Sandra McPherson is a California poet known for the versatility and the challenge of her poetry. Once a technical writer, she has always had a strain of the scientific or the technical in her work, producing complex and vibrant metaphors. Her first book, Radiation (1973), astounded critics and readers with its precision, its hard-edged exploration of nature and human nature. Poems in it rapidly found their way into anthologies and classrooms. McPherson’s work tends to veer away from the hard-edged scientific approach of other poets, like Marianne Moore, and to move into an area where science and humanity blend and touch. Often, the scientific and the human appear as double visions of the same truthreading such a work is like looking through a telescope that has two different lenses. Science is a constant presence in her books, whether it is botany, theory of black holes, archaeology, or geology; there is a bedrock of science to McPherson’s vision of the world.
However, the emphasis on science and on the technical is only one element of her approach. Her poems often speak directly of motherhood, loss, relationships, or family. With McPherson the reader never knows what will come next: a love poem, or a poem on a natural theory of science, or both. Two books that were published in 1996 suggest her range: Edge Effect: Trails and Portrayals and The Spaces Between Birds: Mother/Daughter Poems, 1967/1995. Edge Effect explores the relationship between quilting and jazz and the way “outsider art” expresses human nature at its most complex; it is filled with precise information about these practices. The Spaces Between Birds is a direct, emotion-filled exploration of the mother and daughter relationship. Taken together, the two books represent the sides of Sandra McPherson. Both share a sense of the metaphysicala transcendence that is not affiliated with any religious ideology but that comes as hard-won glimpses into the heart of nature itself.
Born in San Jose, California, in 1943, McPherson has spent much of her life in her home state, and California scenes appear in her work. This new collection, though, often uses natural imagery in a way divorced from place, so that the reader does not think of specific beaches or towns but rather of specific elementsan ouzel, a coyote, a kind of wind, faintly carrying some allegoric or emblematic traces. The places named are sometimes exotic, sometimes local. Nevertheless, these poems have a sense of place, a home landscape.
Expectation Days is McPherson’s fifteenth collection, following the poet’s life into widowhood and the experience of the newly single life. This book is divided into five numbered sections that are very different from each other. The first includes mostly poems of place, though their geography is largely internal. The second, beginning with “Containers,” includes poems of bereavement. The third section contains some magical prose poems, sometimes sparked by places far from and near to home. The fourth is a series of “virtue studies” that are narratives of human connections and of admirable influences, some human, some natural. The last section includes poems with political undertones and projects a sense of reconciliation with the world and acceptance of loss and grief as part of it.
The first poem is startlingly lovely and sets the tone for the book. Its apparent subject is naturea late season, an unidentified scene of alder, coyotes, the last blackberriesbut its end is a rupture of the peace, a despoilment: “Bottomland/ the foolhen/ waits there for// the fool gun,/ gray throat-down free in a burst,/ the pose, the afterslump.// Carcass beside spirit./ O come to my hand, unkillable;// whatever continues, continue to approach.” The staggered tercet form enhances the luminous effect of this poem, which becomes both resignation and a kind of prayer that loss and grief not close off communication, communion with the physical world. This theme appears in other poems, together with the notion that the natural in its passing affords the occasional glimpse of the eternala glimpse that cannot be...
(The entire section is 1699 words.)