Tuesday, November 17, 2009


It's been a long time since I had a few moments to reflect on poetry and the way things converge in the world of poetry, as I've been happily busy thinking about the future for the past few months. But this morning, I ran across the picture above of a woman with a Bukowski poem tattooed on her arm and it sparked thoughts of other poems and poets that muse about words made flesh.

In the spring, I'll be teaching the book Fire Wheel by Sharmila Voorakkara in one of my classes and she has a sonnet about what it means to carry someone else with you in perpetuity:

For the Tattooed Man

Because she broke your heart, Shannon's a badge—
a seven-letter skidmark that scars up
across your chest, a flare of indelible script.
Between Death or Glory, and Mama, she rages,
scales the trellis of your rib cage;
her red hair swings down to bracket your ankles, whip
up the braid of your backbone, cuff your wrists. She keeps
you sleepless with her afterimage,

and each pinned and martyred limb aches for more.
Her memory wraps you like a vise.
How simple the pain that trails and graces
the length of your body. How it fans, blazes,
writes itself over in the blood's tightening sighs,
bruises into wisdom you have no name for.

--Sharmila Voorakkara

Re-reading Voorakkara's poem put me in the mind of another piece about body art and how it can create a kind of communion. Marcus Jackson published the poem below last year in the New Yorker:

Mary at the Tattoo Shop
She counted her money
before we went in,
avenue beside us anxious
with Friday-evening traffic.
Both fourteen, we shared a Newport,
its manila butt salty to our lips.
Inside, from a huge book
of designs and letter styles,
she chose to get “MARY”
in a black, Old English script
on the back of her neck.
The guy who ran the shop
leaned over her for forty minutes
with a needled gun
that buzzed loud
as if trying to get free.
He took her twenty-five dollars
then another ten
for being under age.
Back outside, the sun
dipped behind rooftops,
about to hand the sky over to night.
Lifting her hazel hair,
she asked me to rub
some A&D ointment
on her new tattoo;
my finger glistened in salve
as I reached for her swollen name.
--Marcus Jackson

As poets, we seems to be fascinated with scarring and remembrance. We embrace not forgetting. I think this is why so many of us are enraptured, in our lives and in our art, with marking the body. Case in point: poet John Murillo, whose forthcoming book Up Jump the Boogie is an homage to the battering urban dwellers receive each time they brave the world around them.

Trouble Man
--after Brandon D. Johnson

It’s the bone of a question
Caught in your throat,
The first sighs of the next
Day’s traffic, shoulders
Made fists under the skin.
And say it’s raining
This morning. Maybe a car
Lingers at the stop sign
Outside your window.
And maybe you know
This song. How long since
A man you called father
Troubled the hi-fi, smoldering
Newport in hand, and ran
This record under a needle.
How long since a man’s
Broken falsetto colored
Every hour indigo. Graying
Beard, callused hands, finger-
Nails thick as nickels. You
Were the boy who became
That man without meaning
To and know now, a man’s
Life is never measured
In beats, but beat-downs,
Not line breaks, just breaks.
You hear Marvin fading
Into a new day, and it caresses
You like a brick: Marvin, and men
Like him, have already
Moaned every book
You will never write.
This you know, baby. This
You know.
--John Murillo

Of course, looking at these candid portraits of Marcus and John made me think of the photographer. Rachel Eliza Griffiths, an intensely beautiful poet and photographer, is also fascinated with capturing us, scars and all. She honors our true light and terrible beauty with her lens. I've no doubt that she was ecstatic when capturing John's ink since it honored their mentor and brilliant poet, Martin Espada. Espada does the same arduous work that illuminates the fragility of lives and bodies, then makes art of what can and will or has become of us. It's only fitting, then, to let him have the final word here, a praisesong for the unsuspecting shadows that will forever mark us:

Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100

for the 43 members of
Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees
Local 100, working at the Windows on the World restaurant,
who lost their lives in the attack on the World Trade Center

Alabanza. Praise the cook with a shaven head
and a tattoo on his shoulder that said Oye,
a blue-eyed Puerto Rican with people from Fajardo,
the harbor of pirates centuries ago.
Praise the lighthouse in Fajardo, candle
glimmering white to worship the dark saint of the sea.
Alabanza. Praise the cook's yellow Pirates cap
worn in the name of Roberto Clemente, his plane
that flamed into the ocean loaded with cans for Nicaragua,
for all the mouths chewing the ash of earthquakes.
Alabanza. Praise the kitchen radio, dial clicked
even before the dial on the oven, so that music and Spanish
rose before bread. Praise the bread. Alabanza.

Praise Manhattan from a hundred and seven flights up,
like Atlantis glimpsed through the windows of an ancient aquarium.
Praise the great windows where immigrants from the kitchen
could squint and almost see their world, hear the chant of nations:
Ecuador, México, Republica Dominicana,
Haiti, Yemen, Ghana, Bangladesh.
. Praise the kitchen in the morning,
where the gas burned blue on every stove
and exhaust fans fired their diminutive propellers,
hands cracked eggs with quick thumbs
or sliced open cartons to build an altar of cans.
Alabanza. Praise the busboy's music, the chime-chime
of his dishes and silverware in the tub.
Alabanza. Praise the dish-dog, the dishwasher
who worked that morning because another dishwasher
could not stop coughing, or because he needed overtime
to pile the sacks of rice and beans for a family
floating away on some Caribbean island plagued by frogs.

Alabanza. Praise the waitress who heard the radio in the kitchen
and sang to herself about a man gone. Alabanza.

After the thunder wilder than thunder,
after the shudder deep in the glass of the great windows,
after the radio stopped singing like a tree full of terrified frogs,
after night burst the dam of day and flooded the kitchen,
for a time the stoves glowed in darkness like the lighthouse in Fajardo,
like a cook's soul. Soul I say, even if the dead cannot tell us
about the bristles of God's beard because God has no face,
soul I say, to name the smoke-beings flung in constellations
across the night sky of this city and cities to come.
Alabanza I say, even if God has no face.

Alabanza. When the war began, from Manhattan and Kabul
two constellations of smoke rose and drifted to each other,
mingling in icy air, and one said with an Afghan tongue:
Teach me to dance. We have no music here.
And the other said with a Spanish tongue:
I will teach you. Music is all we have.
--Martin Espada

And just in case you've never been blessed to hear Espada sing these praises aloud and rattle us with the terribly beauty tattooed across our histories, watch the clip below to see why his words inspire so many others to craft light: