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Prison sentences

Channeling Mark Twain A Novel Carol Muske-Dukes Random House: 270 pp., $24.95

July 01, 2007|Wendy Smith | Wendy Smith is a New York-based critic and the author of "Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940."

WHAT good is art? Does it make any real difference in people's lives? For the conflicted heroine of Carol Muske-Dukes' rueful yet affirmative new novel, these questions come attached to uncomfortable specifics. Holly Mattox teaches a poetry workshop at the Women's House of Detention on Rikers Island. What use is this rarefied art to prostitutes, drug addicts and murderers? How can poetry possibly matter in the face of their suffering and their crimes?

"Channeling Mark Twain" is a slim volume grappling with big issues. Muske-Dukes, an award-winning poet who has written three previous novels, packs every page with metaphor and allusion, but her narrative is never abstract. The author herself taught on Rikers for several years (the book is dedicated to the members of that group), and she confronts her intellectual protagonist with the grim everyday realities of life in the underclass. Holly's students are not simply objects of her compassion or instruments of her moral education. They have histories and ideas of their own, which are conveyed in fiercely individual voices in their classroom conversations and poems.

Billie Dee Boyd, threatened with losing her children to foster care, threw her daughter out a window: "I say to you how my baby / Could fly," she insists. "But / Taneesha didn't fly that time." Arrested for the shootout murder of a New Jersey state trooper, Black Freedom Front leader Akilah Malik ("my slave name was LeeAnne Kohler") gave birth in prison and had her baby taken away. Darlene Denisky, beaten every night by her husband, heard God talking to her: "I am the God of Three, put the gun unto his head / And offer him to me. Then Darlene, he said, then the trigger." Less obviously brutalized but most mysterious of all is Polly Lyle Clement, fished out of the East River and awaiting transfer to a psychiatric institution, who claims that "Mark Twain is my great-granddaddy and

Holly is out of place, to put it mildly, among these proud, damaged women. She has a graduate degree and a teaching job at the New School; her poems are being published in a trendy literary periodical whose flirtatious editor takes her to fashionable parties. But this is New York in the politically and culturally fraught mid-1970s, when the dreams of the counterculture are curdling but not yet entirely rancid. Holly took "a course in the Revolution" at Berkeley; she's married -- if not exactly committed -- to a doctor who runs a clinic at Harlem Hospital, and she belongs to a radical group called the Women's Bail Fund, though it's clear she'll soon be out the door, as she sardonically delineates her comrades' humorless dogmatism. Her agenda is more complicated than theirs.

Holly's mother, whose hope of a college education blew away in the Depression's dust storms, recited poems as she hung up laundry and hectored her six children: "Do not go gentle -- Don't sass me! -- into that good night." She bequeathed her love of poetry to her daughter, but her example instilled the fear that poetry could be mere decoration for an existence circumscribed by pregnancy and propriety. "I was here at the Women's House," Holly tells us, " ... because I wanted to know what it felt like to be a woman living outside the law ... to be a poet whose words could break open the bars."

How romantic and ridiculous. Holly slams into reality when she storms into the superintendent's office, demanding the release of Lily Baye, an inmate locked in solitary confinement for distributing a poem about her dead daughter. How dare they? asks Holly, outraged yet "weirdly thrilled" by this demonstration of "the unexpected power of poetry to threaten the status quo." And how can they deny a bereaved mother permission to attend her baby's funeral? Because, Superintendent Ross wearily replies, Lily's pimp beat the little girl to death, she's protecting him, and she wants out so she can get back to the man who's kept her on the streets and supplied her with heroin for 10 years. "Wail, for the world's wrong!" thinks Holly, recalling her mother reciting Shelley. "I would never, could never, find a way to accept that this too was part of what women were."

Muske-Dukes doesn't make it easy for her idealistic heroine. Holly gets a teaching post at Columbia, where exiled poet Joseph Kyrilikov (a ringer for Joseph Brodsky) seems to incarnate her vision of the artist as natural enemy of the state. Kyrilikov, who spent eight years in a Soviet labor camp, stands in the tradition of "Pasternak and Akhmatova, who wrote unforgettably of the Terror, whose poems were stained with blood." In America, he's a hard-drinking, chain-smoking womanizer who dismisses Holly's jailbird students: "You cannot see in the same light real poets ... who have stood up to death and prison ... and these criminals who manage to scribble one line or two behind bars."

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