Poetry and Hollywood may not seem compatible in anyone’s book. But acclaimed poet, novelist, and critic Carol Muske-Dukes finds common ground for both in meditations on movie sets and metaphors, on the big screen and the luminous focus of a haiku.
I Married the Icepick Killer offers the reader ways to reimagine the Imagination itself. Former California Poet Laureate Muske-Dukes explores Southern California’s unexpected poetry, from Emily Dickinson on freeway billboards to poet-script doctors rewriting action-flick dialogue. Moving personal essays recount the story of Muske-Dukes’s romance with her late husband, actor David Coleman Dukes, whom she met in Italy and relocated with in Los Angeles. Muske-Dukes sharpens her astute gaze as she addresses contradictions and convergences between belle lettres and the ever-surprising City of Angels.
This ebook was originally published as Married to the Icepick Killer.
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I Married the Icepick Killer
A Poet in Hollywood
By Carol Muske-Dukes
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2002 Carol Muske-Dukes
All rights reserved.
A POET IN HOLLYWOOD, TAKE TWO
Not long after I moved to Los Angeles from New York City, I attended a cocktail party with my actor-husband. At the party, which was full of film and TV types, a man asked me what I did for a living. I told him that I was a writer.
"Right" he said. "Half hour or hour?"
"Neither" I said, fixing him with an "Oversoul" gaze. "Lifetime."
He smiled back. "Oh, you work for cable," he said.
The anecdote above is (yes indeed!) a punchline about Hollywood which I originally included in a piece about poetry and The Industry (as it's known)) for the New York Times Book Review—an anecdote which I've shamelessly dined out on ever since. But what appears to be yet another cheap shot at Hollywood's unenlightened insularity, finally remains testimony to the ongoing peculiarity of what it is like to be married to an actor—in a one industry town or in the world at large, where poetry (like the act of writing itself) is generally misunderstood, Hollywoodized, trivialized, dismissed. So, predictably, my cocktail party questioner was bound to typecast my role as "writer" (I'll include "poet", "wordsmith" and even the dread "literary" here) as low-rung word-crank—or provider-of-words-for-actors-to-say—or words for actors to animate and directors to alter. Or, most likely, forgetting-you- as-you-speak-you-little-hack—type thing.)
Before I met him, my late husband, David Coleman Dukes (he never highlighted the "Coleman", alas) played a madman, an icepick killer, in a detective thriller film called FIRST DEADLY SIN (based on the novel of the same title) shot in New York City and starring Frank Sinatra (as the detective pursuing David, the killer) with Faye Dunaway as Sinatra's terminally ill wife. David was starring in "Bent" on Broadway with Richard Gere at the same time he was shooting this film. Sinatra lent David his driver, Jilly, to ferry him across town to the theater in time for the curtain—at the end of each shooting day. Jilly never failed to deliver David on time for him to quickly re-invent himself in another role (Gere's gay lover in a Nazi concentration camp) before the cross-town curtain. Sinatra was kind, Sinatra was generous—my late husband was also kind and generous. But, in the film, which I did not see until after we married—my kind and gentle husband was creepily sinister in his role as Icepick Killer—and Sinatra was a devoted family man as well as a dogged sleuth, a model of rectitude.
The deep strangeness of the transformative process of the actor as he or she "becomes" someone else still confounds me. Actors use their bodies, their physicality, their voices (and all of their consciousness) to turn into that Other—they go beyond dissembling, they cannibalize themselves in order to "grow" other selves into life. What's particularly eerie is that actors draw on their "real life" and their own bodies as "instrument"—which means voice range, movement, facial and body expression, whole-being expressiveness. Actors (ok, like writers!) spy on other people, even as they spy on themselves. Often physical manifestations of character onstage or onscreen are scarily similar to those of the familiar person one sits across from at the breakfast table—or sleeps next to in bed. The way he laughs at his own jokes, the way he gestures with a piece of buttered toast, the way he answers the phone, blows a kiss goodbye. (More alarming: words or gestures associated with sexual intimacy that show up onscreen!) But then, there are the wildly unfamiliar embodiments too. As in: how did my spouse of several years end up turning into such a completely convincing serial murderer?
The imagination "doubles" in creating "real" character. If actors rely on canny physical invention and appropriation—they first must rely on the script, the words they must coerce literally into life. We celebrate actors as if, by playing a role, they aren't playing a role at all—they just happen to speak spontaneously with dramatic resonance (audience members constantly confuse the actor with the character, to further this illusion.) Actors say the words we wish we all could spontaneously come up with—fast put-downs of bullies, heroic dying speeches. Of course, "true" spontaneity is what good actors rehearse tirelessly to convey. And what they are conveying is what the writer already invented and "rehearsed": the boring writer gets there first. The writer, the lowly "workmanlike" writer, in a far more just world, could be considered the whole "show": actor, director, editor—all rolled up in one imagination. But, in fact, the writer can't "do" what the actor ultimately "does" with the words, with that mysterious "possession" by language, for that different art. Yet the writer apprehends it all in the eye of the mind, the theater of the imagination—hears it all resoundingly in consciousness—s/he revs up the magic-engine—for bus-driver of the mystery tour.
