In her poems, Sandra McPherson repeatedly takes up the issue of survival. She is especially concerned with the tenuous life of objects and beings at the mercy of forces outside their control. In “World of Different Sizes,” from her first book, Elegies for the Hot Season, she admits a desire to help small objects or beings survive. Her subjects range from slugs and flowers to cats and dogs to human beings and the natural world at large. The lives of children and women as well as adult love relationships are also favorite topics.
Usually written in the voice of a narrator who is empathic with whatever or whoever is threatened, McPherson’s poems express a deep admiration for the idiosyncrasies of the world’s fragile inhabitants. She draws connections between the inability of a being to protect itself and special traits of that being. The poet believes that those traits are highly deserving of care and admiration, because they cannot be found in any other being and therefore will disappear when that being dies. For McPherson, the beauty of a thing is closely related to its degree of helplessness. As she intimates in “Worlds of Different Sizes,” she believes that all things—no matter what their size—have an invisible and endangered spirit that is laboring for life.
McPherson’s belief in the delicate and essential inward energy of plants and animals (and sometimes even inanimate objects) produces a poetry that continuously examines that aspect of a thing that gives it its distinctive identity. In her poem “The Plant,” she recognizes a houseplant’s distinctive life, suggesting that its blossoms emerge from a special place in the plant, a kind of botanical soul. As in many of McPherson’s poems, however, this soul is finite and cannot always weather the menacing forces of its environment.
McPherson is important as a poet not merely because of her ability to prize those beings threatened by uncontrollable forces. Her genius lies in her talent for wedding this extraordinary empathic faculty with her own idiosyncratic syntactical mode. Her idiom is clearly her own—and it virtually resists mimicry. Few other poets write like McPherson. Her poetic language does not soar like that of Dylan Thomas or Theodore Roethke in passionate lyric bursts. Rather, she is one of the most significant poets of her era because she renders her concern for the unique qualities of vulnerable beings in a poetic diction that is often contrapuntal, involuted, highly detailed, and in her best poems, mysterious and surprising. The linguistic structure she creates is often as unusual as the subjects she is describing. The great aesthetic strength of McPherson’s poetry is that in key ways her verse is like many of her subjects: exclusive, irreproducible, one-of-a-kind. Her poems can be difficult; they frequently require close reading in the way many of Marianne Moore’s poems do. People, animals, and things are depicted not only with a care for detail but also with an eye for aspects of the subject that have heretofore gone undescribed.
McPherson’s poems are often marked by a shimmering, highly refined voice, one that speaks out of an uncanny identification with the inner life of fellow creatures. While McPherson’s growing canon will probably leave a lasting mark, her voice also seems somehow fearful of its own mortality, of its human fragility. Beginning with Wallace Stevens, most of the major poets of the twentieth century lament the fact of human mortality. Yet few poets use tone and imagery to render convincingly the nervous fear that not only is one capable of dying but indeed one may die at any moment. One of McPherson’s earlier poems, “Lions,” uses lions as images of incompletely socialized, unpredictable, and dangerous human instincts. This simultaneous and self-conscious awareness of one’s own power to kill and ability to die is echoed in McPherson’s language and serves to amplify her assertion that all beings—especially those that survive for the pleasure of others—must be the focus of wonder and care.
Elegies for the Hot Season
To examine McPherson’s five books in order of their appearance is to witness in midcareer the evolution of a style of poetic language that simultaneously describes and mirrors the tenuous and idiosyncratic nature of its subjects. Her first book provides a small preview of the complex syntactical and imagistic poetics she has come to employ more and more. The title poem is the best in a remarkably sophisticated first volume, Elegies for the Hot Season. In the two-part “Elegies for the Hot Season,” snails and caterpillars are the foci of her empathy as well as metaphors for the finite lives of humans. In the first section, “The Killing of the Snails,” the narrator remembers how her father would circle the house on humid moonless nights during the summer, hunting for snails to destroy. She could hear him on the other side of the walls as he crunched them with his feet. The next day she would search for them. The signature characteristics by which one can recognize the poems of McPherson’s fifth book are prefigured here in her attention to detail and imaginative phrasing. Like her later poetry, this first section does not end with an obvious thematic turn. There is surprise in the section’s closure; the poet does not dwell on what might be a young girl’s horrific fascination. Rather, she notes the perseverance and perhaps the retribution of the surviving snails.
