Madeline DeFrees, 1919 - 2015

Very sad news: we've received word from her literary executor that Madeline DeFrees, a Seattle poet, passed away last night. She would have been 96 years old next week.

DeFrees was widely celebrated, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in Poetry and two Washington State Book Awards. Her most recent collections were published with Copper Canyon Press. According to her website, DeFrees "spent 38 years as a nun with the Catholic Congregation of Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary. She entered the community after high school and later requested release because, in her words, 'religious life and poetry both demand an absolute commitment.'"

We hope to talk with some friends of DeFrees in the coming days. She had a remarkable talent; her poems were alive with a baroque imagery that most modern poets simply cannot touch. Consider "A Woman Possessed," with its ferocious bullfighting imagery, or her later poem "Still Life," which begins with these bracing lines: "After your letter arrived I left the oven on/all night and never once/put my head in it." (That whole poem is a breathtaking razor's edge of a thing, a highwire act in the middle of an earthquake.) "The Family Group" is a lamentation for a life unlived but also a clear-eyed survey of what might have been. The poet, at the zoo, sees "the child I/never had" and is overcome with a moment of longing: "I wanted to take his hand/hallucinate a husband." It's an uneasy poem, documenting an uneasy moment.

DeFrees's work demonstrates an unflinching honesty that could make many self-styled confesssional poets blush, but it never feels clumsy or leering or unwelcome. Her charge as a poet, it seems, was to capture the workings of her mind, with all its contradictions and inconsistencies, and relate it in beautiful, entrancing language. DeFrees was absolutely right; poetry demands "an absolute commitment," and she gave nothing less.