Elegies for the Hot Season, 1970
The Year of Our Birth, 1978
Patron Happiness, 1983
Responsibility for Blue, 1985
Pheasant Flower, 1985
Designating Duet, 1989
The God of Indeterminacy, 1993
Edge Effect: Trails and Portrayals, 1996
The Spaces Between Birds: Mother/Daughter Poems, 1967-1995, 1996
A Visit to Civilization, 2002
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.
Human vulnerability is emphasized by its association with cosmic vastness, and human loss is both magnified and diminished by the comparison.
McPherson’s scientific perspective starts where traditional literary naturalism, which emphasizes causality and determinism, leaves off. Instead of arriving at a mechanical fatalism, she makes the scientifically described surface of things a metaphor for their spiritual being. As a result, her poems are full of sharp-edged observation that suggests hidden correspondences.
The collection that succeeded Radiation shows even more clearly a gathering of spiritual force. Although McPherson’s interest in nature does not wane, she focuses more on art in the later collections, again using her double-focus technique. Now instead of, or in addition to, science commenting on nature, one art is made to be a gloss for another, so that two different kinds of voice are heard as a duet. In The God of Indeterminacy, blues and quilting serve as metaphors for each other. In so doing, they provide an intuitive understanding of what it is to make art, what it is to be someone who speaks as a quilter or as a maker of blues. Both arts are at once highly individualized and anonymous, expressive of the singer or quilter and at the same time reflective of the larger culture. Both the quilt and the blues song, whether anonymous or attributed, show the commonality of the culture from which they sprang. McPherson suggests that there is a spiritual being to such art, and that it provides a way of pushing past human limitation toward an undefined divinity.
McPherson’s collections in the mid-1990’s–The Spaces Between Birds and Edge Effect–include direct, accessible poems about the fears and desires underlying the human personality. A Visit to Civilization, published in 2002, includes several poems inspired by fragments of the past. These fragments, which McPherson calls “extinct objects,” include a toy soldier, a Haitian spirit flag, a penny postcard from 1911, the diary of a nineteenth century fisherman, the boots of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, telegrams sent to a stage actress in the 1920’s, and a Mennonite quilt.
The trajectory of McPherson’s work is from the specialized toward the more accessible, but even the most easily understandable of her poems retain the precision of the technical writer and scientific observer. McPherson’s poetry belongs to that relatively rare class of literature that appeals to the few and the many.