An elegant piece featuring a psychic descendant of Mark Twain.
Muske-Dukes draws on her own experience with the penal system (she founded a creative writing program—the very first for prisoners—on Riker’s Island) to fashion a novel rich in both ideas and prose. Holly Mattox is a young Midwesterner in New York, secretly married to K.B. (marriage seems so embarrassingly establishment in the early ’70s), and trying to prove herself as a poet, a teacher and a thoroughly independent woman. She has a mentor of sorts in Sam Glass, a young editor with connections to all that’s literary in the city (the identity of real writers are thinly, amusingly veiled) and quite a bit beyond. He invites her to important events, tries seducing her and gets her a job lecturing smug grad students at Columbia. But that world is a far cry from her volunteer work—teaching a poetry workshop at the Women’s House of Detention on Riker’s Island. Most of the women are in for prostitution, but a few are there on murder charges, including Akilah Malik, a notorious radical charged with killing a cop. And then there’s Polly Lyle Clement, seemingly charged with nothing more than mistakenly landing her raft on the island. They all produce fairly heartbreaking poetry—what you would expect from the defeated lives they describe, except for Polly, who claims to be the descendant of Mark Twain and is channeling his spirit in class. Polly indeed has a way with words and half convinces everyone that something vaguely supernatural is going on, as she seems to see the “truth” of everyone’s crimes. Holly becomes emotionally involved with the women, and when Akilah breaks out of prison, it becomes Holly’s mission to save Polly, now slowly dying in solitary, and suspected of arranging Akilah’s escape. Though well-plotted, Muske-Dukes triumph lies in building a discourse on the nature of language, of poetry, of its small successes and inevitable limitations in the midst of ruinous lives.
Lovely, original writing on the unlikely romance between prisoners and poetry.