McPherson kicks off writers series with poetry reading

June 30, 1996
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

Poet Sandra McPherson kicked off the "Literature of Northern California" series on women writers, which features a different speaker every Wednesday night through the month of July. All events take place in the Alumni and Visitors' Center on the UC Davis campus at 7:30 p.m. The readings and lectures are free, no tickets are required.

On Wednesday night McPherson did not deliver a lecture. Instead, she read from her latest collection of poetry, "The Spaces Between Birds." Her lecture was well-attended, the audience appreciative.

Lecturer Elizabeth Davis introduced McPherson, describing the poet as a "regional treasure," citing her work for its originality, intelligence and light touch. McPherson, the author of 12 books, also was featured a year ago on Bill Moyers' PBS program on poetry, "The Language of Life."

McPherson read two poems, one at the opening of the reading and one at the closing, which acted as independent bookends about her life. These two poems framed the main event of the evening, readings from "The Spaces Between Birds." That collection of poetry represented McPherson's 28 years of experience as a mother offered in counterpoint with work by her daughter, Phoebe.

Phoebe, now 29, was born with Asperger's Syndrome, a form of autism. She lives in Sacramento.

"She doesn't understand social signals," said McPherson. "She's kind of proud of this...of this different kind of mind."

However, at times McPherson found it difficult to raise her daughter and when she needed solace or needed to work things out she turned to poetry.

"I took my troubles to the page," she said. McPherson then read a series of poems in chronological order beginning with a poem about Phoebe's surprisingly accurate pre-birth astrological reading and continuing with a poem about pregnancy written the year Phoebe was born, 1967.

"I wrote this when I was 23," said McPherson, laughing. "I was reading a lot of Sylvia Plath," she added apologetically.

When Phoebe was born, her mother was astounded at how wet her baby always seemed to be, almost like she was not yet used to living on land. That observation resulted in a poem called "Pisces Child."

Later, when Phoebe was a little older, McPherson said she liked to practice being born. She'd crawl between her mother's legs and re-enact the act.

"Well, I thought, she's an only child and the product of two poets," said McPherson.

Phoebe spoke in metaphors and similes at an early age, even though she had a difficult time getting her pronouns straight, a difficulty that also resulted in a poem by her mother.

"I'm told she speaks strangely and should seek help," it begins.

Phoebe, too, wrote poetry, but it wasn't her first passion. Her passions were many and varied and at one point included a pre-teen fascination with crucifixion. In Iowa on Easter morning in 1979 Phoebe crucified her sock monkey - an act the good people in Iowa City didn't appreciate.

It's clear that McPherson cherishes her daughter, "my odd daughter," as she describes Phoebe. But when Phoebe was 17, she was arrested for shop-lifting. That, too, became a poem, "The Bad Mother Blues."

However, shop-lifting is banal and Phoebe is anything but banal. Another poem described her fascination with electronics, tape recordings, and music. Phoebe once spliced together all the breath pauses from recordings of her favorite artists. Who would have thought of doing that? That incident also became a poem, which required three volunteers from the audience to help read, to re-enact the breath pauses that Phoebe recorded.

When McPherson and Phoebe moved to Davis they lived on Fordham Drive. Thanks to a lush garden at that house, Phoebe once wrote a note to her mother in snails. She was 18 or 19 and one day when her mother was gone Phoebe collected all the snails she could find in the garden and spelled out the word "Hi" on the front of the house as a greeting. But it didn't work. The snails moved.

I wish Phoebe had been with her mother at the reading to share her poems and observations with us. But short of meeting Phoebe in person, we can meet her through "The Spaces Between Birds."

This Wednesday, July 3, the series will continue with Cyra McFadden speaking on "The Western Sensibility" at 7:30 p.m.

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