If the actor's task (and the art of acting) is finally deeply intimidating—think of how the poet or writer masters necessary omniscience—seeing and hearing every possibility of performance. There is an extraordinary poem by the great poet Wallace Stevens, entitled "Of Modern Poetry". In this poem, the poet is compared to an actor on a stage. Poet and actor here become one—they are both "weighing" words as they are conceived—for precision and credibility. One is on the page, the other on the stage. The poet/actor listens, in his "innermost ear" for "sudden rightnesses"—deciding, with split-second yet slow precision, "what will suffice."
And, like an insatiable actor, slowly and
With meditation, speak words that in the ear,
In the delicatest ear of the mind, repeat,
Exactly, that which it wants to hear, at the sound
Of which, an invisible audience listens,
Not to the play, but to itself, expressed
In an emotion as of two people, as of two
Emotions becoming one. The actor is
A metaphysician in the dark, twanging
An instrument, twanging a wiry string that gives
Sounds passing through sudden rightnesses, wholly
Containing the mind, below which it cannot descend,
Beyond which it has no will to rise.
Be the finding of a satisfaction, and may
Be of a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman
Combing. The poem of the act of the mind.
The poet/writer has to become (as performer-on-the-page) that "invisible audience" for herself. The writer, like the actor, splits in two. Watching my husband in roles like the Icepick Killer on film—or the gender-bending Gallimard in "M. Butterfly" on Broadway, in plays by Tom Stoppard or Arthur Miller—or the play "ART" in London—I witnessed the exact "doubling" process that Wallace Stevens describes. I also witnessed myself as audience/creator—becoming two-in-one—which is a definition of empathy. The imagination exists, I believe, to make us empathetic.
The playwright Tony Kushner once said that actors are "sacrificial animals". I don't find this statement at all melodramatic. What Wallace Stevens imagined for both poet and actor—in fact demands something more exposed, more psychologically shocking for the real-life performer. It's the "word made flesh" experience—when the actor offers up the self, puts his or her body on "the line"—walks out onstage—or in front of the camera—committing a kind of artistic hari-kari.
Here is a poem of my own called "Ovation", written after David's death in 2000—written not long after I scattered his ashes with a dear friend of his, on the darkened stage of a Broadway theater (where he had walked and spoken lines many times.) In the poem, I struggle to "get to" where the actor must be—inside and outside—in order to light himself on fire on stage—in order to burn "hot", propelling the plot's trajectory.
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
out shouting. Here, where
the neon yellow arrows painted
on the floor shoot forward underfoot
in blackness—beneath the hanging
sequence of tinted skies—out toward
that mindless immortalizing light, now
dark. Now I think I feel the heat you
must have felt rising from the front rows.
A gaping fire door, a furnace:
your single body standing here
with no shadow, swinging on itself.
Had you been a fool, you might have thought
that they loved you. They never love you,
you said. They are hungry for the god
in his gold eclipse, the pure you on fire.
John and I move quickly, each with a handful
of ash, scattering. The sound of no sound falling
into the cracks in the boards, the footlights,
the first row. A small personal snow: a prince
of dust, a villain of dust. Each part you played
drifting up again, recomposing. I open my hand,
I let you go–back into the lines you learned,
back into the body and the body's beauty –
back into the standing ovation: bow after bow after bow.
I married an actor who was like a living projection of the imagination itself—a "chameleon" of an actor, as his New York Times obituary described him. He altered as he assumed roles, both public and private. He depended so urgently on the words that allowed him to "escape" into parts, that it was hard at times to track his "true" self, given the unpremeditated being that he was. I feel often that I never really knew him, sometimes he seems most real and memorable to me as the many characters to whom he gave breath.
As the playwright John Guare notes, "We are all strangers to ourselves." So we act. We write. We perform within art—and get closer to the strange energy that we are.
The essays and reviews included in this book are randomly-connected meditations on this strange energy we give off in (sometimes) small daily transformations or in professional productions. (I haven't written about the profound strangeness of flipping through TV channels and coming across the image of one's dead spouse—as Edith Bunker's rapist in "All in the Family" or as Josephine Baker's band-leader husband on HBO (an Emmy-nominated performance) or as a cross-dressing cosmetic surgeon married to Swoosie Kurtz in the TV series "Sisters"—and so on. I don't know how to articulate that experience. It's as if one sees a "ghost" that everyone else sees—and does not think of as a ghost. And it is not a ghost. It is him, or her, it is the lasting image of a once-performance.)