The second section, “The Killing of the Caterpillars,” does not, however, end the poem by focusing on the persevering traits of caterpillars. In this sequence the narrator has watched her neighbor torch nests of tent caterpillars in the branches of his cherry tree. The neighbor is a musical “conductor,” but the music is the sound of immolation, the burning caterpillars. The exploding larvae begin their strange, hallucinatory fall through the branches. McPherson finds the exact metaphor to describe the scene and renders it here in exotic imagery and exquisite free verse sound. The fiery caterpillars have been part of a terrible and oddly beautiful show. After they burn out into black crisps, the narrator’s fixation with burning appears in her attention to light, specifically that of her father’s flashlight illuminating the dead caterpillars. The poem ends with a hopelessness that had been temporarily suppressed by the closing retribution of the first section. In many ways “Elegies for the Hot Season” establishes a paradigm for the kinds of poems that McPherson has written since it first appeared. With an imaginative care for specific visual details, the poem focuses on the fragile existence of small, nonhuman creatures and demonstrates a sympathy for their circumstance. Furthermore, “Elegies for the Hot Season” considers the deadly human power of the environment those creatures inhabit.
At least two other poems from Elegies for the Hot Season are representative of McPherson’s range. “Resigning from a Job in the Defense Industry” is not an overcharged political manifesto; rather, it considers the manner in which people in the narrator’s workplace would cope with their life of building weapons of mass destruction. Typically, McPherson’s narrator found herself fascinated with names. Her coworkers attempted to minimize the nearly unimaginable gravity of their work by distracting themselves. Some decorated their holiday plants and trees. Others made art for the company talent show. Like the poet’s artistic impulse, the creative process of the coworkers was a gesture against the mechanics of death. In “His Body,” which expresses a woman’s view of her lover’s body, the narrator is fascinated by the unusual aspects of a being’s physical self. In this case, these aspects correspond to the invisible characteristics that distinguish one human being from all others. While the language is syntactically straightforward, the poem manifests McPherson’s penchant for clever observation. While “His Body” closes on a loving note, it also affirms the poet’s belief that being alive dictates the condition of isolation.
McPherson continues her inquiry into identity in her second book, Radiation. Employing a quote from French poet Paul Valéry as an epigraph, she establishes a severe context for the poems that follow. Is it true that good people are fundamentally evil? That evil people have good hearts? Valéry understands that his hypothesis is unprovable, and McPherson, too, recognizes that the notion that each individual may actually be a character opposite, like a film negative, is probably too simple. Yet the epigraph provides her with a tool for understanding human nature: People may not be duplicitous character opposites, but they are certainly not entirely how they project themselves. Human beings are, rather, complex entities who can be both savage and caring. The kind may at times be cruel, and the cruel may at times be kind. In McPherson’s view, such irony must be accepted if one is to appreciate one’s dual position as destroyer and caregiver. One’s survival and the survival of others may depend on one’s recognizing one’s own animality.
McPherson believes that human beings are animals in the best and worst sense of the word. People are born feral, and several poems in Radiation concern the instinctively self-directed nature of humankind. In “Peter Rabbit,” McPherson retells the children’s story of Peter, the small rabbit who disobeys his mother and wanders far from home, barely escaping from Mr. McGregor’s garden and losing his pretty blue jacket in the process. The poem is narrated by a bright child to whom the story is being read. The child knows that mothers too can be unkind, even Mother Rabbit. Though the child sympathizes with Peter, the child also knows that Peter is not always good, that he is a thief. At the same time, the child understands that being bad may be part of being alive. In the next lines the child recognizes an affinity with Peter—almost a complete identification. McPherson creates an endearing children’s diction to dramatize the innate good-bad split in human beings. Such a language emphasizes the child’s innocence,...
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