Likely Stories: Spectral Waves by Madeline DeFrees

Jul 19, 2018

Poetry collection from the noted Copper Canyon Press.


I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

Madeleine DeFrees’s eighth poetry collection—an author who has never crossed my radar—is a happy accident.  According to the author’s biography, she has won numerous awards, including one from the Academy of American Poets.  She has also published short stories, essays, and two memoirs.  Madeline has also taught at Pacific University Low-residency M.F.A. Program. 

This collection of poetry contains works that use words and phrases to weave interesting and thought-provoking poems of elegant beauty.  Here is one example: “Mythology of Spider Silk.”  “Skein upon skein of thread in rainbow colors-- / silk of silver and gold as well-- / heaped beside the peasant girl whose claim to rival / Athena’s skill as a weaver will soon / be tested.  Beside each loom, the raw stuff / that will prove who is the better / at her craft. // The signal given, shuttles fly.  Athena’s / fabric, as expected, dazzles the eye. / Arachne’s, finished at the same moment, no less / impressive.  The goddess, in a jealous / fury, slits Arachne’s web / from top to bottom, then beats the maiden / about the head with a shuttle. // Disgraced and angry, / Arachne hangs herself.  At that, a slight regret / steals into Athena’s heart.  She / lifts the body from the noose, sprinkles the corpse / with magic liquid.  As if from sleep, / Arachne stirs, comes back to life as a spider, her / skill at spinning, preserved” (22).  Greek mythology is one of my favorite topics for literature of any genre.

Another of these cleverly woven poems is “Astronomy.”  “This bird-woman flew to my kitchen wall, high / above the sink—a bibelot made of / coconut shell from Mexico—woman I call / my Aztec Sun.  Sun-yellow / frames her painted cheeks, and six / symmetrical rays surround them, each: red / yellow, and green. // Eyebrows fallen parentheses, / lips a small star, it’s clear that she’s / missing her starfish brother.  Fossils show: 300 / million years before dinosaurs, Blood Star / plunged to the ocean floor. / Aztec remembers.  Replays the scene / evenings when sun sets red in the west” (60).

Numerous poems in this collection deal with nature—reminiscent of Mary Oliver--a poetry topic I love to spend hours pouring over.  Here is an example of one of her bird poems, “To a Crow Outside My Bay Window.”  “When have I ever welcomed you to my gutters, / stuck on the one wrong note / Poe’s ‘Raven’ returned forevermore?  Litany and / response, my every invocation / draws down the repeated guttural cry / your mate doubles from a telephone wire / high overhead. // When I stomp my foot, clap / my hands, rattle venetian blinds, you flap away, / but there’s no mistake: you’re / on a round-trip with no plans to brake anywhere / but over my eaves, morning and noon / all summer.  Am I expected to ask you in, / terrific newcomer mimic? // You do have a language / mostly scold, a memory better than mine / for bold aggression.  Smartest of birds, your / fossils revealed in deposits 12 million years / old in Colorado, what chance do I have / with an omen?  Go back to your nest!  My / nuisance, nemesis, shadow at my window” (68).

Is there anything sweeter than stumbling on an unfamiliar poet and discovering a whole new world of enchantment?  Spectral Waves by Madeline DeFrees is an instance of such a happy accident.  5 Stars

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!