Poet Mark Doty spent his childhood moving from place to place in the wake of his father’s engineering work. Doty was often the class oddball—a “chubby, smart, bookish sissy with glasses and a Southern accent,” as he describes himself in his recent memoir Firebird (HarperCollins)—until his family moved to Tucson, Arizona, and he met his 4th grade teacher.
|I am a special boy, athirst for the sort of knowledge that flows from my teacher so easily, an acolyte in her church.|
My studies in art history bore an immediate and surprising result in school, in the classroom of my new 4th grade teacher, Miss Tynes, a tall woman with a loose red swathe of hair piled high on her head in Gibson girl fashion, and a fine clutch of soft lines around her eyes. She wore beautiful and subtly colored shawls she’d woven of mohair and alpaca, yarns whose names I loved to learn, words nearly as tactile as what they signified. Often the shawl was secured by a big silver pin, something sculptural, centered on a lozenge of obsidian or a tear of jade. Miss Tynes believed in our education in the arts, which is to say that she was devoted to the cultivation of our spirits. She approached her work in a seamless and coherent fashion I now recognize as evidence of a sort of commitment I’d never before seen anyone muster for anything, not quite.
Our first evidence of this faith, of her unusual predilection, was also my opportunity to shine. Miss Tynes announced, early in the school year (our pencil boxes still new, tablets blank, the prospect of order tantalizing, still possible) that our class belonged to a club, the Object of the Month Club, which was sponsored by the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, a huge building which held some of the great treasures of the world. Each month we would receive a copy of a different work of art, and each time it would be something surprising, probably something we’d never seen before. On an easel beside her rested a framed canvas, its blank backside turned to us, and when she lifted it and turned it around, there was a familiar, soft-focus image, a pink-cheeked blond girl in a black outfit standing on a garden path, both arms holding up a gardener’s watering can.
Miss Tynes said, “Does anyone know the name of this painting, or the name of the artist who painted it?”
I raise my hand, am called upon, and announce, “That is Girl With a Watering Can, by Pierre-Auguste Renoir.”
The “Pierre-Auguste” part is, of course, the flourish on my bit of knowledge that begins a relationship between Miss Tynes and me that is collaborative, thrilling, collegial; I am a special boy, I am athirst for the sort of knowledge that flows from her so easily, an acolyte in her church. She recognizes me in some way that is new for me.
Miss Tynes is a weaver; her looms, her enchantment with fiber, are the center of her life, and she has even shown her work, she tells my mother, at the DeYoung Museum in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, a collection of names that sound to me as burnished and evocative of other worlds as, say, Dar es Salaam. Under Miss Tynes’ tutelage—lucky for me she has to teach to earn a living; what’s a weaver to do, in 1962?—my love of exotic places flowers. I am a connoisseur of places I can’t go. I read Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar and daydream about that lost city, unreachable on its vined escarpment—Opar, whose name echoes the opal my mother bought in Mexico, a “fire opal” with gleams of brilliant orange leaping out of deep facets inside the smooth body of the stone. Sometimes I am enthralled by books of a deep sadness: the cruel struggles of Black Beauty, the unwavering devotion of Old Yeller, and a novel about a cougar who lives high on a cliff in the desert mountains, singular, golden-eyed, heartbreakingly alone. I read a book by Richard Halliburton about Tibet, the Kingdom at the Roof of the World, and love to imagine the towers, the scented pavilions occupied, sometimes, by clouds. Nepal, Golden Gate Park: glimmering openings toward other, hidden chambers of the world.
Chambers Miss Tynes herself opens. She provides us with large, fragrant hunks of wet terra-cotta clay and later with Conté crayons in a matching color. She produces from a cabinet Japanese brushes and inks and explains the patterns of haiku. We dig abstract and tunneled forms in the playground dirt, fill them with wet plaster of Paris we’ve mixed with sawdust for strength, then clean away the soil with toothbrushes and whisks, junior archaeologists, to reveal the sculptural forms we’ve cast. We commence a project, burlap stitchery, each of us given a large piece of scratchy, fragrant brown cloth. We fringe the edges then dig into her vast stock of yarn scraps, everything from fat pieces of early-'60s Day-Glo to twined silks, striated cottons, shimmery flosses, wools wound in gold like the poles on the docks of Venice. The yarns, her accumulated wastes and trimmings, comprise a lexicon of texture, an encyclopedia of shadings and variations, a dazzling multiplicity. We’re issued broad, blunt-tipped embroidery needles and set to, choosing our favorite scraps to thread through the needles’ eyes and the holes in the weave of the burlap.
