The poetry readings take place in a room tucked in the back of Bistro 33 restaurant in Davis. The tiny, dimly lit room, away from the bustling dining area, is packed—filled with Sandra McPherson’s former students, colleagues, old friends and complete strangers. McPherson speaks about her late husband, poet Walter Pavlich, with a considerable amount of joy evident in her wavering voice—and a muted trace of sorrow. And as she continues, her voice gives way completely to every awkward combination of emotions in between. At times, she stops mid-sentence and looks through the room, past everyone in it—past the walls, even—and opens her mouth slightly, as if she suddenly remembers she left her purse at the train station. But then she shakes it off (whatever it may be), smiles politely and continues her thought.
“Wonderful poet … very funny,” she says to the crowd, some standing in the hallway, some sitting on the floor. “He passed away in 2002; he was in a lot of pain and taking a medical prescription drug … and died from that. While he was taking that he had hallucinations, which were very charming and he wanted them to be appreciated, I think,” she says, grinning. She reads from “Lucid Dreaming: Oxycodone,” a poem in which she describes the last days of Pavlich, her medicine-drunk husband, “so brimming / He overflowed to feel any vacant space.” It’s one of the many pieces in her most recent collection of poems, Expectation Days, that deals with some form of bereavement—the loss of innocence, fear, joy and, of course, her husband—in the beginning, a prolific poet—near the end, a child-like muse of her dreams.
The magic in McPherson’s writing is her ability to pair careful character study (“If his hallucinations had a season, / They were spring’s”) with a defiant, yet weighted, stance against a standardized belief system—in this case, the poet catering, like mother to spoiled child, to her husband’s Oxy-induced delusions, (“That was his newfledged / Lucidity. I stocked my blues / With midget fish I thought he’d like.”)
In the completeness of her description—tender, shocking, hilarious—McPherson’s Expectation Days leaves the stuffy woolens of inhibition locked behind closed doors, preferring to dance outdoors in a gauzy linen dress, letting the sun trace her silhouette, in all its beauty and misery.
As McPherson finishes reading, the room collectively exhales. McPherson makes every bit of her journey, ours—through beauty, grief, loss, joy and incongruency: “I play / by ear” she writes, “for all the stumbling voices still to hear.”