Edge Effect: Trails and Portrayals, by Sandra McPherson

This is the twelfth of McPherson's books, but the first I've read. It is made up of two parts: the first, the portrayals, are poems about outsider artists; the second, the trails, longer poems about particular trails she has traveled, rich with descriptions of flora and fauna.

In the endnotes, she mentions the resonance between the two words, portrayals and trails. An epigraph defines edge effect as the place where two communities overlap like a Venn diagram. Because these liminal areas share characteristics of both communities, they boast a richer diversity than the bulk of the community. I am reminded of a time Jill and I were at the Worcester Art Museum looking at a painting of two blocks of color. I couldn't make sense of it until Jill pointed out that where the colors met was no clear line, but a shimmer of many colors, spreading, interpenetrating, playing off of each other.

I enjoyed the first part of this book but the second, the trail poems, seemed impenetrable to me. In one of my maillists we have been discussing poems you have to take a chisel to, their peculiar rewards, and what it is fair to ask of a reader.

I've mentioned here before how each reader brings to a book a constellation of circumstances that the author can have no way of anticipating. I had just come off a stretch of reading the poetry of William Carlos Williams in order to prepare to lead a discussion and, after his adherence to plain language and the rhythms of speech, McPherson's trail poems seemed overly complex and obscure. I had trouble following the sense of the sentences. Even some of the flora was new to me: I know weeds and wildflowers, but mostly those of the east coast. Of the places she names, I have walked only one.

Remembering the chisel, I struggled with several poems, reading and rereading, not sure that the effort was worth the reward. Then as night fell, I read a poem that I simply didn't understand. Irritated at being held at arm's length, I tossed the book aside.

That full-moon night I dreamed many dreams, but the last one was of my city, the one I often dream about, but a new aspect of it: underground. Cynthia had to go downtown for an interview, so for the adventure of it, we decided to go by way of the abandoned water tunnels that we'd heard interconnected in such a way that you could get from the uptown plaza with the blue reflecting pools to downtown's towers without ever surfacing.

To make it more interesting, and because we thought it too far to walk, we rode two glossy brown horses. I'm not sure where we got them—the only horses I'd seen in this city before had belonged to mounted police—but we seemed to know them well. And our small cats, Blue and Sophie, came with us, scampering alongside when not dashing off to explore.

The tunnels were where our friend Frank, who had designed the plaza with the reflecting pools, said they would be and tall enough for us to ride easily. I'm not sure what the source of the dim illumination was. Sometimes we slowed to a walk while the horses picked their way over cobbles strewn with broken chunks of branches, smoothed from their immersion years earlier. Other times we moved up to a trot, the smooth motion of posting like a second heartbeat.

But then we came to a dark pool with no way around. Nor was it shallow enough to walk through. I let my horse step into it, but he soon lost his footing and began to swim, so we returned to shore. Cynthia didn't want to risk ruining her interview clothes, tied up in a bundle behind her saddle, so we decided to retrace our steps and ride downtown on the familiar surface street.

As we emerged from the tunnel, Cynthia spied two friends of hers—she has friends everywhere, dream city or no—entering an apartment door. Chatting of many things, she explained our dilemma. The women said they often used the tunnels and invited us to dinner the next night. I hoped that over pasta and wine they would reveal the secrets of the unfathomable pool and how to traverse it. We emerged into sunshine and the bright shimmer of the reflecting pools. My cat Blue squirmed under a fence, taking off on her own adventures, and I awoke.

I reread the poem, and this time it made perfect sense. I found that I had dreamed the poem: the wood underfoot, the depths and dim tracings of time, the intricate working of fetlock, cannon and pasterns. I went back to the earlier poems, and their rewards came easily. Sometimes it takes a chisel; sometimes a dream.

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