Poets and English professors hate cliches. They prefer the more precise, profound language of great writers who illuminate in some new way the oldest emotions on earth. Like love and grief.
Carol Muske-Dukes is both a poet and a professor. She heads the new doctoral program in literature and creative writing at USC, has published six books of poetry and three novels and finds pleasure in quoting, from memory, big chunks of Shakespeare, Rilke or Keats to punctuate her thoughts. Just the other day, in a conversation at her home, she reeled off Shakespeare's 16th sonnet in its entirety to help explain the nature of love and loss as she knew it until Oct. 9, 2000.
On that date, she says, all she thought she knew about love and death--"which are the poets' subject, for God's sake"--proved inadequate. On that day, her husband died.
The actor David Dukes was tall, lean, healthy, vital--in the prime of his career (and their relationship) at 55. When she kissed him goodbye at their Hancock Park house that morning, she thought he'd be home in two days.
Dukes flew to Lakeview, Wash., to film a TV show. He went to play tennis when he arrived. And he died on the court.
In real life, Muske-Dukes then discovered, cliches can be accurate. Truth is stranger than fiction. Art imitates life, sometimes predicts it. And grief?
"I had written many poems about it, had just finished a whole novel about it, for heaven's sake." But she didn't know it at all, she says. "Now I get it in a way I couldn't have before."
To pile bizarre upon tragic, it soon dawned upon Muske-Dukes that events she had conjured in her new novel were eerily similar to what had actually occurred.
"Life After Death," just out from Random House, is about the fate of a young couple when the husband dies unexpectedly in a tennis game. The bulk of the novel concerns the dialogue that continues between two lovers even after one of them dies. It is an emotional tale: part mystery, part meditation on grief, recovery and relationships. And, to make matters even more confusing for its author, her husband had read and discussed with her every aspect of the book over the five years it took her to write it.
It is an unthinkable scenario--that an author would actually create a fictional death and then have such a similar death occur in real life. And that the real-life victim should have participated, to some small degree, in the creation.
Muske-Dukes called Random House and asked them not to publish the book: It would be just too painful, she said. Then she reversed course:
"The book is fiction, the characters are imagined; the people depicted are in no way similar to, or connected to anyone who exists in real life," she said. "It would be absurd not to publish purely because of a single, although traumatic coincidence."
Besides all that, she said, sitting in the large Hancock Park home that is filled with mementos of her husband's distinguished acting career, "there are lessons to be learned from David's death. And if even one person can be helped by my discussing it, then I want to do it."
Again, she's conflicted. The brow furrows, the already intense voice sinks to a lower, more gravelly pitch. She's starting a book promotion tour, she says. She doesn't want the book pushed aside for shallow, sensationalized chatter on the nature of Dukes' death. On the other hand--her voice softens--her husband had read every draft. It was the last work they would share. By virtue of its timing, his death has somehow become a part of the book's birth.
"All right, let's talk about it," she says.
It is 10 months since the tragedy. She is devastated in a way she could not imagine when she wrote her novel about a woman bereaved. If she were writing it now, she would change certain things, she says. The heroine would not recover in quite the same way. "I had a kind of Keatsian take on death--you know his famous line: 'I'm half in love with easeful death ... "' Such poets' views are meaningless in the face of the real thing, she says. "Suddenly, the person who has defined your galaxy is gone. The solar system shifts. You are no longer in the same place vis-a-vis the sun. Your compass no longer points north. It is spinning."
The author, born in Minnesota, graduated from Creighton University in Nebraska and received a master's degree from San Francisco State. She was a respected, award-winning poet and teacher, living in New York, when she won a 1981 Guggenheim Foundation fellowship to study in Italy. It was there, through mutual friends, that she met Dukes, who was on location in the miniseries "The Winds of War." Dukes was a classically trained actor who performed Shakespeare on the London stage and on Broadway, who also played award-nominated roles in such Broadway shows as "Amadeus", "M. Butterfly," "Bent" and "Frankenstein." He moved easily between theater, film and TV, with small-screen roles throughout the years in such productions as "War and Remembrance" and the series "Sisters" and "Dawson's Creek."
