The perennial question, “What does it mean to be a Los Angeles writer?” is one of the many that Carol Muske-Dukes explores in her recent collection of essays, “Married to the Icepick Killer: A Poet in Hollywood.” Perhaps, when she describes herself as an “internationally unknown author,” she is taking a stab at answering it.
Of course, this is an understatement. Muske-Dukes is an accomplished, published novelist and poet who has received many an award and fellowship and is director of the graduate program in literature and creative writing at USC. She is an uncontested linchpin of the literary community in Los Angeles. But compared to the theatrical and celebrity-driven world of her husband, the late actor David Dukes, it must have felt like taking on the role of an undiscovered starlet, again and again.
The lurid title, reminiscent of “You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again,” belies the prose within. The essays, many of which appeared previously in the New York Times, are decidedly up-market. The themes run the gamut of societal and academic hot-button subjects: the never-ending rant against and appeasement of the constantly changing set of literary and academic standards in the modern world; a poet’s place in politics; politicians, particularly former President Clinton; poetry as a commodity in Hollywood; poetry as fad and marketing tool; and performance poetry, or what she terms “poetry karaoke.” She covers a lot of ground in small leaps, but the analysis of poetry, the poems themselves and a poet’s craft are at the core of these relatively short pieces.
The most inspired moments are those in which Muske-Dukes allows her natural irreverent playfulness to emerge, and usually they are in the context of a spill-the-beans titillating tidbit from her life as a wife to an actor and her status as a sought-after member of the literati.
In the essay “Two Poems: East and West, Right and Left -- Politics Through The Eyes of Poetry,” she describes being invited to the White House for a fancy do honoring poets. There, Clinton recites poetry, relays how poems have instructed him in all matter of political lessons. Muske-Dukes riffs on Shelley’s quote that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” and imagines how a “Poets’ Congress would be motley but more eclectically read than any previous legislative body, better at similes (President Yeltsin, you think like a piroshki!), better at the bedrock iambic line (‘Whose bill this is I think I know....’), better at imagining authority figures minus their clothes and in party hats. To prevent filibustering, congressional members would occasionally be required to communicate in haiku....”
Unlike the tell-all tales that fly off the supermarket shelves, Muske-Dukes’ gossip has a point, roundabout as the structure of the essays sometimes seems. She tells all in the service of poetry. Her prose is expansive, dreamy, but the slightly curled lip of cynicism is never far from present. Her tone is in turn forceful and forthright, bewildered and tearful, as she confronts the difficult changes in her personal life and the world around her, but her natural cadence is one of temperance.
The book is dedicated to the memory of her husband, and the most moving essay “Let Me Play the Lion Too: A Remembrance” recalls his devotion to the art of acting and the theater. The quote “Let me play the lion too” is from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and speaks of his desire “to play every part, like Bottom, wanting to transform the self and regale the audience, the reader.” They are also the words inscribed on his gravestone.
The juncture at which Hollywood and poets meet, if at all, is usually an awkward one, but for Muske-Dukes it has always been full of the magic of love and now includes the pain of loss. However, to be an L.A. writer, one must be willing to eat lunch in this town on a regular basis, and the chances that Muske-Dukes will continue to do so are very good. As she quotes from Seamus Heaney’s “The Cure at Troy": “Suspect too much sweet talk, but never close your mind.”