A Visit to Civilization

by Sandra McPherson
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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1969

Sandra McPherson’s A Visit to Civilization includes several different types of poems, the most striking of which are those that have been inspired by fragments of the past. McPherson calls these fragments “extinct objects,” and they include a toy soldier, a Haitian spirit flag, a penny postcard from 1911, the unpublished diary of a nineteenth century fisherman who lived in Pennsylvania, a pair of boots once owned by cannibalistic serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, telegrams sent to (and apparently unanswered by) a stage actress during the 1920’s, and a Mennonite quilt. From such seemingly disparate ingredients, McPherson creates in her poetry a world rich in associations between the imagination and everyday life, offering readers a way of experiencing the ordinary that enjoins them to see the poetic possibilities in the chance objects that surround them.

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Only one of McPherson’s “extinct objects” is actually illustrated in the book. A French postcard from the time of World War I, depicting a woman in the pose of Christ crucified, with a thick rope discreetly draped about her unclothed middle, provides the cover image for the book. To the viewer’s upper left the name of the Egyptian goddess Isis appears. The “crucified” figure’s hair is delicately coifed. An elegant satin ribbon binds her ankles to the cross. In the poem called “In Her Image,” McPherson contrasts the fragile glamour of the slender figure in the photograph to the depth of anguish she is alleged to be feeling. “She must suffer/ while blooming with a boast of pulchritude/ the lighting director could work with.” There is a startling disconnect, McPherson suggests, between the immaculate, winsome appearance of the “abused” young actress and the actual horrors then taking place in the trenches of World War I. By the end of the poem, however, this apparent dissonance vanishes, for what has led to so much suffering in the trenches is the same mistaken belief that appears in the photograph, an illusion that sacrifice can be heroic, pristine, and ultimately painless. The image that at first glance seems so incongruent with its time becomes, on further consideration, a true microcosm of its age.

McPherson’s ability to find unexpected depths of symbolism in objects or surprising parallels between past and present appears throughout A Visit to Civilization. For instance, in “Material Theology” McPherson begins by describing a Mennonite quilt and then elevates what she finds there to a symbol of the complex and subtle nature of divinity. In its original setting, McPherson sees great beauty in the monochrome uniformity of the quilt. Cut off, however, from its native environment, like a passage of Scripture extracted from its proper context, the quilt suddenly seems alien and meaningless. “When it reached my home,/ I could no longer see it./ My eyes monochromed,/ their God didn’t radiate here.” Despite this setback, the poet tries her best to reconnect with the values of the society that produced this now mysterious object. She recalls a passage from a diary written by a Mennonite immigrant for whom lavish beauty was so divorced from his daily life that his chance encounter with a flower—perhaps analogous to McPherson’s own chance encounters with the objects that inspire her poems—proved an occasion so memorable that he wished to record it for all posterity. She recalls, too, that the Pennsylvania Quakers believed that excess in material possessions or elegance of language would obstruct one’s ability to perceive the divine light that lay within. Through such renewed associations, the quilt becomes, by the end of the poem, able to be viewed once more from its proper perspective. McPherson at last sees in it a symbol of God’s nature or at least of one aspect of God’s nature. “He is a solid color God/ and of fine quality,/ dusky mohair and outward-shining rose wool,/ he is matte and plush, tenebrous and kindled./ He is lasting and contrasting.”

“Material Theology” is an example of how A Visit to Civilization provides continuity with several of McPherson’s earlier works. Both The God of Indeterminacy (1993) and Beauty in Use (1997) include other “quilt poems” by the author. In those poems, as in many works in the current volume, McPherson reveals an ability to view objects from multiple perspectives, to reconstruct imaginatively the thoughts of their original owners or makers, and to demonstrate the range of beauty that may be found in everyday life. Yet A Visit to Civilization also takes McPherson into new and unexplored territory. Whereas one repeated theme of her earlier books had been her adoption and eventual introduction to her birth family, only rarely do the poems in A Visit to Civilization explore this familiar territory. “Peppertree and Tea” and “A Perspective of Tangerines” are among the few poems in which McPherson’s birth family is explicitly mentioned. The first of these poems is a paean to the scents that remind the poet of her father—the spices that were redolent in his driveway, the odor of tea freshly brewed in the afternoon—which she is now recalling after his death. The second poem turns to more visual memories. Indeed, it is a poem specifically about the visual aspect of life. McPherson recalls the image of a painting made by one of her birth father’s friends and how this work was transferred to a more a prominent spot because the artist would soon be arriving to pay his respects. As she steps back to observe the painting, a still life with tangerines, in its new setting, she notes how perfect it now seems framed by the Steinway piano nearby and, outside the window, a natural landscape of goats, valley oaks, and mist. McPherson has found one of those moments when she suddenly realizes that lives, like art, can have their perfect settings, and here was the perfect setting for her father and the memories of her father.

