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
Born alien,
homeless everywhere,
did I, then, choose
having no other choice?

Hundreds have paid
to gawk at me--
grotesque outside whose
assures them they
are natural, they indeed
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.


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.