In a magazine article, Muske-Dukes once described the magic of their Italian tryst, which led to a bicoastal romance, which led to marriage in 1983. It was the second marriage for both, and Muske soon moved to Los Angeles. Her first book of poems had been published in 1975, at which point she started winning what was to become a lengthy series of awards, prizes and fellowships.
At his death, Dukes had been flying between Los Angeles (to be with his family), North Carolina (for his recurring role in "Dawson's Creek") and Washington, for his miniseries role in Stephen King's "Rose Red."
"There was no pain, no illness, no hint that anything was wrong," Muske-Dukes recalls. "He was very athletic."
The author and the couple's teenage daughter Annie were drying dinner dishes in the kitchen on the evening of Oct. 9. A nurse from a Washington hospital called to say that Dukes was ill and being treated by doctors. For a few minutes, the nurse gave updates on the phone. Suddenly, she said good-bye. Moments later, a doctor called to say Dukes had died.
"My daughter and I are standing there in complete shock when the phone rings again. It's the medical examiner's office in Pierce County, Wash., wanting to know if my husband has a personal physician there.
"Now we should all know this for future reference," Muske-Dukes says, leaning forward in the overstuffed living room sofa. "If a loved one dies out of state like that, and doesn't have a personal physician, the body is taken away by the coroner's office.
"Of course I didn't know what it meant when I said he didn't have a doctor there ... It meant they would do an autopsy without informing us or asking our permission. We wanted to see him first, say good-bye when he still looked like himself. He was wearing his knee brace, which he always wore when playing tennis, and his white socks. It broke my heart that Annie and I couldn't just hold him and say goodbye. They denied us that."
John Howard, Pierce County chief medical examiner, said his office was "entirely within its rights" to remove the body and deny a visit by Dukes' family. "We do not have facilities for that," Howard said.
Muske-Dukes eventually asked UCLA pathologist Dr. Michael Fishbein to review the Pierce County medical examiner's findings. Fishbein, professor of medicine and pathology and head of autopsy at UCLA Medical School, says he reviewed "both the report and the glass slides. My findings were the same, but my interpretation was different."
He found that Dukes suffered from occluded coronary arteries, showed evidence of a previous, so-called "silent" heart attack and although he worked out regularly and pursued a hectic schedule--he was "a walking time bomb," the doctor told his widow.
"He hadn't a clue about any of it," Muske-Dukes says. "He had no pain, no symptoms." And so their lives together continued at break-neck speed--one of the few things she said she would change, "if we had it to do over again."
"We were moving so quickly that it seems to me we never got a chance to really celebrate the extraordinary richness of our lives together," she says. "I mean we did it, but in such a casual way. It's a great lesson to me now. Unfortunately, he is gone.
"But I realize that I must stop to appreciate what is immediately in front of me, at a given moment. My daughter, for example. I understand now how her father lives in her, how she relates to each of us still."
It is obviously wearing on Muske-Dukes to discuss all this. The subject of the interview was supposed to have been her new novel. In reviews, the New York Times found it "filled with lyric and graceful moments that seem far more accomplished than the plot they adorn."
Newsday called the book "luminous ... an astonishing meditation on love and bereavement." The San Diego Union-Tribune described it as "uneven but deeply touching." No one realizes more than the author that whatever the critics say, this book will remain a landmark in her life, the beginning of a transition.
Just before her husband of 18 years died, she says, she had begun to write about the resonance between the two of them. She had written poems that celebrate their relationship; had written a one-man play, called "Dukes With an S," which he had planned to perform.
"I had never done that before, talked about our lives together. I wish I had done more, but at least he got to read them."
And she will do more, she says, "That is, if I live long enough .... You never know about that, do you?"