From Publishers Weekly
Occupying a seat on a Riker's Island–bound bus crowded with menacing, diamond-studded pimps is just another day in the life of Holly Mattox, the self-consciously attractive newlywed protagonist of Muske-Dukes's fourth novel. Set in 1970s New York City, the novel follows Holly as she becomes increasingly, and perhaps dangerously, involved with the female inmates who attend her jailhouse poetry workshops. Undeterred by the catty disapproval of her literary contemporaries, Holly forges on, leading a class of bickering inmates, including mentally disturbed Billie Dee, transgendered Gene/Jean, God-fearing Darlene and fragile, heavily sedated Polly Lyle Clement, who claims to be the great-granddaughter of Mark Twain. (Twain also, Polly claims, speaks through her.) An affair with fellow scribe Sam Glass threatens Holly's young marriage as Polly gets thrown into solitary for her possible involvement in another inmate's jailbreak. The jail administration wants Holly to extract information from a delusional Polly, but Polly could be crumbling too fast for Holly to save her. Prisoners' poems appear throughout and afford a sometimes hilarious, sometimes stark look beneath the inmates' grizzled exteriors. Fiction with a political conscience often sacrifices craft in favor of driving home a message, but Muske-Dukes pulls it off.
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*Starred Review* Poet Holly is propelled by a "lifelong near-diabolical desire to make all things right." It's the mid-1970s, when such good intentions are often undermined by naive politics and hubris, but this blonde from the Twin Cities puts her beliefs to the test by teaching a poetry class in the women's prison on Rikers Island. As Holly tries to win the trust of her seen-it-all students, she realizes that they have plenty to teach her. Conversations with a famous Russian poet-in-exile (a thinly veiled Joseph Brodsky) also prove revelatory. While he was imprisoned for the crime of being a poet, her students are locked up, basically, for being female, black, and poor. Ribald and outspoken, funny and resilient, they have endured horrific if all too common abuse. Two possess unusual powers. Akilah Malik is an Angela Davislike radical, and mystic Polly Lyle Clement claims to be channeling her great-granddaddy Mark Twain. A compassionate poet as well as a mythically inclined novelist, Muske-Dukes is spellbinding in her precision and invention as she pays haunting tribute to women who hold fast to their humanity under the most barbaric of circumstances, while celebrating poetry as a liberating force. Seaman, Donna Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved