Red, green, blue horses, I wrote, ride up and down.
I paused, wondering how to complete my ode to carousels. Up and down, I scribbled a second time. Repetition was poetic, right? Our third-grade teacher circulated the classroom, reading over our shoulders as we hunched over our desks.
“You,” she picked. “Okay, you. You.”
With a handful of others I walked down the halls of Haycock Elementary School to the classroom where, for the rest of the year, we would have a weekly poetry class. A round table nearly filled the tiny space. We sat down to wait in our orange plastic chairs.
A woman threw the door open, swiftly maneuvering her generous hips through the narrow gap between table and wall to claim a roomier corner. Her honey-blond hair was a wave that crested and flipped up at the ends; her eyelids glimmered teal; her perfume bloomed with gardenias. She wasn’t a teacher. She was a force of nature.
“Hello!” she said. “I am Rose MacMurray. A poet. We are here to write poetry!”
She could have crushed me by pointing out “Camille” was a man’s name, but she did not. She was out to prove a greater point. Writing, she told us, expanded boundaries of understanding. Poems allowed you to think outside yourself. When I later became a college English major, encountering terms such as ekphrasis and negative capability, I would realize just how sophisticated her lessons had been.
The months flew by, then summer. When we came back to school there was no poetry class. We were handed GreatBooks readers, just one more of the endless rotations of elementary school. My next turn at poetry wouldn’t be until the fifth grade, when Mrs. MacMurray swept into room saying, “Well, hello!” Her hair seemed bigger than before, her eyelashes even longer. But by sixth grade, it was time for chess class. That was that.
Yet the seed had been planted. I never stopped scribbling. When people asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I answered: “A poet.” If MacMurray could introduce herself that way, why couldn’t I?
One Christmas holiday, home from the University of Virginia, I tried to look her up. But she didn’t seem to work in Fairfax County Schools anymore; her name wasn’t in the phone book. My mother couldn’t remember her. Mrs. MacMurray had joined the misty ranks of Janine (was it Jeannine?), my best friend for finding four-leaf clovers at recess, and Nick (was it Eric?), the boy who once put a garter snake in his hair to impress me. I hadn’t forgotten her, but I couldn’t substantiate her, either. All I had was Trips, Journeys, Voyages, a collection of her poetry published by the Writer’s Center in 1980, the year I had been born. I’d begged my parents to buy a copy, which must have been one of only a few left in print. The binding has long since had dried out, the cover only loosely clutching the pages.
By the time I graduated from American University in 2004, with an M.F.A. in creative writing, my elementary-school mentors had been edged out by a roster of impressive professors with multiple books and Pulitzers to their name. My own career began to take off. If asked in interviews to name my influences, I would name the famous poets but think of Mrs. MacMurray. Whatever happened to her?
The answer came one late December afternoon, in the magazine office where I was working as an assistant editor. I was only months from the news that my first collection of poetry had won a prize, but I didn’t know that yet. Sitting on the floor, surrounded by publisher’s catalogues, I wondered if I’d ever earn a place on those pages.
I turned to the Little, Brown and Company’s catalogue and saw its lead for spring: Afternoons with Emily, “a dazzling debut novel about a surprising friendship between a young woman and the poet Emily Dickinson.”
What interested me wasn’t a potential assignment (we didn’t review fiction) or the title character (Dickinson seemed to be big that year). What caught my eye was the author: Rose MacMurray.
My Rose MacMurray? The photo—a silvery gelatin print of a girl who couldn’t be older than I was, coyly nibbling on one end of her eyeglasses—made it impossible to tell. But author’s birth date was listed as 1921, and as my eyes devoured the details of a house in McLean, Virginia, and years spent teaching poetry in the Fairfax County School system, my heart leapt into my chest. I’d found her!
“She passed away several years ago,” the last line said.
With a sinking feeling, I flipped back to the introductory note from the editor. What had merited lead coverage was not just that this was a “dazzling” debut, but that it was a posthumous one. MacMurray had died in 1997, at the age of 76, after complications from what should have been a routine surgery. It had taken almost ten years before her husband, Frank, and her daughter, Adelaide, had finally been able to shepherd her book into the light.
Adelaide’s introduction to Afternoons with Emily revealed more to MacMurray than I could have ever appreciated in elementary school. She had lived in Illinois and Paris, studied at Bennington, and married a man in part for his love of William Butler Yeats. It was on a post-retirement visit to Paris that she fell and fractured a vertebra. During the subsequent bed rest, with a portable word processor in her lap and a productivity that “happily consumed her final four years,” MacMurray drew on her years of amateur Emily-Dickinson scholarship and Civil-War research to spin the tale of how young "Miranda Chase" came to be the Belle of Amherst’s only friend.
Or, to put it another way, she told a story she knew all too well: how a girl knocked on the door of poetry, and was invited in.
I wish I could show “The Poetry Lady,” as she was called by so many, how our weekly sessions brought me here today. But she didn’t need the proof; she had faith. It can take years for a lesson to bear fruit, just as it took a decade for her book to be published. But the time comes. The time always comes.