Friday, August 8, 2008

Tattoo You: Lines to Be Buried In



Talk about commitment to a line.

This proverb from William Blake's "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" -- and other excellent poetry tattoos -- can be found here.

For a long time while I was in college, I seriously considered getting the last line of "Fern Hill" tattooed around my ankle. I could see a flowing script (something like Cezanne, only looser) circling the bones: Time held me green and dying, though I sang in my chains like the sea. Coooooool.

But I kept thinking about Johnny Depp, and his painful laser copyediting of his "Winona Forever" tattoo, which now reads "Wino Forever." More, I thought of one of my best friends, who in college deliberated for weeks over a tattoo before choosing a lovely, meaningful symbol -- the alchemic sign for "essence" -- only to have someone tell her (once it was inked permanently onto her back) that it looked like a swastika.

Moreover, it seemed to me that the Thomas line might be great around my ankle at 22, but by the time I was 65 might seem a little grim -- a daily reminder not to sing, but that death was growing closer by the day and that I would meet it would a sagging, stretchy-tattooed ankle.

Thus far, I remain uninked. But now and then I still think about getting one.

What line would you want to be buried with, if you were in the market for a tattoo? Keep in mind: whatever you pick, that's what Charon's going to read when you ask to cross the river. (Probably best to avoid ethnic jokes.)

While I think Peter Trachtenberg's book Seven Tattoos is an incredible piece of work (one I'd highly recommend -- even if you're not going under the needle -- for the way it examines the intersection of ritual, grief, and desire), it's not my favorite piece of tattoo writing. That's still Robert Hayden's masterful poem, below. Is it about a circus freak? Yes. Self-creation? Yes. Otherness and solitude? Yes. Being black in a racist, blancocentric America? Yes. Trying to fix your flaws in order to be loved? Yes.

It's so many things at once. I think it's a masterful use of line, too: the thinness of the poem, the way it winds downwards, the short lines, suggest to me the way ink might move over skin -- hesitantly, jerkily, as though every movement hurts.


The Tattooed Man

I gaze at you,
longing longing,
as from a gilt
and scarlet cage;
silent, speak
your name, cry--
Love me.
To touch you, once
to hold you close--
My jungle arms,
their prized chimeras,
appall. You fear
the birds-of-paradise
perched on my thighs.

Oh to break through,
to free myself--
lifer in The Hole--
from servitude
I willed. Or was
it evil circumstance
that drove me to seek
in strangeness strange
abiding-place?
Born alien,
homeless everywhere,
did I, then, choose
bizarrity,
having no other choice?

Hundreds have paid
to gawk at me--
grotesque outside whose
unnaturalness
assures them they
are natural, they indeed
belong.
But you but you,
for whom I would
endure caustic acids,
keenest knives--
you look at me with pain,
avert your face,
love's own,
ineffable and pure
and not for gargoyle
kisses such as mine.

Da Vinci's Last Supper--
a masterpiece
in jewel colors
on my breast
(I clenched my teeth in pain;
all art is pain
suffered and outlives);
gryphons, naked Adam
embracing naked Eve,
a gaeity of imps
in cinnabar;
the Black Widow
peering from the web
she spun, belly to groin--
These that were my pride
repel the union of
your flesh with mine.

I yearn I yearn.
And if I dared
the agonies
of metamorphosis,
would I not find
you altered then?
I do not want
you other than you are.
And I--I cannot
(will not?) change.
It is too late
for any change
but death.
I am I.

4 comments:

Dave said...

i'd go down with "Do I dare disturb the universe?"

if I were the boatman/st. peter, no one who had that Joyce Kilmer tree poem on their person would be allowed across the river.

M. C. Allan said...

Who would ever tattoo that one on themselves -- unless their skin was actually bark?

Erin said...

I nearly got a Blake tattoo (the sunny eye he used as his signature) while in grad school.
But then I came to my senses and realized I'd already collected enough scars from that experience.
Good times!

M. C. Allan said...

Blake seems a trustworthy writer to leave on your skin permanently. A popular one, too -- there seemed to be a lot of Blake bits at this tatt site! What would be great is if you could have one of his whole color plates done across your back. I would have to be knocked out first and then revived with doses of Rosie Perez reading "The Sick Rose" :)

thanks for stopping by, Erin!! Nice to "see" you.