The God of Indeterminacy

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The God of Indeterminacy is Sandra McPherson’s tenth full-length collection of poems. A well-recognized California poet, McPherson has won three National Endowment for the Arts grants as well as a number of other prestigious awards over the years, including a Guggenheim Foundation grant. The trademarks of her style have become well known to her readers, and looking at the cover of a tenth book (there are even more, if you count chapbooks) one might justifiably wonder: Can such a prolific poet do anything new?

The answer in this case is yes. These poems do represent a departure, although the change is in focus rather than in style, and the many readers who appreciated her earlier work will be neither puzzled nor disappointed. Once again McPherson crafts her poems with the scientific exactness, the precise terminology, that caused commentators to compare her work with that of both Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop. McPherson’s earlier works, however, are more nature-based, more in the school of Moore and Bishop; the natural world provides the analogue for the human. Romantic and naturalist meet warily in these poems. In The God of Indeterminacy, the focus is more on cultural likenesses and sharings, and an intriguing metaphysic lurks beneath the surface. The element of the romantic has increased, perhaps, although it is still held in check by the discipline of precision.

This collection is particularly satisfying to read, because the poems do not simply sit there and ask for one’s admiration, but they do something. Action, not dizzying frenetic action but repetitious meaningful activity, is at the core of this poetry. These poems explore certain societal rituals in what McPherson describes as “often unlooked-at corners of culture in America and more distant places,” rituals of quiltmaking and of singing the blues, of handicrafts, of dancing. These are both art forms and culture-defining rituals, and in them McPherson searches for a “center,” a center that is “indeed in the corner or elsewhere, the indeterminate godly place without a name.”

McPherson’s special skill has always been the blending of two actions or events into one so that each becomes a comment on the other and so that the surface of the poem crackles with the unexpected intersections between the two. Often the technical vocabulary of one action serves also to describe the other. “Collapsars,” from her 1973 collection Radiation, is an example of this technique; she uses information about black holes taken from a scientific journal to describe the death of a neighbor in a fife, so that the reader experiences this death as a black-hole phenomenon:

  The matter
  in such stars
  has been squashed together
like a victim
of a fire
carried down in a bag,
half size,
but then again and again,
fire after fire,
  into forms
unknown on earth.

The coldness of the scientific description lends emphasis to the human vulnerability to disaster and the indifference of the natural world. The poems in The God of Indeterminacy tend instead to blend two human activities, and the result might be described as a kinder, gentler poetry.

In this collection, the main presence is a series of quilts. McPherson researched the subject by serving as curator of a quilt show, and the descriptive tags of the quilts sometimes appear as epigraphs. The quilts, sometimes anonymous, sometimes attached to names, reflect the lives and times of their makers and comment on the values of their cultures. A second motif is blues-singing and blues singers. These two major cultural expressions comment on each other, so that...

(The entire section is 1573 words.)