I begin an intricate, free-form design, spirals and shapes spilling into one another. I stitch a pink spiral, like a nautilus shell, the whorl of a snail, with ribs of violet, and a yellow and green explosion beside it; the result is abstract but refers to natural forms. I love this; I lose myself in it, in the hues and heft of the wool between my fingers, the earthy burlap, the satisfying regularity of the movement of the needle. I pour out of myself into the work.
Our creations are called stitcheries, not embroidery, my teacher explains, since embroidery is a craft usually executed by following a pattern someone else has determined. The worst thing is to follow someone else’s design. One day I collaborate with another kid on an evil drawing of Kevin, a boy we all tease because he’s weird and is said to pick his nose and eat what he discovers. This may or may not be true, but I am grateful that someone is plainly weirder than me, and I participate in the group project to torment him. My friend Walter and I make a sketch of Kevin, with horns coming out of his head; we picture him peeing into a cup. To my mortification, Miss Tynes spies the drawing, but she has also just discovered that some girls are using tracing paper to copy pictures from a coloring book. This practice appalls her, and she proclaims that our drawing of Kevin is more creative and promptly pins it up on the bulletin board. You are the maker of your design, she says. Copies are lifeless but your own designs are aglow with life. I’m ashamed, and in a while I sneak my hateful picture down from the wall, but the message runs deeper than embarrassment.
We are allowed to take our stitcheries-in- progress home, if we choose, and I do, so that I can continue my contemplative work. My mother admires it but doesn’t know what it represents; I tell her I see my design as a kind of sky. She suggests that I consider switching to a landscape: sky over the desert mountains, saguaros. I add a saguaro in green floss, its twin arms happily poking up at heaven, and take it to school next day, but Miss Tynes is disappointed. Why restrict yourself to the limitations of tired representation, she suggests, in some other words which are lost to me now, when you have the whole spectrum of this luscious stuff to play with? The yarns themselves can tell you what to do; who needs the stiff strictures of material reality to define the province of art?
Object of the month: a swirling jimsonweed by Georgia O’Keeffe, like a petticoat on a laundry line, filmy nylon in a slow whirlwind. I cover my saguaro over with swirls and drifts, paisley shapes, rippled and dotted intricacies of silk.
I like this activity so much I would do it all day, and Miss Tynes is complicitous in my dereliction of other things, especially PE. I hate PE, though it’s only playing kickball with a soft rubber ball. I hate kickball, hate especially the big ball, which is the color of wet terra-cotta clay, and which yields a little when you kick it, making a kind of hollow sound with an echo inside it, like a stomach being punched. It smells rubbery, unhappy, closeted, like the smell of the safety patrol’s cloakroom. It smells of inadequacy, not knowing what to do, not knowing how. Some days PE consists of relay races or a running game. Already I am a chubby boy; I wear Husky Boy jeans from Sears, the label loudly identifying my category. And I don’t seem to know the rules to anything (except the intricacies of hopscotch, to which I have paid attention, and the elaborate procedures of jump-rope, a girls’ province I occasionally visit as a boy who’s viewed as an unthreatening if not always welcome visitor from the other side. I have even smuggled Little Women out of the school library, because the girls have spoken so excitedly of the nobility of Jo and the tragedy of Beth, and somehow I know it’s something I shouldn’t be seen actually checking out).
When it’s PE time, I linger behind or slip to the back of the line, and from thence flit into the shadows under the metal-and-concrete steps that march from Whetmore Elementary onto the playground. I bring my stitchery with me and work on through the period, or I read Myths and Legends of the Inca: condors, golden masks, mined cities. The burlap in my lap smells fibery, alive—vaguely redolent of some tropical place, something carried in the hold of a ship, exotic fruit, coffee, roots from the equator. I would like to go to Peru, to Machu Picchu. I have been imagining its high sorrow and dignity, the sun rising on that empty fortress and no one there at all but the stones with their mute knowledge of time, and the black arcs of eagles high over it all, over what is already impossibly high, dizzyingly up above us all. I’ve seen a movie on TV one afternoon (when the best old ones are on) when I was home with a sore throat. This one starred Yma Sumac, who played an Inca princess who sang hymns to the sun in an incredible voice that spiraled octaves up and up like the condors I imagined, until she offended somebody and got thrown into a volcano at the end. I feel the wild, high reaches of her throbbing coloratura in my own scratchy throat. If a voice could rise out of sight, it would sound like hers.
Of course, Miss Tynes knows just what I am doing; looking back toward me from the playing field where she is refereeing the kickball game, does she think she really ought to come and get me? If so, she never does, though she tells my mother, who also doesn’t seem to mind.
From Firebird by Mark Doty. Copyright © 1999 by Mark Doty. Reprinted by arrangement with Harper-Collins Publishers, Inc.