River Flow: Rufus Wainwright’s “The Art Teacher”


I wrote this piece at the behest of Faye, my best and constant digital companion. She ran it in Reality Sandwich, the online magazine she works with, which is really cool and I love her for it. It appears here.

“What is your favorite song?” she asked me in the dead of night, eyes black and limpid in the dark.
She climbed into my bed, then, and we huddled together with the reverence of communion, two twelve-year olds bathing in waterfalls of melancholy piano and deep male vibrato. Rufus Wainwright’s “The Art Teacher” valiantly poured out of my five-dollar speakers and I stared into my friend’s face, willing her to taste what I tasted. “It’s like a river,” she whispered as the low chords built and roiled. It was a strange word for a pop song, somehow holy. Yes, a river.

The song takes me somewhere new, ancient, still, deep. It took me somewhere even then, when I was a little girl. Even before I grew up and learned about art and religion and self-actualization. It was my first experience with a song that went beyond the ear or even the heart. It wasn’t the lyrics or the story contained within them, although it was lovely and poignant: a woman remembers the teacher she once loved in the blush of her youth. “He was not that much older than I was…he told me he liked Turner; never have I turned since then.” I did not yet understand the act of mourning lost innocence, nor the desperate human beauty that touches us even when we barricade ourselves behind material possessions. I only understood the voice and the piano and the vortex it opened up inside me.

Years passed and I kept listening to that song, kept closing my eyes in cars and beds and green fields, touching the divine as soon as the first notes started. It was that piano, like a river, speaking of time endless and the profundity of loss, of dreaming, of growing and dying. The way the chords just tumbled into one another and repeated, repeated, louder and softer, like a fractal. And his voice did not sound human to me. It made me just feel. It was deep and sweet and biting like honey, too weighted with memories to contain only one small life. It contained every experience; the voice was male and mature, but the sound echoed from within a womb, with a woman’s tenderness. ‘The Art Teacher’ was mine. I did not play it for very many people after that night when I was twelve. It was mine alone to experience, so meaningful that it made me nervous. Eternity contained in three minutes. Not a song but a ritual. A solar eclipse. Mine. Ours. Everything.

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