Unsung Choices: Blue Rose by Carol Muske-Dukes

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There is no blue rose in nature. Roses lack delphinidin, a pigment that paints berries, grapes, pansies, irises, and other flowers and fruits azure or indigo. The idea of a blue rose, however, has captivated us for centuries. We’ve been trying to breed one since the 1800s—a rose whose Rilkean “eyelids, all closed” might open with a deep, astonishing, cerulean hue among all the red, white, pink, and yellow roses on the planet.

The blue rose is the subject of Carol Muske-Dukes’s ninth book of poetry, Blue Rose. Like Marianne Moore’s real toad in an imaginary garden, the blue rose is poetry itself, articulated into being through the inner ear and eye. But even more so, in this collection of thirty-two poems arranged in four sections, blue roses are women. They are rare and mysterious, afflicted and abused, generous and generative, soaring above circumstance. Although this book tells many stories, it belongs to the histories and tumultuous hours of women whose lives we might not even notice otherwise. Muske-Dukes’s brush is broad—from overlooked geniuses of art and science to hijab-veiled women with cancer at a clinic in Kashmir, whose husbands murmur and shout “complicated curses” at their wives and the female doctor.

As Muske-Dukes explained to interviewer Michael Silverblatt, host of the long-running KCRW radio show, The Bookworm, the particular blue rose of the title (and first poem) is the author’s daughter, Annie Muske-Dukes-Driggs. Her birth was sudden:

She came too fast: couldn’t slow
my body’s unstoppable intent
till the EMTs shouted how. I

flashed on the driver’s fast-calculating
eyes in the dash mirror as he amped
the siren overhead. Later, lashed to

a pallet, I glimpsed the sky, a dawn
moon intact before the rapid hands of
a hospital clock. In the labor room, she

crowned, then turned…

The slant rhyme in the opening is centered around shifting phonemes of “a”, which keep recurring as if in propulsive rhythm with the contractions that are pushing her daughter into the world—until we suddenly exhale into the softness of “crowned, then turned.” But the infant is at first, apparently, oxygen deprived: a “danger blue, yet to me her color was like / something never imagined.” It is a color “far / from our spectrum.” It is so powerful that it suggests the morning sky “turning a color never before seen.”

Her daughter and the blue rose appear in the collection’s last poem as well, titled “Microscope,” a poem that is both bookend and another opening. Now grown and a molecular biologist, her daughter looks through an electron microscope and sees “a landscape subatomic.”

Particle choirs of light alter sight.
Electromagnetic lens held to a blink:
here in a world determined by its own
alienation from death.

She recalls her daughter “dyeing a rose from our garden / deep blue. I knew the world would always open / a hidden path for her.” The path was also opened by Rosalind Franklin, whose X-ray diffraction images of DNA, especially Photograph 51, led to the discovery of the double helix that won her colleagues a Nobel Prize in 1962. Yet, as Muske-Dukes muses: “the interlopers took/more than a cue from her slow-gathering lightning. / She was gone before this world recognized how / she’d first charted the cathedral.”

The poet’s daughter has inherited that eye and cathedral. The poem concludes by honoring her daughter directly, with astonishment and love: “To see in this light you must be / fearless. So I see only this my blue rose, / my wonder.”

Muske-Dukes’s poems often have the quality of late-night musings, those musings in which we replay events on our internal movie screen and try to make sense of them. Many unfold like filmed scenes—in “No Hands” the speaker is watching her husband speed downhill on his bicycle, “arms extended” and with their small daughter holding on to him “for her life.” She is accompanying him “as an audience travels with a performer.” The speaker sees a stop sign far below rise “like a child’s toy shield”—a terrifying, utterly vulnerable, and cinematic image.

Some of these poems present fragments of biography, which feel exhumed from a deeper excavation. These poems make more sense on a second or third read. In the poem “Requiem for a Requeim,” Muske-Dukes honors Paula Modersohn-Becker, an expressionist painter who was the first woman to paint a full-length nude self-portrait. Modersohn-Becker died of a pulmonary embolism in the bed in which she had just given birth to her first child. The likely trigger was the custom at the time of insisting women stay in bed for several weeks after delivery, which increases the chance of a deep venous thrombosis. (These details are not included in the poem, which itself seemed mysterious and intriguing enough to send this reader to Google to learn more, after which the poem resonated more fully). Shame begins and ends the poem, a theme joining this painter’s life, art, and death.

