Poetry Sunday: “Butterflies by a Lake,” by Sandra McPherson


Butterflies by a Lake

I am told she speaks strangely
And should seek help.
To the psychologist I bring
This mud lit with butterflies:
She said this . . . and this . . .
Orange sayings, midway
From blood to the sun,
One opening then another,
Elegant echolalia —
And the softness of her speech,
Confusing pronouns, so that
You and I are changed:
CHRYSALIS: we cannot be told
Apart; and he can tell us —
What? — to speak for oneself,
Little and veering in the sun.


First published in Jam To-Day. From The Spaces Between Birds (Wesleyan/UPNE 1996). Published with permission of the press and available for order here.


Sandra McPherson is the author of ten books and seven chapbooks, most recently Expectation Days (University of Illinois Press 2007) and A Visit to Civilization (Wesleyan University Press 2002). The founder and director of Swan Scythe Press (publisher of 28 poetry chapbooks), she has taught creative writing and poetry-as-literature classes at the University of California Davis for more than 30 years. Her honors and awards include three National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, a Guggenheim fellowship, two Ingram Merrill grants, an Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and a nomination for the National Book Award. She was featured on the Bill Moyers’ television series, The Language of Life. McPherson’s poetry has appeared in all the major U.S. markets for poetry. She has edited one issue of Poetry Northwest, two years of Antioch Review (poetry only), several issues of The Iowa Review (poetry only), and The California Quarterly. (Author photo credit: Phoebe Carlile)


Poet’s Note

The background to the lyric is that I was at Davis Lake, a fly-fishing-only lake in Oregon. Henry, my first husband and a great fisherman and our daughter’s father, was out in his boat catching our evening’s dinner; my daughter, who is now 50 and a glorious individual, is on the autism spectrum, but early on—actually for the first 20 years—we had no accurate idea of her special mind. Just that she didn’t speak until late. Our book together is The Spaces Between Birds: Mother/Daughter Poems 1967-1995. This is from my Facebook post on February 24, 2017: “Fifty years ago today, after twenty hours of labor, labor together with my daughter, she was born in the University of Washington hospital. How beautiful her face! Her father had been reading poems to me from Anthony Hecht’s ‘The Hard Hours.’ Then he had a pillow fight in the street with a fellow student from Roethke’s class. Our daughter’s first word, when she felt like saying something, was ‘Machine!’ At age four she said, ‘To be or not to be: that is not a question.’ The next year she said, ‘I’m a pretty historical girl!’ Thanks for making our world a better place, Genius. And Very Happy Birthday!”

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  • Patricia Yarberry Allen, M.D. April 23, 2017 at 5:06 pm

    Sandra McPherson’s poem and her story are a gift to us all. Thank you.
    Dr. Pat