The Poem

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 561

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“Open Casket” is a free-verse poem in which the poet describes and moves through various California landscapes. The identity of the speaker is muted, and the personal pronoun Sandra McPherson uses is the plural “we,” which de-emphasizes the individual in the scene and focuses the reader’s attention on the landscape itself.

Although the title suggests a funeral at which there is an “open casket” viewing of the deceased, the poem itself seems to go off in a different direction, depicting vacation entertainments, rural landscapes seen from a bus, a field trip for school-children, and other diversions. The school trip, in particular, suggests that the sights in the poem are seen from the viewpoint of a child.

The tone of voice in the poem is calm and understated, conveying a cool sweetness that contrasts ironically with other statements about the poor, going “back where we belong,” or overpopulation, “Certainly too many people.”

The first stanza begins with the sort of recommendation one might find in a travel brochure, describing as it does a ride in a “glass-bottomed boat,” a tourist attraction in Monterey Bay near the town of Pacific Grove, on the California coast. The onlooker marvels at how clearly she can view the sea anemones and other underwater life. Presumably, this boat trip takes place on a vacation excursion.

The following, indented stanzas turn by association to other trips, or perhaps to other parts of this same one: riding a bus “between Santa Barbara and San Jose” or going to the state capital in Sacramento on a school trip to see the “gold and white capitol.” She speaks of reading “the Gospel of John/ in a little red pocket version” on the bus, perhaps a child’s edition or perhaps the sort of missionary publication one might find distributed in a bus station or some other public place. She also thinks of crowds of children being brought to the capital, where they learn about the state; its state flower, the golden poppy; and its mountains.

Although the speaker does not seem to have been dealing with death or a funeral, at this point the crowds of children and the Gospel of John, which deals with the life, death, and resurrection of Christ (“the friend who comes back”), make her think generally about the fact that each person will live “beyond another” and will thus have to deal with the meaning of death.

The poem moves to images of dry riverbeds seen from the bus between San Jose and Sacramento. The speaker’s vision of “colored pencils” seems oddly out of place “in the grass” and “Thin wildflowers,” as if the pencils had been dropped or left by someone interrupted while sketching, evidently a personal recollection that connects with the wild poppies.

These images lead into ellipses, and then, as if her attention turns back to the present from uncompleted thoughts of other times, she returns once more to the description of what it is like to look into the tidal pools and waters of the bay. The last stanza, like the first, deals with the boat trip and the image of sea life underwater. The first and last stanzas bracket the rest of the poem, which seems to be a series of memory associations in which the poet connects the present experience with thoughts of childhood, religion, beauty, and death.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 401

McPherson uses indentation and stanza breaks to provide structure for her free-verse poem. The first and last stanzas serve as a frame for the others, but otherwise the poem is very open in form. Although the reader can occasionally hear rhymes, such as “brine” and “design,” they are rare and almost incidental.

Strong visual images are very important in the poem. The poet describes things vividly and accurately in a few words, and as she does so, her observations and descriptions evoke layers of association and meaning. Although her images become metaphorical by association, McPherson’s descriptions are also strongly physical. The world she describes is very concrete and real, and the connections she makes between objects and events follow channels of physical experience. In “Open Casket,” the boat trip evokes feelings of peacefulness and awe and the sense of looking into another world, but the boat itself is a real object in a real world. It is associated visually with the funeral casket by the boat’s shape, the flowerlike sea anenomes, and other images. An interesting poem to compare and contrast with “Open Casket” is Emily Dickinson’s poem numbered 712, which depicts death as an endless carriage ride. In Dickinson’s poem, the dreamlike ride evokes feelings of depression, anxiety, and resignation associated with death, but the carriage ride itself, unlike McPherson’s boat ride, is imaginary.

Other important images in the poem also work visually. The bean fields seen through the bus window and the purplish blue display of amethysts in the jeweler’s window are like the underwater sights seen through the window of the glass-bottomed boat, momentary glimpses of another world. These images suggest how the mind works in trying to understand and absorb things. Together, these images of looking from one world into another take the reader into the experience in a dramatic and evocative way and provoke insight by their coincidences and parallels.

The tone that McPherson uses to achieve this effect is one of wise innocence, although she uses a somewhat impersonal point of view in the poem. There is never an “I” speaking, with her “we” referring perhaps to family members or to other schoolchildren. This plural pronoun brings the reader into the experience and also emphasizes the somewhat-passive feeling of the child as onlooker, part of a crowd, always being transported by one means or another, watching and remembering it all.