Other poems in the volume tell their own bittersweet stories. “Seven Telegrams to Miss Olive M. Richards” presents “seven skits of suspense” as messages from the actress’s mother and fiancé are sent, apparently without reply, as she begins her career in New York. These unanswered cries of longing for contact are interspersed with McPherson’s own account of how her daughter once practiced tapping out messages in Morse code. In addition, there are actual quotations taken from the Manual of Wireless Telegraphy and passages of Chinese poems dealing with love and loss. As so often happens in A Visit to Civilization, McPherson has discovered poetry where others may have found only text. Readers will discover constant recognition that the human need for contact and comfort is universal in these few concise words or in the sparse bursts of dots and dashes. The need to connect with others transcends blots of ink, transmissions of electric pulses, or languages of a distant time and place. It is what makes us human. Thus, the telegrams sent to Olive M. Richards still speak to the reader after more than seventy-five years. Like all the objects that have inspired McPherson’s poems, and indeed like the poems themselves, these messages on faded yellow forms have meaning because so much of life, hope, and disappointment is unexpectedly shared with those forgotten people whose lives were once filled with these lost objects.

“Gypsy Life” describes the poet’s collection of penny fortunes that she had gathered as a child from a fortune-telling machine. One day she showed the stack of cards to her beloved grandmother, who looked them over and remarked, “I’ve had all those fortunes.” A Visit to Civilization contains in its own way a collection of penny fortunes much like those that McPherson had read on the cards of her childhood. The poems evoke a feeling in the reader that “I, too, have lived all these lives.” No matter how seemingly distant the object or event described may be, McPherson discovers a point of contact that narrows the compass of time, space, or experience.

At times, McPherson speaks of objects that inspire her, not through their symbolism or through the story they might tell, but by the usefulness of their own voices. For instance, “Tri- Tactics” begins by informing the reader that it contains “a chorus from the rules of the British wartime board game.” The language of those rules, extracted from their original setting and inserted into an account of how McPherson was once confronted by a marginally insane woman, serve as a guide to life itself. “There is no advantage in having the first move,/ which is usually settled by lot,/ and an attacker has no advantage/ over the attacked.” In the story that McPherson proceeds to tell, her uninvited guest makes the first move, appearing one evening without warning on the author’s porch. The woman had threatened to kill the poet’s daughter, a child born with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism. In their encounter, the two women seek to reach some level where each can understand the other. They converse for a bit, and then each goes her own way. McPherson attempts to light the way for her guest’s departure as she journeys home in the darkness. She wonders if either of them has really understood what it is she has seen. Human interactions, unfortunately, appear without a set of written rules.

A Visit to Civilization also includes four prose poems—“Ghazal: For My Students,” “Last October,” “Principles,” and “At John’s”—that apply many of the poet’s ideas and techniques to text not set in verse. Indeed, the prose ghazal is a genre of the author’s own creation. The word “ghazal” is Arabic in origin and refers to a conversation by or about women. Poetic ghazals originated in Persia sometime during the tenth century and consist of unrelated couplets, usually fewer than twelve in number, in each of which the poet is free to explore an individual idea or even to introduce an entirely new topic. In her teaching, McPherson has used the ghazal to help writers free their ideas and to assist them in developing poems from apparently unrelated ideas. In the prose ghazal dedicated to her students, McPherson includes six paired sentences that explore such images as the flight of a killdeer at night, the sound of the Dalai Lama’s voice, poets who beg “with an empty bowl of fame,” and the stark color of leaves and husks scattered across a frozen field.

Whether by accident or design, the poem “Brokenness: A Month’s Diary” serves as a miniature of the entire book. The themes of this poem involve acknowledging what is broken and, whenever possible, creating a new sense of “the complete” from what is fragmented, broken, or damaged. The poet’s friend Kay creates photographs from images of objects that are in pieces. At the same time, afflicted with multiple sclerosis, Kay is dealing with her own sense of physical or biological brokenness, developing a new sense of wholeness that is different from what had existed before. On an artistic level, the poem itself—along with McPherson’s entire book—is engaged in much the same activity, gathering fragments of experience and bits of images, nurturing them into an artistic whole. McPherson never forgets that the end result of one’s imagination—a whole poem, a whole body, a whole photograph—must pay its dues to the broken fragments that once gave it life. Readers of A Visit to Civilization will thus find themselves seeing the objects that surround them in their lives, and indeed the fragmented experience of their lives, in an entirely new light as a result of the visit to a different type of perspective that they pay in this book.

Source for Further Study

ForeWord 5 (May/June, 2002): 34.

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