Study Guide

A Visit to Civilization

by Sandra McPherson

A Visit to Civilization Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Sandra McPherson’s A Visit to Civilization includes several different types of poems, the most striking of which are those that have been inspired by fragments of the past. McPherson calls these fragments “extinct objects,” and they include a toy soldier, a Haitian spirit flag, a penny postcard from 1911, the unpublished diary of a nineteenth century fisherman who lived in Pennsylvania, a pair of boots once owned by cannibalistic serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, telegrams sent to (and apparently unanswered by) a stage actress during the 1920’s, and a Mennonite quilt. From such seemingly disparate ingredients, McPherson creates in her poetry a world rich in associations between the imagination and everyday life, offering readers a way of experiencing the ordinary that enjoins them to see the poetic possibilities in the chance objects that surround them.

Only one of McPherson’s “extinct objects” is actually illustrated in the book. A French postcard from the time of World War I, depicting a woman in the pose of Christ crucified, with a thick rope discreetly draped about her unclothed middle, provides the cover image for the book. To the viewer’s upper left the name of the Egyptian goddess Isis appears. The “crucified” figure’s hair is delicately coifed. An elegant satin ribbon binds her ankles to the cross. In the poem called “In Her Image,” McPherson contrasts the fragile glamour of the slender figure in the photograph to the depth of anguish she is alleged to be feeling. “She must suffer/ while blooming with a boast of pulchritude/ the lighting director could work with.” There is a startling disconnect, McPherson suggests, between the immaculate, winsome appearance of the “abused” young actress and the actual horrors then taking place in the trenches of World War I. By the end of the poem, however, this apparent dissonance vanishes, for what has led to so much suffering in the trenches is the same mistaken belief that appears in the photograph, an illusion that sacrifice can be heroic, pristine, and ultimately painless. The image that at first glance seems so incongruent with its time becomes, on further consideration, a true microcosm of its age.

McPherson’s ability to find unexpected depths of symbolism in objects or surprising parallels between past and present appears throughout A Visit to Civilization. For instance, in “Material Theology” McPherson begins by describing a Mennonite quilt and then elevates what she finds there to a symbol of the complex and subtle nature of divinity. In its original setting, McPherson sees great beauty in the monochrome uniformity of the quilt. Cut off, however, from its native environment, like a passage of Scripture extracted from its proper context, the quilt suddenly seems alien and meaningless. “When it reached my home,/ I could no longer see it./ My eyes monochromed,/ their God didn’t radiate here.” Despite this setback, the poet tries her best to reconnect with the values of the society that produced this now mysterious object. She recalls a passage from a diary written by a Mennonite immigrant for whom lavish beauty was so divorced from his daily life that his chance encounter with a flower—perhaps analogous to McPherson’s own chance encounters with the objects that inspire her poems—proved an occasion so memorable that he wished to record it for all posterity. She recalls, too, that the Pennsylvania Quakers believed that excess in material possessions or elegance of language would obstruct one’s ability to perceive the divine light that lay within. Through such renewed associations, the quilt becomes, by the end of the poem, able to be viewed once more from its proper perspective. McPherson at last sees in it a symbol of God’s nature or at least of one aspect of God’s nature. “He is a solid color God/ and of fine quality,/ dusky mohair and outward-shining rose wool,/ he is matte and plush, tenebrous and kindled./ He is lasting and contrasting.”

“Material Theology” is an example of how A Visit to Civilization provides continuity with several of McPherson’s earlier works. Both The God of Indeterminacy (1993) and Beauty in Use (1997) include other “quilt poems” by the author. In those poems, as in many works in the current volume, McPherson reveals an ability to view objects from multiple perspectives, to reconstruct imaginatively the thoughts of their original owners or makers, and to demonstrate the range of beauty that may be found in everyday life. Yet A Visit to Civilization also takes McPherson into new and unexplored territory. Whereas one repeated theme of her earlier books had been her adoption and eventual introduction to her birth family, only rarely do the poems in A Visit to Civilization explore this familiar...

(The entire section is 1969 words.)