Faint Hope, Earned Honestly

Sandra McPherson offers the pleasures of no-nonsense, all-substance poetry.

By Joel Brouwer
Poetry Foundation Media Services

Expectation Days, by Sandra McPherson. University of Illinois Press. $18.95.

This book is a knockout. Sandra McPherson is fully aware of art’s limited power to console, and the stunning poems of her new collection admit not a whiff of affectation or artificial catharsis. In this passage from “Lucid Dreaming: Oxycodone,” the speaker coolly determines the least upsetting way to comfort her mortally ill and hallucinating husband, then smartly analyzes the result.

Of the ways I could say, “You’re dreaming,”
I learned to choose a voice
Of pleasured caring. For both
Of us, the dream pronouncement
Verified he had an “inner life,” a nucleus of marvel
That he feared forsook him
In the lull of a waking interval.

I don’t mean to suggest McPherson is remotely clinical or cynical in tone, sensibility, method, or choice of subject matter. On the contrary, she fearlessly engages topics both personal and historical–illness, suicide, aging, widowhood, 9/11, survivors of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, a middle-school shooting–which could easily lend themselves to mawkish or lurid treatment, and her style is marked by lavish musical effects, effusions of imagery, and a Nabokovian passion for vocabulary. When this poet goes out to garden, her “hands ruffle the feverish flat geranium petals,” and when she asks herself what color the blooms are, answers “Tango. What other color? / Crucifixion parfait.” (“Suicidology”)

McPherson’s balance of austere insight and lingual exuberance kept putting me in mind of James Wright’s famous lines about wanting to write the “poetry of a grown man,” made of “the pure clear word.” McPherson’s is the poetry of a grown woman, who no matter how intensely engaged with her subject always remembers that a poem is made not just of ideas but of sounds, and who can take (and convey to us) tremendous pleasure in her formal capabilities without ever forgetting (or letting us forget) that a poem must offer something more substantial than technical virtuosity. The exquisite tension in these poems, to put it more squarely, is between horror and joy: the horror of having to work out how you’re going to tell your dying husband he’s not in his right mind, and the joy of setting seven lines on the subject in a subtle but relentless rhythmic pattern juxtaposing clenched trochaics with serene iambics, and salted with tantalizing internal and near-rhymes.

McPherson’s 9/11 poem is one of the best I’ve read in that genre, and rather than chatter on about this collection’s near-perfection (poems with cats in them bug me, the handful of prose poems are a touch prolix, and one poem–“On Suicide Watch”–seems to me disconcertingly detached and gives me the same kind of creeps I get from Elizabeth Bishop’s “Pink Dog”; those are literally my only criticisms), I’d prefer to quote its final lines and give this remarkable book the last word. The speaker is moving through airport security in October 2001, talking with the officers, doing her “duty to guide their hands / By voice down into the baggage of their doubt,” trying to decide what would really constitute “security,” and wondering how we might attain it. As she does so well and so often here, McPherson leaves us with only a faint sense of hope, but a powerful sense that she’s come by it honestly.

Of personalities–
The winning, the horrific–
There really isn’t any moral scrutiny
Trained enough to sort
Transcendence from the gross ungodly.
I want such a machine.
And a machine will suffice: A god
Is too boundless for mere citizens’ safety,
Too unwieldy for my preemie-diaphanous-hair’s-breadth
Mysticism–uninspected
But true-to-soul: the one-time visitation
I cling to of a presence glowing . . . like a
Golden mayfly.
It came aboard my nerves, lodged
In a reading-light-sized chamber
Over my left eye,
Where it could radiate unquestionable security,
Peace, and rest. I still carry the gift
Of its short but sacred flight.
–From “On Being Transparent: Cedar Rapids Airport”

Joel Brouwer is the author of three books: Exactly What Happened, Centuries, and And So. He teaches at the University of Alabama.

© 2008 by Joel Brouwer. All rights reserved.

Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at http://www.poetryfoundation.org.

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~ by ericedits on July 30, 2008.

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