Random House, 2003 (ISBN 0375509267)
The death of a loved one can be a hard part of any person's life, but for someone with a poet's temperament it can stir up much beyond mere memory. Poets sometimes have the most wonderful melancholy, digging in the muck of their sadness to uncover seeds, lost trinkets, buried treasure. They find beautiful language in the ugliness of death. They discover a few surprising insights into the human condition, while forcing themselves to seek a sense of hope. That is to say, poets craft elegies like monuments for their loved/lost.
In a sense, that is what Carol Muske-Dukes achieves with her newest book, Sparrow. One might easily view the entire volume of poems as one gargantuan elegy for her late husband. The poems here touch on his sickness and passing, but also on his life, and her life with him. They revel in what was important, moving, powerful. But at the same time, they pause to pay attention to the trivial, not allowing anything to slip away unnoticed.
To achieve this effect, Muske-Dukes writes concisely, not straying into the vagueness so common in poetry. With clear, measured lines, she skillfully crafts each verse, a difficult task she achieves throughout the book as with these lines from "Late Kiss":
On my study floor, the books were piled high.
You stepped over them, smiling, as you came in
to kiss me goodnight. The dog growled deep in
her throat. She loved me alone. You scowled at
the dog, then looked at me, the lit screen, the
stacked pages and smiled. It would be hours
before I would slip into bed beside you, still
thinking about my book on life and death.
Even while she mourns her husband's loss, however, she never gets so tangled up in her passion that she also loses focus in her writing. Often, she only hints at emotion, showing reserve instead in a sort of resigned stoicism, as in "Ovation":
I try to make myself afraid,
the way you must have been afraid,
stepping out onto this stage
but with a fear so pure, so
perfectly informed that you strode
This characteristic so common throughout her work is one of the features that could be a positive or a negative, depending on the reader's perspective. Many readers will want to be so carried away in the emotion, to feel what the author felt or connect with those feelings from their own experiences, that the poems in Sparrow might fail to reach them at times. Regardless, these poems flow with a simplicity and symmetry that cannot be overlooked. They do what they do well.
While reserve replaces passion in many of these poems, another transference takes place that makes the book worth reading. That is, many of the poems reveal a sense of longing in place of sorrow. Rather than dwell on her own sadness at her loss, she yearns from memory, pulling her late husband back into her life. She does this extremely well, as with these lines from "The Illusion":
After his death, I kept an illusion before me:
that I would find the key to him, the answer,
in the words of a play that he'd put to heart
years earlier. I'd find the secret place in him,
retracing lines he'd learned, tracking
his prints in snow. I'd discover, scrawled
in the margin of a script, a stage-note that
would clarify consciousness in a single gesture
Recommendation: There is something compelling about Sparrow, something hard to latch onto in just the few paragraphs of a review. This book really should be read, and what it offers should be accepted: a way of understanding and coping with loss, a way of seeing beyond the merely physical reality of death to the hope and wonder at the metaphysical reality of carrying on beyond that death. Pick it up. It makes an interesting Field Guide to Grief.