I should have seen something coming. But I didn’t put it all together until yesterday when my energies were all burning bright and the psychic winds were blowing from just the right direction. That’s what happens on your birthday. And yesterday I marked the entry into my 72ndyear on the planet. So, of course it would be the day I’d see how all the signs fit together.
First there was just one of these gossamer chutes, some thin and dainty seed floating on a silver silken halo of fine and thin filaments like a tuft of pure white cotton. There it landed right at my feet as my little dog Bobby and me headed for the car. At first I thought it was from a dandelion. And then I bent down to pick it up and realized I did not recognize it at all. But I knew I would claim the prize, another talisman for display at my writing desk. I pinched the seed ever so gently and turned around, heading back into the cabin to find a spot for it. Immediately, I decided to nest it into my dreamcatcher.
I took a picture and sent it to my friend Martin, and asked him to tell me, please, from what plant did it originate. He did not know. And he knows everything about about our coastal flora and fauna. I put the picture through my Google Lens app and it told me I’d captured a caterpillar. I took another close-up shot and tried again. This time it said dandelion. Not even close. (One of you will know and will reply to tell me. For now, we’ll move on.)
When I got back from my trip to the store, there on the boardwalk to my cabin was another of the chutes. This time lightly attached to a piece of a broken oak branch. Too pretty to pass up. I had to walk very slowly so I didn’t dislodge the chute with that whiskery plume made for flight. Once inside, I tucked the stick into an opening on the base of my old Tiffany lamp. In the few days since, I haven’t spied another of the airborne seeds.
And now that I have deciphered their message, they are all the more special to me. Here, let me tie a thread around this.
A friend had few days before given me a collection of her favorite poems that she bound together in a little book. I put it beside my antique typewriter, and later that evening, standing at my desk, I did the thing that I am wont to do with books of poetry: I let it fall open to the poem of its choosing. And there on the right-reading page, opposite a totally blank left-reading page, was a poem of nine lines (of course—my thing with 9s). I stood there and read slowly, and with the last line, where the poet herself tied a golden thread around the image of her thoughts, my eyes were wet and my throat was tight. I felt it coming on and didn’t try to man-up against the urge rising from my chest.
I stepped back and sat down in my chair. I could not, nor did I try, to shake off the emotion that in my life of reading poems has happened only one other time. But, even then, not like this. Some few minutes later, I was released back into the mundane, I went to Amazon for a book of the poet’s work. I found two copies from used sellers. One for $899.99, and the other, listed in “very rough condition” for $4,401.74. The spell I’d been under at reading from this poet, was dashed and broken against a cold cliff of capitalist greed. Or something like that. Anyway, I used rough expletives.
Then, having once been a used bookseller, I turned to Advanced Book Exchange, or ABEBooks.com, my first source for hard-to-come-by titles. I found seven copies. Two paperback reprints for $158.51 and $163.26. The five used hardbacks started at $500 and went up to $721. I did not click buy on any of the offerings at either site.
Then I Googled the poet. She was from Fairhope! She had landed her book with Doubleday in New York and had won the prestigious Walt Whitman Award for Poetry. She died here in 2007 at the age of 56. Not only was she a poet, but she worked most of her life as a nurse devoted to improving patient care in hospitals around the country. She had the same last name of a man with whom I have been friends for forty years. I called Martin. I call Martin about many things. I asked him was she perhaps related to my friend. “His sister,” he said. I thanked him and asked could I read her poem to him. He said yes. I began, felt my voice begin to break, struggled on through to the end and quickly got off the phone. I don’t know why the poem drills straight into my soul and pokes a hole there. I am also glad it does.
Next day I was wrapping up with my art director in San Francisco the design of my new book of prose and poems called Syllables Go By that went on sale today wherever you buy books. I asked could I share a poem with her. “Someone else’s,” I said. She agreed and I emailed it and before the day was over, she texted me to tell me she’d just read the poem. “I am transformed,” she said. Then, next day she emailed to me a little script she wrote up between herself and her husband, a recap of their conversation when she’d also shared the poem with him. I wish I could send her work around the world and back again, and everyone would talk about it.
I called my friend, the poet’s brother, and within the week found myself seated with him in his home, hanging on his every word as he answered my questions about his sister with stories all the way back to their childhood. Then he told me how the poem I love was born in his sister’s imagination when she’d been a little girl. He told me that she saw the subject of her poem in an odd little out-of-the-way roadside museum their father took them to on a weekend trip.
My friend turned and disappeared for a moment and rejoined me holding in his hand a copy of a book of her poems. I told him about the scarcity of her books and the wild internet prices. Then he read to me from the book two other poems, his own favorites, that were equally powerful works of art. And I saw why she won the poetry prize that she did. Then he handed the book to me and said he had inscribed it for me, that his sister would be very pleased for me to have her book. “I have two other copies,” he said. I took the book and held it to my chest and thanked him, mumbling something—I can’t remember what.
When I got home, back to my cabin, back to my desk, and put the book down there. Only then did it register with me that the image on the cover was a dandelion. With chutes on the fly. A cover photo of what, in the real, ornamentally floated mere inches above the book.
And so last night, at an author event at our Page & Palette bookstore, where I introduced the writer to a room of 50 people, I asked, “By a show of hands, how many in this room of avid readers and fans of books and authors know the name Laura Gilpin?” Three hands were raised. “Then I’ll introduce to you, not only Mandy Haynes, the author I’m seated beside,” I said, “but also Laura Gilpin, a Fairhope poet you should come to know.” And I did so by reading to the room, in a strong and manly voice, the beautiful poem that made me come undone when I first read it days before.
I did not mention the pair-of-chutes (yes) I found nor the image on the book’s cover. I will (as I continue to wonder why) talk about that marvelous and magical synchronicity when I do a reading from my own little book at Page & Palette on St. Patrick’s Day. I will also read aloud another of Laura’s poems. And I will do so every time and anywhere I am invited to read from my book. I have offered to help, if I may, to bring back into print Laura’s poems. Maybe some other little girl or boy, that way, can find the inspiration to one day raise their own voices to praise mystery and beauty and truth as Laura did.
Here is her poem that I love:
The Two-Headed Calf by Laura Gilpin
Tomorrow, when the farm boys find this
freak of nature, they will wrap his body
in newspaper and carry him to the museum.
But tonight he is alive and in the north
field with his mother. It is a perfect
summer evening: the moon rising over
the orchard, the wind in the grass.
And as he stares into the sky,
there are twice as many stars as usual.