This past week, the Pacific Northwest—and the literary community at large—said goodbye to one of its great poets, Madeline DeFrees.
A sister of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary from the time she was just sixteen years old, Madeline DeFrees spent 38 years as a nun—later requesting a release from her vows so that she could better devote herself to her work as a poet—and 35 years as a teacher. During her career, she published two chapbooks, eight collections of poetry (two of which won Washington State Book Awards), and two works of nonfiction. She received both an NEA and a Guggenheim, among numerous other deserved recognitions, but to list them all here would feel like an impersonal recitation. Instead, on this day before what would have been Madeline DeFrees’s 96th birthday, I’d like to offer an appreciation.
I met Madeline when she served as a member of the guest faculty at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts. I was a young poet working on my MFA, and her collection Magpie on the Gallows, a book as old as I was, had made a deep impression on me. Magpie sits at a turning point in her career; not only was it her first book with Copper Canyon Press, but it was also her forum in which to grapple both boldly and publicly with her life inside and outside the convent. It was an economical book, a funny book, a painfully honest book, and above all else, an immaculately crafted book. In brief, it was the kind of book that any poet would be proud to have written.
So it was with a good dose of enthusiasm that I sat down with Madeline together with my own mentor, Carolyne Wright (like me, Carolyne had first encountered Madeline’s work when she herself was a beginning writer). I came to the meeting with trepidation, too; the advice never to meet your idols is typically best followed, especially in literary circles. But in the hours we three spent talking together, I came to understand that Madeline was both a major talent and a fundamentally kind person.
She answered my questions with genuine patience and graciousness, and gave me thoughtful responses to my half-formed student work. Perhaps what stuck with me the most was her seeming indifference to her status as a notable poet; she cared deeply about the work, not about the mystique that came with it. She was the sort of person I hoped—and still hope—I could be one day.
In the years that have followed, I’ve taught Madeline’s poems as often as I’ve had the chance, and I’ve found myself coming back to her books as master lessons in the craft of poetry. While I didn’t have the opportunity to get to know Madeline as well as many others in the Northwest writing community did, I feel lucky to have had the chance to learn from her—and to continue to learn from her—in her poems and by her example as a person of devotion and integrity.
I join with the rest of the poetry world in saying that I’m grateful to have shared a literary community with you, Madeline. Thank you for your work, and thank for your life.