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

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

April is not just National Poetry Month; it’s also National Autism Awareness Month, and this week’s poem is written by a parent of a child on the spectrum. Sandra McPherson’s poetry collection written with her daughter, The Spaces Between Birds, was recommended to me by a teacher in my graduate program. Autistic Spectrum Disorder is now estimated to affect 1 in 68 people in this country, and my son is one of them. When his sixth-grade teacher told me in 2000 that she thought my son might, like her brother, have Asperger Syndrome, I had never heard of it before. What a difference 17 years have made: Autism is now a household word, and every teacher I know has at least one ASD-identified student in their classes. You can find several books now about raising kids with Asperger’s; one I read and enjoyed recently was Beyond Rain Man: What One Psychologist Learned Raising a Son on the Autism Spectrum (Leatherback Press 2016). ASD is also making its way into popular culture, with characters on shows like The Big Bang Theory and a recent film starring Ben Affleck, The Accountant, challenging the Rain Man stereotype that has long dominated public perception.

These new depictions are trying to recognize something autism advocates have known for a long time: People with ASD face challenges, but they also often possess positive characteristics and gifts well beyond the savant abilities that define the stereotype. Is it really a “disorder” to be unable to comprehend lying, malice, or guile? I am among those who do not think so. And yet with recognition of those qualities comes a parent’s fear their child may be taken advantage of or otherwise falter in a harsh world. I cannot speak for all parents of children on the spectrum, of course, but my experience has been not just one of raising a child for whom Dr. Spock had no answers, but also of watching the development of someone wondrous and utterly unique. That’s an aspect of parenting a child on the spectrum for which I have not yet found the words in my poems and one reason I’ve read and reread McPherson’s The Spaces Between Birds, from which today’s poem is drawn.

In any other book or standing alone, “Butterflies by a Lake” could be a simple pastoral or nature poem, one in which butterflies are a metaphor for the beauty and vulnerability of any small child still young enough to be experiencing complete identity with her parent. I say “almost,” because there are in fact clues that that this child’s pronoun confusion and soft speech have to do with more than just her age. One is the phrase “elegant echolalia.” Echolalia is “the uncontrollable and immediate repetition of words spoken by another person” (dictionary.com), and I appreciate the way the alliteration in “elegant echolalia” (repetition of the initial “eh” sound) enacts what is being described.

Like rocking or hand-flapping, echolalia is commonly associated with autism, but not all people with ASD exhibit echolalia and, interestingly, many children not on the spectrum do exhibit it as a natural phase of speech development. But in the context of this poem and this book, echolalia is a clue that the “she” who speaks “strangely” and softly is a child on the spectrum. Another clue is the wonderfully vivid phrase “orange sayings,” an example of the synesthesia (mixing up of the senses) also commonly associated with autism. Perhaps you’ve heard of the autists such as Daniel Tammet, the author of Born on a Blue Day, who associate colors and even scents with numbers.

“Butterflies by a Lake” is a lyric poem, one that captures an intense feeling at a moment in time. As noted above, the feeling here is quite complex, and mixes elements of love and fear. Words like “little and veering” communicate the speaker’s terrible awareness of her daughter’s vulnerability, but others like “elegant” and “butterflies” and “orange sayings” also communicate her wonder. I love the poem for its simple eloquence and its ability to describe a beauty not apparent to others. In just 16 unrhymed and mostly trimeter lines, the speaker turns on its head the notion of autism as a pathology, transforming a patient into a complex, developing creature, something of magical transformative power, a “chrysalis.” In one of the most powerful line breaks I’ve seen, the speaker says in line 12 “You and I are changed”—on one level acknowledging that, yes, the child mixes up her pronouns, but on another more profound level telling us how we neurotypicals are literally “changed” by our encounter with people on the spectrum.

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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