Edge Effect: Trails and Portrayals is Sandra McPherson’s twelfth book of poetry. McPherson’s personal and yet intellectual style has become widely known since she was featured on the PBS television series hosted by Bill Moyers, The Language of Life, which introduced a variety of contemporary poets and types of poetry to the American public. Edge Effect was published in the same year as another, The Spaces Between Birds, and the two together represent the two sides of McPherson’s art. The direct intensely personal side dominates in Spaces, poems about her experiences raising an autistic daughter; her meditations are interspersed with the daughter’s own poems. The more indirect but nonetheless felt poetry of Edge Effect uses precise description of natural history and folk art to comment on the essential force of spontaneous creativity she finds in both.
The double vision that is McPherson’s most definitive characteristic surfaces in Edge Effect. McPherson’s gift from her first work has been an ability to superimpose factual accounts of natural processes on some element of human experience so that the one mirrors the other and the two become one image. In her earlier collections such as Radiation, natural processes not very familiar to nonscientists are described in such a way as to make them apt metaphors for human concerns. In her later book The God of Indeterminacy, it is two forms of art—blues and the quilt—which comment on each other and on the general question of what creativity really is. Her poems in the later books circle around the mysterious center all generative power seems to have, and to ask if this power is a god or a blind force, and how it manifests itself.
Edge Effect parallels two distinct realms: the natural world and the art of folk or “outsider” artists. Their areas overlap—natural art reflects the artistry of nature. The book demonstrates the scientific and emotional truth Allan A. Schoenherr, in A Natural History of California, refers to as the “edge effect”: “The zone where two communities overlap, called an ecotone, shares characteristics of both communities and therefore is diverse. That is, the edge of a community is more diversified than its center, a phenomenon also known as edge effect.’”
To reflect the two realms, the collection is divided into two sets of poems. Those included as “Portrayals,” examine the art and celebrate the artistry of self-taught folk artists, while “Trails” are mysteriously linked journeys through and into nature. This collection needs to be read as a whole, complete with epigraphs and concluding notes, rather than browsed. It is more centered than most poetry collections, and McPherson’s capsule sketches of the folk artists and brief quotations from nature studies enhance the reading of the poetry. The two sections are preceded by a poem of invocation, “Choosing an Author for Assurance in the Night,” which recalls McPherson’s early poem “Wanting a Mummy.” In “Choosing an Author,” a dead woman speaks to and through the living poet in a mystical communication that assures the message will be received and heard. In the first of the many reversals or inversions or turnings upside-down that constitute this book, the “lean idol of this Day of the Dead” types:
Death makes me direct,
with a little ornamental nonsense
of elbows and knees,
if you call this death:
my twaddle still counsels
though I have no ears to hook a mask on.
This is the muse McPherson calls forth to lead into the collection, and her serious yet playful irony surfaces throughout the book. “Portrayals” introduce and examine art that is not studied, but is a direct result of emotion expressed through some medium without regard to the rules or conventions of a craft. These artists’ idiosyncratic visions are “read” as having their own integrity outside the system, and, in fact, as being in themselves arguments against accepted definitions and standards of art. For the “outsider” artists, passion and vision are not diluted by a need to meet expectations. “Justin McCarthy, Naive” describes a Pennsylvania artist who lived from 1892-1977 and, according to McPherson’s note, “received no recognition for his work until quite late in...
(The entire section is 1813 words.)