by the novel’s protagonist at the Women’s House of Detention on Rikers Island. The novelmoves its reader through time and intricacies of plot, yet it also achieves at crucial moments the suspended effect more familiar in lyric poetry, whose aim is to hold time still before the reader. Poems by the women prisoners of the writing class are spliced in as links between the book’s chapters: disarmingly distinct voices whose words come through from lives frozen in time. With grace, grit, and radical compassion, the novel blends narrative and lyric techniques to sound registers of our society not generally listened to.  

In her poetry and fiction, Muske-Dukes balances gravity of subject with linguistic pleasure, handling suffering with the kind of respect Philip Larkin observed in Thomas Hardy’s work:

The presence of pain in Hardy’s novels is a positive, not a negative, quality—not the mechanical working out of some predetermined allegiance to pessimism or any other concept, but the continual imaginative celebration of what is both the truest and the most important element in life, most important in the sense of most necessary to spiritual development. 

This “sensitivity to suffering and awareness of the causes of pain,” as Larkin puts it—so crucial to Hardy’s poetry as well as his fiction, and to Larkin’s own poetry and fiction, too—is something Muske-Dukes also has worked across the boundaries of genre to convey. In Channeling Mark Twain, the writing carries signals from islands of interior life whose connections to the more familiar world are fragile, if not broken. Into the prison of the novel’s central setting—the colorless, barred, and sealed-off inside further cut off from the rest of society by the East River—ventures the protagonist Holly Mattox, a young writer who is aware that her idea for a poetry class in the prison might fail for any number of reasons. She feels a need to try to do something for the women inside; she is less aware of needing something they might be able to offer her.

In the first workshop meeting she explains the ground rules for how a writing class works, and her explanation is followed by a long pause—no one responds. “‘Look,’ I said, ‘the idea is that you write about what you know. Something you know.’” Another silence follows, then finally a woman called Baby Ain’t stands up and starts to recite a sequence of couplets nearly everyone in the room seems to recognize—beginning with “One fine day in the middle of the night / Two dead boys got up to fight”though no one has a clue as to where the poem came from.Only Holly, the prison guard, and Akilah—a black political activist there on a murder charge—are unfamiliar with the poem. Holly tries again. “What I meant was a poem that you write yourself. Something you remember from your childhood—or maybe something you saw once. Write about someone in your family. Add your words to a memory.” Some of the women have family they might write about; some have only pimps on the outside or drug connections; some have no one. Some have memories that don’t jibe with their prison sentences, others have been detained for months or even more than a year without a charge—lost in the faded red tape of the prison system—“falling off the calendar,” they call it. Holly, who has issues, political and private, with “the female body as destiny,” begins to see the more acute effects of that destiny on lives whose luck has been harder than her own.  

Carol Muske, as she was then known, started the first Free Space/Art Without Walls poetry workshop at the Women’s House of Detention on Rikers Island, running it from 1973 to 1983. Channeling Mark Twain is dedicated to the women who were her students there. The documented beneficial effects of such programs on prison morale, recidivism, and rehabilitation still need to be given more serious notice by our political representatives—certainly in New York and California, whose prison systems are notoriously overcrowded and dangerous—but throughout the country as well.

In the scene quoted above, Holly instructs her students to write about what they know, or remember, or saw once. Without the reader having consciously to attend to it at first, a story begins to unfold from this advice and gather suspense through events that only later in the book start to seem, upon reflection, different from one’s initial perceptions of them. What these women have observed in their lives before and during prison is riveting, but it has been questioned often—disparaged, denied, or proven wrong. It’s counterintuitive for them to accept Holly’s suggestion that what they have seen might be taken seriously, or would, in any case, be wise to write down, in this place where being a witness can have violent consequences. What is seen and what is told: These returning concerns help to create a lyrical ordering that counterbalances the novel’s forward movement. Through repetition of image, phrase, and syntactical structuring, an intricate network of emphasis appeals to the reader in understated yet palpable ways—a complex of shadowy currents working beneath the story’s drama. As with the repetitions and suppressions in “China White,” some recurrences reflect the power and also the danger of dissociation—the ways mental disconnectedness can be a survival mechanism but also risk an annihilation of self. 

Here is Muske-Dukes’s description of the “Bing,” as the solitary-confinement area is known to the prisoners on Rikers Island—alternatively described as “punitive segregation” by the prison administration—a place that practically requires a fracturing of awareness, if one is to endure time there. 

The Bing was an architectural migraine: a long straight corridor, bulb-lit, with steel doors on either side. Each door had an eye-level opening the size and shape of a mail slot. As the captain and I passed, the doors on either side shook with resounding blows and kicks, the hall rang with garbled shouts and accusations. 
Captain Amarillo stopped at a door midway down the corridor, shook out the waterfall of keys hung next to the nightstick on her belt, and opened it.
The cell was so small there was barely room to enter. A bald overhead bulb in its claw-socket burned with all-day-all-night energy.

The repetitions of the words “corridor,” “bulb,” “door,” and “shook”—along with the frequency of many more consonants than usual in such a short passage, and numerous single-syllable words bringing extra stresses in—these effects, in conjunction with the emphasis on sounds of struck metal, and rhymes and partial rhymes (“stick” and “kick”; “slot” and “shout”; “corridor” and “door”; “cell” and “small”; “bing” and “long”; “bald” and “burned”; “claw” and “socket”), make the language of this scene much more jarring than the visual images alone, though the visuals are chilling enough. Before ever seeing the prisoner contained in the cell Holly is escorted to, one feels the raw nerves behind every door. 

The text of Channeling Mark Twain is preceded by a map showing the area where the Harlem River meets the larger East River, and where the East River surrounds Rikers Island. The novel’s initial sentence places us at the last bus stop before the long, solitary bridge across that river to the prison. In this and all her writing, whether it transports us to the Roman Republic or San Francisco’s Haight, Carol Muske-Dukes is looking for the bridge between outer and inner, an opportunity for witnessing that becomes conversion, attention paid through language managed so skillfully that it brings into us physical dramas and rhythms that allow readers to participate in a moment beyond self, through the current of empathy called for by Horace—a self-forgetful focus that lets us step outside of self, not to deny or cancel the self, but to enlarge it. 


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