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Poetry Takes Center Stage

USC College’s Carol Muske-Dukes and actor John Lithgow get personal, poetic in Visions and Voices event.

Poetry Takes Center Stage

After her 55-year-old husband died of a heart attack, Carol Muske-Dukes brought some of his ashes to New York City.

Muske-Dukes wanted her beloved to spend eternity the same place he began his acting career — on a Broadway stage.

“We scattered some of David’s ashes on the stage and in the front row of the theater, so he would be there in perpetuity,” said poet Muske-Dukes, a professor of English in USC College, during a Visions and Voices event.

The Feb. 21 poetry reading — part of a university-wide arts and humanities initiative — was filled with moving, deeply personal reflections.

“I have to tell you, [scattering his ashes in a theater] was a very strange thing to do,” she told the audience of about 100. “But it seemed exactly right for David’s memory.”

Tony and Emmy award-winning actor John Lithgow, a longtime friend of Muske-Dukes and her late husband, read from his book The Poets’ Corner (Grand Central Publishing, 2007), a collection from the masters.

With his familiar baritone yet somehow sweet voice, Lithgow also read and recited many other poems, some from Muske-Dukes’ Sparrow (Random House, 2003), poems chronicling the love and loss of Muske-Dukes’ late husband. Muske-Dukes read from Sparrow and her novel Channeling Mark Twain (Random House, 2007), as well as The Poets’ Corner and other poetry.

Muske-Dukes shared the story about her husband’s ashes before Lithgow read a poem from Sparrow called “Ovation.”

John and I move quickly, each with a handful of ash, scattering. The sound of no sound falling into the cracks in the board, 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.

During the event, Lithgow also shared some stories. He recalled his boyhood years when his family often moved, following the career of his father, a theatrical producer and director.

“We moved crazily once a year for several years,” Lithgow said.

During one move, when the family was driving across Pennsylvania in their station wagon, they stopped for a night near the woods. Eight-year-old Lithgow wandered alone into the woods and stumbled across a large, old wooden pulley hanging from a tree.

“Being an 8-year-old boy looking for adventure, I took the rope and tied it to my legs,” Lithgow said.

He took the other end of the rope and “pulled and pulled and pulled myself up, up, up into the air” until he was completely upside-down.

“You have to understand the physics of this moment,” Lithgow said. “I was hanging on the rope, looking straight up at my feet with the rope tied to them.”

The story ends with the youngster “falling eight feet in a heap on the ground.”

Even though he was alone, he said, “I was mortified with embarrassment.”

Lithgow thinks of that old pulley hanging off the tree each time he reads Robert Frost’s “Birches,” a poem about a young boy swinging on the branches of a birch tree and his ascent into old age, when he begins contemplating the meaning of life and death.

Lithgow also recited what he called the Grandma Moses of all poems, “The Wonderful One-Hoss Shay” by Oliver Wendell Holmes. His “grammy” taught him the poem when he was 7.

Just as his grandmother used to do, Lithgow recited the 805-word poem by memory — a tradition of passing along stories that Muske-Dukes said should be revived. Muske-Dukes credited her mother, Elsie Muske  --  who at 91 still recites poetry by heart -- for instilling in her a love for poetry.

“When you have a poem memorized, it’s your poem in a way,” said Muske-Dukes, the founding director of the College’s Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing program.

“It begins to beat with your heart and flow with your blood.”