Imaginary Ancestors is a search for self-definition that leads Madeline DeFrees to that fertile ground where imagination unearths the past in order to invent the present. She unlocks her complex family past, which becomes a version of American history; struggles with the crisis of religious faith in our time; and affirms a moving, personal vision of America’s feminine poetic tradition. Her language is chiseled and penetrating, full of those marvelous, idiosyncratic perceptions that recall Emily Dickinson and Marianne Moore. Those who know When Sky Lets Go and Magpie on the Gallows will find Imaginary Ancestors a wonderful furthering of Madeline DeFree’s art. Those who haven’t discovered Madeline DeFree’s poems will find this book a revelation.
A remarkable achievement, Madeline DeFrees’s genealogy of her own vision is astonishing at every turn. The ancestry she traces–from actual parents to unknown grandparents, from historical figures (Ulysses S. Grant) to muses religious (Teresa of Avila) and literary (Marianne Moore, George Eliot)–leads us down roads of inquiry into the deepest valleys of learning, faith, and memory; the mindscape of these poems is erudite, touching, affectionate, angry, and funny, inspired and inspiring. The particulars of her life (being the child of an orphan mother; devoting thirty-eight years to life in the convent; travels; teachings; readings) are spun into many-colored threads that are bound together into one strong rope of verse; this rope hangs deep into the well of imagination, where the true self is hidden, nourished, and educated. One poem in particular, in which DeFrees invents a liaison between Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins, deserves to brighten the pages of future anthologies. As capstone to DeFrees’s rich career as writer and teacher, Imaginary Ancestors should be welcomed with cheers. Selected by Robert Hass as winner of the 1990 King County Arts Commission Publication Award.