Divided into five separate sections, the complex and compelling volume of poems Spectral Waves contains a broad range of topics, including cataract surgery and “the King” (Elvis Presley), in a variety of forms, from free verse to villanelle. Madeline DeFrees has worked out an elaborate interconnecting series of poems in the first four sections in which certain genres of poems and certain themes recur; the pattern is subtle and unlikely to be noticed on a first reading but becomes apparent after careful rereading, which these poems certainly merit. There are a number of repeating motifs: Spiders, vision and cataracts, and birds are the most prominent. Because the poet is dealing with the fear and faith that is required for cataract surgery, most of these poems deal with vision (both physical and spiritual) and the appearances of things as well as the things themselves. Each of the first four sections begins with a poem with a title that starts “The Poetry of. . . .” Each first poem then alludes to poetry on a particular topic by outstanding poets from the ancient to the recent past. Each section also contains a poem about a work of arta genre of writing known as ekphrasis, the representation of an artwork within a literary work. In the first section DeFrees describes a painting by Gustave Courbet, in the second and third, works by Georges de La Tour, and in the fourth, sketches done for an altarpiece by a sister nun. The final two sections contain long, multisectional poems, one honoring Elvis and the other titled “Figures for a Carrousel,” which the poet wrote after reading extensively on Henry Moore’s sculptures.
Section 1 deals with the author’s gradual loss of vision and cataract surgery. It begins with “The Poetry of Eyes,” celebrating the return of the author’s clear vision after cataract surgery, which she dubs “the Indian summer of the eye.” Within the poem she names or quotes some of the great poets and visionaries in the English language: Theodore Roethke, Louise Bogan, William Butler Yeats, and William Blake. Another poem of particular note is “Naming the Cataracts,” which explores the names, scientific or metaphorical, given to various forms of cataracts. At the conclusion of the poem, she introduces the motif of spiders that will weave its web throughout the collections. Another motif that is explored throughout the volume is the genre of writing poetry about paintings. In this section DeFrees describes and comments on Gustave Courbet’s “Dressing the Dead Girl,” so that it becomes a meditation on death and the human condition through the dominant images of the final stage of life. The final poem in the section describes the experience of cataract surgery in both literal and figurative terms, putting the reader in the operating room but also in the poet’s world, which is “always and never the same.”
Section 2 develops the motif of spiders that was alluded to in “Naming the Cataracts.” This section begins with the poem titled “The Poetry of Spiders,” where once again DeFrees names the greats, in this case those who wrote on the subject of spiders, such as Walt Whitman and Robert Lowell, and those who are associated with the image of spiders, such as the mythical character Arachne. In the second poem she explores the story of Arachne, and throughout this section she continues to focus on arachnids, describing different types of spiders found throughout the world and the webs that they weave. The painting she writes about is La Tour’s “The Magdalen with the Nightlight,” another somber painting with a woman as its central figure, in this the Magdalen keeping watch through the night.
Section 3 starts with the poetry of the earth and contains a mix of nature (human and other) poems. In the opening poem titled “The Poetry of the Earth,” DeFrees alludes extensively to John Keats and his most famous odes “To Autumn,” “On a Grecian Urn,” and “To a Nightingale,” concluding with the epitaph he wrote for himself, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water,” as well as to Conrad Aiken, and once again to Roethke. In this section she also has two...
(The entire section is 1699 words.)