Continuing revelations from a virtuosic poet
ALTHOUGH her reputation has grown steadily over the years, poet Madeline DeFrees’ career has been a quiet one, often overlooked because she steadfastly refuses to lock step with literary trends. She studied under Karl Shapiro and John Berryman but refused to write the confessional-style poetry they advocated. She seeks to remain anonymous in her writing, although over the years her work has begun to welcome an identifiable speaker. “Spectral Waves,” DeFrees’ newest collection of pitch-perfect poems, comes as she is nearing 90, and this dense, idiosyncratic volume rewards careful reading.
DeFrees’ poetry is often pigeonholed as “religious” because she was a nun for 38 years. It is but not in the sense that it is overtly Christian. In William Gaddis’ novel “The Recognitions,” a character describes a raucous party as “religious, that is in the sense of devotion, adoration, celebration of deity, before religion became confused with systems.” DeFrees’ poetry is religious in this sense, meaning it is committed to celebrating the abundant beauty and strangeness of this world.
She is an intellectual writer, citing the Encyclopaedia Britannica as a favorite book, and her mental restlessness is evident in the range of subjects in this new work. She writes about the sculptor Henry Moore, Elvis and the mating habits of birds. Each section, with the exception of the last, begins with a poem that is like a commonplace book, a collection of quotes and ideas from other poets yoked in a way that shows DeFrees’ expansive and free-spirited intellect.
Her other favorite book is the dictionary, and that is evident in her exquisitely precise vocabulary.
In “Naming the Cataracts,” she writes, “Language is everything” and insists the doctor tell her the proper name of her specific type of cataracts. “I toy with metaphoric / names that please the mind’s / eye and tame my disorder.” But the language of her poetry rarely tames the sensual shock of the world. Instead, like the surgeon who removes her cataracts, she shows her reader “the ever-moving world / always and never the same.”
A world in which the flight of a swallow is “steel-blue- / black in the unlucky / light facing a cold April.”
Her poetry is rigorously formal, based on the number of syllables in a line, the form occluded by startling stanza breaks and jarring syntax. She also employs the traditional forms of the sonnet and the villanelle, moving fluidly within their devilishly difficult frameworks.
Despite her virtuosity, she is never a showy writer. Her syntax is intricate but not delicate, closer to wrought iron than lace. A respectful formality prevails in her writing. She describes a novice praying:
radiance flooding her bows, her
seeming to levitate like a ship
riding the waves.
What sweetness distilled in the
leaves so little room for a gaze
locked on the Heart of Light?
DeFrees uses a line from Wallace Stevens as a poem’s epigram: “Description is revelation.” It is the way that she describes things that is the revelation. A care with language that gives every moment significance and a vocabulary that suffuses her images with a disquietude.
“Figures for a Carrousel,” a series of seven poems based on Henry Moore sculptures, bristles with an unnamed menace.
That Sunday at the zoo I
understood the child
I never had would look like this: stiff-fingered
spastic hands, a steady drool,
and eyes in cages
with a danger sign. I felt like
There are also moments of exuberance captured in vertiginous lines like:
a creamy tsunami
sweeps over the chain-link fence
in a spring
seizure of yearning. Drenches
the passerby in
dizzying scent and charges
dark air without warning.
Perhaps she has remained obscure not only because her verse is impossible to categorize, but also because she is so demanding. What she demands is that we enter a world alive with significance and be willing to wrest meaning from it, to see a parable in something as simple as finding a near-lifeless spider in the pages of a book. She writes,
The meaning I wrenched
from this brief encounter:
to die doing the work you love
If you are willing to answer her demand, you will be richly rewarded.
Elizabeth Hoover’s work has appeared in the New York Observer, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Poets & Writers magazine.