The unusual facts of Sandra McPherson’s biography come to figure both directly and indirectly in many of her poems. Born in San Jose, California, she was adopted at birth, grew up in this city, and went to San Jose State University. Not only has McPherson’s adoption helped to form her worldview, but her reunion as an adult with her birth parents in 1981 has also provided the poet with a heightened sense of both the random and orderly forces at work in the universe. Now that she has known two sets of parents, many of McPherson’s poems, especially those in Patron Happiness, have come to focus on the similarities between her own ways of perceiving and those of her blood relatives. The poems also take up attendant questions concerning identity formation and the way a person’s life inevitably progresses along unpredictable paths. (See “Earthstars, Birthparents’ House,” “Wings and Seeds,” “Helen Todd: My Birthname,” and “Last Week of Winter” in Patron Happiness and “The Pantheist to His Child” and “Big Flowers” in Streamers.)
After continuing her education at the University of Washington, where she studied with the celebrated poets David Wagoner and Elizabeth Bishop, McPherson worked for a short time as a technical writer for Honeywell, a defense contractor. Poems that reflect this experience are “Preparation” and “Resigning from a Job in the Defense Industry” in Elegies for the Hot Season. After marrying poet Henry Carlile in 1966, she gave birth the following year to a daughter, Phoebe. She has taught at the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop, at Portland State University, at the University of California campuses at Berkeley and Davis. In 1999, McPherson founded Swan Scythe Press.
The skillful blending of intellectual wordplay and emotional intensity of Sandra McPherson (muhk-FURS-uhn) give the poet an appeal that reaches mainstream poetry readers as well as those who follow the avant-garde. McPherson was adopted as an infant by Walter James McPherson, a professor and coach at San Jose State University, and Frances Gibson McPherson. McPherson’s childhood was happy and active, combining physical and intellectual development. The family’s camping trips encouraged observation and enjoyment of nature, and her voracious reading and interest in foreign languages early instilled a wide general knowledge and an appreciation of literature.
After receiving her B.A. from San Jose State in 1965, McPherson went on to do graduate study at the University of Washington in Seattle, where she worked with David Wagoner and Elizabeth Bishop. She married Henry Carlile in 1966, and their daughter Phoebe was born in 1967. She worked first as a technical writer, then later as a teacher and editor. After she had made a name with her poetry, she began teaching creative writing at a variety of schools, including the Pacific Northwest College of Art. In 1985, after she and Carlile divorced, McPherson joined the faculty of the University of California at Davis. In 1995, she married the writer Walter Pavlich.
McPherson’s first work shows the influence of Elizabeth Bishop and of her experience as a technical writer. The poems in Radiation include many highly concrete, even scientific details, and they show a welding of nature and technology that result in a new way of seeing the natural world, as through a microscope or, perhaps, as through binoculars where each lens shows different images. McPherson tends to conflate two precisely described images so that each must be seen in the context of the other. In “Collapsars,” for example, information from a scientific journal about black holes is juxtaposed with the description of the death of a friend and neighbor by fire.
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...
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