Spectral Waves

David Bottoms, Author, Madeline DeFrees, Author . Copper Canyon $16 (91p) ISBN 978-1-55659-240-9

For 38 years, Madeline DeFrees lived as a nun and was known as Sister Mary Margaret. She left the convent in middle age, but her work has never been far removed from questions of spirituality, though those questions often take secular forms. In her 10th book of poems, DeFrees, now a celebrated poet in her 80s, confronts her mortality by recalling a life lived in careful consideration of the splendors and omens of the natural world, the complex and shifting meanings of works of art, and the precariousness of maintaining a relationship with a higher power.

In thematically organized sections, these 54 shapely poems encompass a wide array of subjects. Four groups center around the eyes, spiders, earth and birds, while the collection closes with a series of sonnets to Elvis and an extended meditation on the sculptures of Henry Moore. Vamping on her themes, DeFrees builds poems of sometimes witty, sometimes dire pile-ups of examples that coalesce into layered wholes.

Haunting the first section is an operation to treat cataracts and the attendant distrust of things as they appear: "Doors/ swing open on the ever-moving world/ always and never the same." The second section meditates on the spider's careful craftsmanship, as well as the fleetingness and surprising stability of its creations: "These threads/ have been found in the stratosphere, seven miles/ above the sea." DeFrees also finds a contemporary context for dredged-up bits of folklore: "The old wives guarantee/ powers of invention, my physical/ and fiscal health. Remember this when you/ see cobwebs in my house." Many poems pay tribute to or converse with the work of poetic heroes and contemporaries, including Roethke, Keats, Dickinson, Stevens and Merwin. DeFrees also displays her mastery of difficult poetic forms in several sestinas and villanelles, poems that require repetition of lines, which often seem forced or tiresome in other hands but feel smooth here.

With poems that shift between the sacred and the quotidian—and even the profane ("Sinner and saint trade places every day")—DeFrees weaves a tapestry that illuminates the changing relationships between myths and their contemporary relevance, the histories of words and their everyday uses, and the body's steady decay and the life of the mind. (June)

Reviewed on: 05/01/2006
Release date: 01/01/2006
Genre: Fiction
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