So. Included here are New York Times Book Review essays or Op Eds—another is from the (former) L.A. Times Book Review—there's a piece from the Huffington Post and a New Yorker Page Turner. A few remain unpublished. They elbow each other a bit to connect to the over-arching theme of acting or performance—and writing. I've removed some pieces included in the original published book (from Random House, 2002)—and added new ones. Now there's John Cheever playing a role—or not playing a role?—while giving a talk at Sing Sing; there is an "acting profile" of MS. Havisham (a character I've always wanted to be) and an al fresco meeting On Poetry with Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger. I've retained a piece on "performance poetry"—which may sound like it includes both acting and poetry, but doesn't manage to be either, exactly. Most performance poetry or spoken word performances are amateur acting, with all the pitfalls therein. Yet the "performance" of poetry is, in a way, what made me a poet. Addressing this, there's a 2002 New York Times Op Ed essay about my mother's memorization of Great Poems ("A Lost Eloquence") which elicited a large number of letters and responses in the Times. My mother came from that last generation of Americans who learned poems and orations "by heart" in Elocution classes long ago. My mother recited these poems throughout my childhood. I believe I became a poet because of her "performance"—Milton, Wordsworth, Dickinson—their poems flowed through her and I was swept up, afloat in that ocean of words.
(As an aside, the absolute best performance of poems I've witnessed in latter years is that of a teen literacy group with whom I have the good fortune to be connected: GET LIT/Words Ignite. These young inner city Los Angeles poets, the GET LIT PLAYERS, memorize (like my aged mother) Great Poems—Milton, Wordsworth, Dickinson, Hughes—and give the words back in unforgettable performance. They also add a little "spoken word"—in response to the canonical poems—creating that ongoing "conversation" with the dead and the living that creates literature.)
Finally, apart from altering the order and other changes from the original book, I have tried to maintain the sense of the Hollywood I knew at the time of the first publication of this collection. My late husband and my daughter and I lived for many years in Hancock Park, in Windsor Square (by walking around the corner from our house, I could look up the straight-lined palms of Windsor Street and behold the Hollywood sign rising in the hills above.)
I live in Santa Monica now and continue as a busy professor at the University of Southern California. My daughter, after taking her advanced degree in molecular biology, married—and now works as a research scientist. In 2003, a book of elegies I'd written for my late husband, SPARROW, meditations on acting and poetry was given wonderful notice. In 2008, I was named Poet Laureate of California and served through 2011. I have recently written a play called (again!) "I Married the Icepick Killer" about (yes) the marriage of an actor and a poet! I look forward to a production someday. I feel I've moved a step closer to fully imagining that intersection between the two arts of acting and poetry. I've moved, perhaps, a small step closer to that place in the mind's spotlight, in consciousness, where the words written and the words spoken come together, as Stevens says, in "sudden rightnesses". I'm still inching forward, blinking at that Hollywood sign, listening in the delicatest ear of my ear for the aural and visual spotlight, for my cue to start dancing to its irresistible rhythms: O the poem of the act of the mind!
Carol Muske-Dukes www.carolmuskedukes.com
December 17, 2013
N.B. The archive of my late husband, David Coleman Dukes, can be found as part of the Billy Rose Collection, New York Library for the Performing Arts, Lincoln Center, NYC.
My archive: Doheny Library Special Collections, University of Southern California, Los Angeles.CHAPTER 2
I MARRIED THE ICEPICK KILLER: SCENES FROM THE LIFE OF AN ACTOR'S WIFE
Arriving late to a dinner party a while back, my husband and I approached the dining room, where people were already seated. A woman rose from her chair, pointed a finger at David, and cried, "My God, you're the one who raped Edith Bunker!" I glanced at him. He'd already been established as a cross-dresser, and he'd confessed to Frank Sinatra, of all people, that he was the Icepick Killer. My husband smiled calmly. "I didn't rape her," he explained. "I tried, but she hit me in the face with a hot cake from the oven."
My husband is an actor, in case you haven't already guessed. And of all the strange marriages I've witnessed in my life (competitors in politics or business, for instance, or lovey-dovey Siamese twin–like unions), none comes close to the existential challenge of life with a thespian.
The day of our wedding I knew that not only had I married an actor but I had also married an actor's life—and thereby taken a role in a "partnership" akin to that between an orbiting astronaut and Mission Control. As I waved good-bye to my new mate, hurrying off from the reception to his evening performance as Salieri in Amadeus, I realized I was waving good-bye to the way I'd lived up till then—as a poet and teacher of writing—a life that had provided me with a modicum of control over my own fate.
Excerpted from I Married the Icepick Killer by Carol Muske-Dukes. Copyright © 2002 Carol Muske-Dukes. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Table of Contents
A POET IN HOLLYWOOD, TAKE TWO,
I MARRIED THE ICEPICK KILLER: SCENES FROM THE LIFE OF AN ACTOR'S WIFE,
THE POET AND THE GOVERNATOR,
A LOST ELOQUENCE,
SLOUCHING TOWARD A BRIEF LITERARY HISTORY OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA,
IN A HEARTBEAT,
LET ME PLAY THE LION TOO: A REMEMBRANCE,
FRENZIED NIRVANA: BEHIND THE SCENES OF A POEM,
CHEEVER AT SING SING,
MS. HAVISHAM RE-INTRODUCES HERSELF—ON FIRE,
HISTORY AND THE 'HOOD,
VANISHING WOMAN—ANN STANFORD: IN MEMORIAM,
U-571: THE SILENT SCREEN,
TWO POEMS: EAST AND WEST, RIGHT AND LEFT—POLITICS THROUGH THE EYES OF POETRY,
SHAKESPEARE MEETS THE LONG GRAY LINE,
About the Author,