At 83, local poet Madeline DeFrees is hitting her peak

Someone once told Seattle poet Madeline DeFrees that her poems lacked a sense of place. She didn't disagree, but she should have.

At 83, DeFrees is still conjuring a place that is more oblique and cloistered, revelatory and sublime than any physical setting — her own mind.

DeFrees has grown more familiar with this tricky territory over the years. And far from diminishing with age, the poet insists she's just hitting her peak as a writer. DeFrees is ever more curious, and crystalline.

In October, her latest volume of new and collected works, "Blue Dusk," was awarded the prestigious Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize for outstanding poetry in the United States, which came with a $25,000 gift. "Blue Dusk" (Copper Canyon Press, $16) also won a 2002 Washington Book Award.

Marshall Prize Jury Chairman Michael S. Harper said of DeFrees' work: "These poems teach by example, over five decades, about the solitary works of service and epiphany."

Rebel within a nun

Born and raised in Oregon, DeFrees spent the first half of her adult life as a nun with the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary. She has taught writing in Eastern Washington, Montana and Massachusetts. Now retired, she lives in a simple home overlooking a street in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood.

It would be easy to peg DeFrees as a creature of solitude, except that she loves sharing her work and teaching. The convent life certainly taught her quiet contemplation, emotional restraint, compulsive exactitude and rigorous grace, though.

During that time, DeFrees was known as Sister Mary Gilbert, and that's the name she used for her published work, including her first volume, "From the Darkroom," published in 1964 when she was 45.

The jacket features a white cross on the cover and a photograph of the author, in full habit, hands overlapping on an open Bible, on the back.

But deep down there stirred a rebel, who wrote verses like, "Bound to no shore, I sheer and tack/ veer in the wake of wreckage flung, at steady stars in a reeling sky;/ then old as earth/ unaltered in my round,/ swing in the compass of the undertow."

In "Blue Dusk," DeFrees is less earnest, yet no less evocative. Now she is as likely to plumb the various surgeries she has undergone as the disorienting quest for self-discovery.

In "Surgery Waiting," she drowsily describes lying on an operating table and looking up at a depiction of the Acropolis.

"Here in the shadow of the Parthenon, hair veiled/ from view like a medieval nun, what I really need/ is a hard hat for this major foot reconstruction./ Pale curtains drawn around me for the epidural/ or the nerve block. They are like the virginal/ curtains of the novice's dormitory/ fifty-eight years ago. Now it's IV time ... "

This poem is immediately followed by one of DeFrees' favorites, "Still Life," which opens with a frankness that recalls her poet hero, Emily Dickinson:

"After your letter arrived I left the oven on/ all night and never once put my head in it. After your letter arrived/ I let one foot follow the other/ through the better part of the day. Your letter/ lay on the kitchen table by the paring knife on the stoneware plate with the apple core/ like a Dutch still life restored to/ its muted color."

Older and wiser

If DeFrees is in touch with her inner being, she must be snickering and shaking her head at the same time.

The bad thing about getting old, she says, is that you don't want some parts of body to ever get old. The good thing, she adds, is the liberating ability to see yourself and the world for all they are.

This opens the door to all sorts of possible subjects, real and imagined.

"The great thing about poetry is if you live long enough and write long enough, there's nothing that at some point won't be relevant," DeFrees said.

So foot surgery becomes fodder, as do the recent cataract surgeries.

In a new unpublished poem, DeFrees plays with the poetic line by Emily Dickinson that goes: "After great pain a formal feeling comes."

But DeFrees writes that pain can be less than "great" if it never breaks beyond the physical to the spiritual.

DeFrees suffers from arthritis, which makes it difficult to climb aboard Metro buses and don her overcoat. There's nothing transcendent about that.

The smart one

DeFrees didn't start out so open about her poetic impulses. She was one of three children in a strict Catholic household and felt "out of it" among her peers. The DeFrees kids wore handmade clothes rather than popular outfits from the Montgomery Ward catalog, on mother's insistence.

Madeline was the smart one. Her sister, Mardelle, was the pretty one. Her brother, Norman, was the bad one.

These categories, designated by mom, were not to be breached or even questioned.

DeFrees played her role beautifully. She was, indeed, a smart budding writer who imitated her favorite poets and fiercely guarded a journal of private thoughts.

But whenever her mother's expectations became a burden, DeFrees recalls, she'd march up to the attic with her favorite doll and fling it across the room to vent her anger. Then she'd head back downstairs, cool as can be. "On the main floor, I'd be the perfect child," she said.

DeFrees acknowledges that going to the convent at the age of 17 was in part a fulfillment of her mother's own wishes.

"I felt like I was living out her dream, and I felt a lot of anger, like a false self had been imposed on me," she said.

Poems with hidden secrets

Many of the poems DeFrees wrote in that four-decade period are thick with metaphors, so as not to reveal their true meanings to wary convent officials.

"I think I deliberately cultivated obscurity," she said of her poems. "I made them obscure because I didn't want certain people to 'get' them. My secrets went in the poems."

The symbolism of trees comes up in her early works.

"I used to watch trees," DeFrees said. "I wanted to be like a tree — rooted but moving."

The fact is DeFrees felt trapped, concealed and stifled in the convent, too.

In her early poem "Skid Row," she writes:

"Out of the depth have I cried, O Lord/ where the lean heart preys on the hardened crust,/ where the short wicks falter on candle-hopes/ and winter whips at a patchwork trust."

DeFrees got herself released from convent duties in 1973 and spent the next 14 years teaching until retirement.

It's not that DeFrees hated convent life; the other reason she joined was out of admiration for the Sisters of the Holy Names.

DeFrees — the writer, not the nun — simply had to make a choice. DeFrees had always felt compelled to write verses that were "appropriate" for a nun to write, and this weighed her down. By the late 1960s, she was already living on her own. She wanted to experience the world, but the role of a nun was to stand aloof from it. It finally became clear to her, while teaching in Montana in 1973, that her real life lay outside the order.

So she blew out the candles, said goodbye to Sister Mary Gilbert and re-entered the world.

"Once I left the convent, I got all these great ideas for poems that just didn't get through somehow," she said.

Like an anthropologist

DeFrees also sought psychiatric help to deal with all the anger she had bottled inside, and which her poems attempted to veil. She learned to feel less guilty about those feelings, to trust them.

DeFrees, her humility intact, has built her reputation quietly. But her work has always gained notice.

In a 1991 review of DeFrees' book "Imaginary Ancestors," poet Victoria Ford notes the lingering "esoteric nature" of some of the author's images. But she applauds the way DeFrees "plumbs the boundaries of the self."

"Madeline DeFrees turns her mind, now musing outwardly, now musing inwardly, turning the discoveries over like an anthropologist examining bits of bone. She then turns these finds into poetry ... with an honesty that opens itself to fear, humor and hope."

DeFrees said she's gotten a burst of energy from the recent poetry awards and now writes every morning in her basement study.

On nice days, she tends to the small patch of lawn out front where blueberry bushes and heather grow.

In her mind, out of all that obscurity, she's happily cultivating clarity.

Tyrone Beason: 206-464-2251 or