A tattoo is a true poetic creation, and is always more than meets the eye. As a tattoo is grounded on living skin, so its essence emotes a poignancy unique to the mortal human condition.
~V. Vale and Andrea Juno, Modern Primitives
While I was at Bread Loaf, I met this girl, whose name I can no longer recall, who had the most beautiful tattoo--a pair of poems twined together on her arm. I marveled at the tattoo from a distance, and snuck this shot during the Robert Frost talk at his cabin in the woods. I already knew of Shawn through Meryl, one of my fellow poets in the program, and we'd been emailing, discussing a tattoo Kelly and I have been considering for much too long. It takes a while for two people to settle into something permanent such as this, though I think the friendship took a bit less time. But when I saw the above tattoo, my lack of patience went into hyperdrive, and I began a dialogue with Shawn on how to do something like this on my own arm. First: settling on the poem. It had to be something I loved, and though some, who I've told I'm getting a poem tattoo, have asked if it would be one of my own, I cringed--it seems narcissistic, and somehow, I don't believe my own words are at a place that could claim that kind of permanence. Not on my own body, especially.
Sharon Olds has always been my favorite poet. Since I was a junior in high school. And this poem speaks to me on so many levels, and that last line, oh, that last line:
I Go Back to May 1937
I see them standing at the formal gates of their colleges,
I see my father strolling out
under the ochre sandstone arch, the
red tiles glinting like bent
plates of blood behind his head, I
see my mother with a few light books at her hip
standing at the pillar made of tiny bricks with the
wrought-iron gate still open behind her, its
sword-tips black in the May air,
they are about to graduate, they are about to get married,
they are kids, they are dumb, all they know is they are
innocent, they would never hurt anybody.
I want to go up to them and say Stop,
don't do it--she's the wrong woman,
he's the wrong man, you are going to do things
you cannot imagine you would ever do,
you are going to do bad things to children,
you are going to suffer in ways you never heard of,
you are going to want to die. I want to go
up to them there in the late May sunlight and say it,
her hungry pretty blank face turning to me,
her pitiful beautiful untouched body,
his arrogant handsome blind face turning to me,
his pitiful beautiful untouched body,
but I don't do it. I want to live. I
take them up like the male and female
paper dolls and bang them together
at the hips like chips of flint as if to
strike sparks from them, I say
Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.
It felt so right. Which led to contemplation: what shape would this poem take? The above tattoo seems to be based on a flower, and I'd been hoping the poem I'd select would lend itself to something obvious--but no pillars, no paper dolls. Instead, Shawn suggested two of something, for the two figures in the poem, and if I weren't already talking birds with my friend Kelly, he'd suggest that one, which led me to wings--the poem in the end seems to be about a kind of freedom, a revenge to bad memories. Also, I read this from an interview with Sharon Olds:
What did you mean when you once said that your poetry comes out of your lungs?
[Laughs] Well, you know, it's curious where different people think their mind is. I guess a lot of people believe that their mind is in their brain, in their head. To me, the mind seems to be spread out in the whole body -- the senses are part of the brain. I guess they're not where the thinking is done. But poetry is so physical, the music of it and the movement of thought. Maybe we can use a metaphor for it, out of dance. I think for many years I was aware of the need, in dance and in life, to breathe deeply and to take in more air than we usually take in. I find a tendency in myself not to breathe very much. And certainly I have noticed, over the years, when dancing or when running, that ideas will come to my mind with the oxygen. Suddenly you're remembering something that you haven't thought of for years.
Wings, lungs. The senses, which are so important to both her work and my own.
So he sketched this for me:
Shawn has a special knack, I must add, for what he calls "illustrative realism." He creates these amazing creatures with such imagination.
Here are some of my favorites he has put up on his blog: book birdhouse and the opposite arm's bird as well as these shoulder doilies. Some other clever designs: the bird/swine flu, this crazed penguin, this brainwashed sheep, airline safety, the drag king and queen, and many others.
He added the words, and from a distance (hence, my keeping it thumbnail size), you can see the wings still:
But I also wanted to include the larger draft, so you could see the way all the words interact. My favorite about the top tattoo is the way the words interact, overlap, mingle.
Thank you, Shawn: for doing this in trade, for being so patient with me as I "line edited" the wings, for doing this on your day off, for being so encouraging, for having an awesome wife who was my own cheering section and reminds me how cool poetry is, for being so good at PhotoShop, for making art for all the world to see. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
PS: All images, save the photographs, are copyright Shawn Hebrank. You can read Shawn's post about the not-to-be-repeated tattoo.
And this tattooing had been the work of a departed prophet and seer of his island, who, by those hieroglyphic marks, had written out on his body a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth; so that Queequeg in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume; but whose mysteries not even himself could read, though his own live heart beat against them; and these mysteries were therefore destined in the end to moulder away with the living parchment whereon they were inscribed, and so be unsolved to the last.
~Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
Here are two photographs of the tattoo that were taken since getting it--the first is the following Christmas, and the second is from January of 2011 when I gave birth to my daughter (it's one of my favorites, and I have it framed in my living room):
I've since found out the name of the woman whose tattoo so inspired me to get my own. A picture of her tattoo is beside mine in the book The World Made Flesh, and I've also since learned more about the unspoken copyright of tattoos, and I hope this woman forgives my not-so-secret theft. For people who have them, tattoos are often so uniquely personal, as I've attempted to illustrate in this post, as is poetry. The woman was actually at BreadLoaf for nonfiction, which also speaks to how significant those two poems are to her. So, years later, I thank her, in hopes that she would have given permission, and in hopes that she appreciates this tattoo that is in homage to so many good things.