Shaking shame from her brush, she presses
it to canvas. Before her, women could not
paint women naked. Before her, women
could not gaze in the mirror of their flesh.

When she was finally allowed to leave the birth bed, according to her biographers, she combed her hair, festooned it with red roses, and walked to her daughter’s crib in the living room. She took the child in her arms, then fell to the floor. She knew she was dying. Muske-Dukes’s line about this: “But ‘Schande!’ she cries / her dying word, holding her newborn daughter to her / breast. Shame!” Modersohn-Becker shook shame from her brush, but died with the word on her lips. Can women ever fully escape the restrictions upon them, the risk to their bodies that comes from being born female? This is a question raised again and again from different perspectives, via different stories, throughout the collection.

In “The Year the Law Changed”, for instance, the speaker recalls her illegal abortion. She recounts a few of the grim details, including being called a murderer, but probes deeper, puzzling over her own complicity in another being’s death. The blood shed is both her own and another’s—yet that other’s blood was made from her own and might still be her own.

I had my life back but covered myself with blood—
mine and some not—but still of me. I don’t know
what I mean by “of me,” its undefined & even
the shouting accusers won’t cross that line. I had to
swear I was clinically mad to have it done.

The men in white, she concludes, clean “all the blood from both of us.”

Other poems linger on surprising secrets in women’s lives, secrets that may have muzzled them—such as the nineteenth century’s Ina Coolbrith, the first poet laureate of California, a friend or possibly lover of Mark Twain and John Muir. Muske-Dukes was herself poet laureate of California from 2008–2012, and so in gazing back on Coolbrith she is considering her own literary ancestor. Coolbrith’s mother had married Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, after her husband, who was Smith’s brother, died. Joseph Smith was therefore both her father and her uncle, and when he was murdered she and her mother fled across the Sierra mountains to California in a covered wagon. Her mother made her promise never to speak or write about her true identity. She obeyed and changed her name. In “Coolbrith” she abandons herself easily as she comes over the pass in the mountains and gazes down from the summit: “My old name fell from me into / canyon shadows / never to be spoken again while I lived.”

The poetry Coolbrith created was, however, sentimental, even cloying. In the poem, “Coolbrith: Homage,” Muske-Dukes quotes lines like this: “How bright the sunset glory / lies! Its radiance spans the western skies!” But, asks Muske-Dukes, “what burned / just beneath her dreaming stanzas”?

According to Muske-Dukes’s conversation with radio host Michael Sliverblatt, her shattering poem, “Judge,” is, in part, about the poet’s brother, a judge, who seems to have tilted more toward implacable justice than toward mercy. She describes a single mother asking the court to take her son from her. It is an act of such rejection it seems utterly against motherhood, and yet, is deadly self-preservation:

…I have no choice, she said. The boy suddenly loud:
I’ll change. I promise. Single mother: how many
jobs? Gangs have stolen from her. Someone gave her son
a gun. He threatened a stranger, then threw it away.

Her son kneels before her, but “She has never had choice / in her life. She chooses now. The judge rules, she looks / away.” But what lingers for the poet, who is seated in her brother’s courtroom with their own mother, is “the boy’s mother exiting / past my mother & me. Her face a mask of agony & grief.”

These poems offer us pictures of unsung choices that shape women’s lives—to terminate a pregnancy or to give birth and risk death, to hide a father or to give up a son, to watch your husband put your daughter’s life in danger yet love and accept him still, to discover the deep pattern upon which all life constructs itself yet die without the prize. To chart life’s cathedral—to enter that cathedral half a century later as a young scientist.

To be that scientist’s awestruck mother, writing her into a poem.

To dye a rose blue.

Gillian (Jill) Neimark is an author of adult and children’s fiction and nonfiction. As a journalist, her beats include food, science and medicine. She has published three picture books, two middle-grade novels, one adult novel, and her poetry has appeared in the Cimarron Review, Borderlands, The Massachusetts Review, and the Columbia Review. More from this author →