The ear is important. Within its nautilus
blend of shell and skin, its delicate, pink
configurations, lies a world of ridges;
difference almost as useful as a fingerprint
or kiss. As with snowflakes, no two
aural profiles are the same, facts
that the French appreciated
first in convicts and that I’ve come
to blame for my attraction
to mug shots, the sterile
photos where everyone
All my lovers face a wall
in pictures I snap, trained to fake
that pose exposing the bitter drum,
the silky lobe’s slubs and lace, nipped in–
each one individual in size
and taste. I don’t pretend to love
you, but the ear is important.
Any side street or grocery is a precinct
with its threats,
its blotters and staring.
And I always approach the world
sideways, I’ve told you, when your great seal-
like torso hints to loom
over this salt body, when even
breathing makes air feel
drawn up, tight, small, sudden
as a noose. I spend my single days
by open windows and photographs
of mountain profiles, racoons hedging
in the shocking light of a car beam.
Nobody, I’ve told the speaker’s black mesh
whorls, loves freedom
more than I do. And watched gulls explode
up from the walk like gray prisoners storming
the Bastille, the world in mirrors
carefully placed so that only the corners
of an eye must identify things. Me, in the half-
light, shy, unsmiling. And you watching me.
Head-on. Still trying.
captain cook in tahiti discovers tattooing: an event that has subtle but important
consequences for my parents and myself
July 1769. King George Island. His first adventure
in diplomacy and all Cook can think about is food.
“I am of opinion that Victuals dress’d this way
are more juicy than by any of our methods, large fish
in particular, Bread fruit, Bananoes and Plantains Cook’d
like boild Potatoes–” Food and tattoos. It’s dusk.
In a glow of candlenuts men sweat sullenly
over pineapple while the women rush off to stuff themselves
in private. That’s when Cook notices: those Zs
toothed to knuckle and toe, crescents so blackly apparent, “so various
that both their quantity and situation seem to depend
entirely on the Humour of the individual.” The Captain winces, struggles
to put more breadfruit away. Next morning
his first journalistic record is the chieftain’s arched buttocks,
tiari‘s black curlicues smoking up each thigh as the man
drags in his breakfast.
* * *
“I’d work skin any day,” says this month’s “Slinging Ink” feature.
Skin Rag has blown up the tats so big a veil of sweat
gleams through like priming. “Though I admit
the gun buzz bothers me.” On Saturdays my father
shaved behind closed doors. If I asked I could watch the flat
blade sucking over throat skin, then sit on our clean black couch
while mother vacuumed our stairwell. She hates the sound
of blades. “The Colour they use is lamp black
prepared from the smook of a kind of oily nutt,” wrote Cook.
“The Instrument bone or shell struck into the skin so deep
every stroke is followed with a small quantity of blood.”
Smokey Vaselines my thigh, watches skin
shrivel pink under his gun. Blood’s pucker. A steady,
cupped rasp of bees. To take my mind off the pain I think
of anything: doughnuts, a wedding album. My father’s face
and hair so pale beside his darker bride. I remember
for their anniversary I hung red Fook signs between doorways,
watched cellophane and ticker curl arterially
till the hours he drove home wakened deep moonrises,
set the night ink bleeding like an octopus over the city.
* * *
Why get one? Cook wondered, though the question wasn’t really
why but when. “As this is a painfull operation,” he noted,
“it is perform’d but once in their life time, never
until they are 12 or 14 years of age.” Once is fine with me.
But “If I had bare white skin again,” says Smokey’s girl, Carleen,
“I’d start getting those tattoos.” My mother won’t
give blood, get shots or share combs, calls ear piercing
barbaric. A cultural tick, she argues. The mark
of the lower class. After a lunch of plantains Cook limps
beachward to watch sailors cavort with local girls, whose lower
faces, ink-starred, collapse in muddy smiles. Cook knows
what lives abroad can’t work at home. He gives them time.
And there’s sympathy for them, as when he notes the sailors’
longings muffled behind bathhouses and canoes; the men and women
who “look upon it as a freedom from which they value themselves”
wrestling into each other. Proteans evolving second forms.
After a month he sees even his starchiest officers work nude.
And on their bare backs: black arches. Flat, elliptical moons.
* * *
I figure I can hide it; just never change clothes when she’s around.
“This’ll Last Longer Than Your Marriage!” Tat-Way‘s slogan boasts
beside its graphic: a knife plunged into a bleeding cupcake.
Paris, 1968. Mother sends her telegram announcing the wedding
two day’s after New Year’s. “I’m sorry,” it says.
“But I wanted to.” No, from my experience nothing is as foreign
to her as apology. And by this time the Kans must have expected it;
not one child of theirs yet married Chinese. But white?
No gifts shuttle via mail, no congratulations are exchanged.
Most don’t know to what depth artists repeatedly place the pigment,
nor where it rests–whether in corium, melanin layer, bottom
of the dermis, the papillae. Fact is, the tattoo’s permanence
is due to the thin cyst layered beneath pigment, the failing of skin
to eject the unknown elements. “There is no denying the high
sexual significance of tattoing,” writes Phil Andros.
Which might explain my mother’s furtive examination
of my dresser drawers when she discovers the cache of tattoo magazines,
the way she tries surprising me in the shower when visiting
by lurking behind the bathroom door.
* * *
“This just expresses the crazy side of me,” says Carleen,
flexing her abs. “Since we’re both smokers, a Zippo
seemed appropriate.” Smokey’s thin blade digs shamelessly
toward my pelvis and I speculate on my parents’ possible reactions;
recall Stainsby writing behind Cook’s back: “Myself,
and some others of our company, underwent the operation
and had our arms marked.” No one knows what happened to him.
He might have been beheaded in the later raid. Or he made it
back to England by chance, where his reluctant wife
(his mistress? the young male lover, perhaps?) recoiled at sight
of flesh pebbled blackly. But then she too became accustomed
enough that the sight of his lined chest made palms sweat
with longing. Like lying in the arms of savages, being devoured
by geometry– . . . Which might have been the way
my mother expressed her new husband’s body to herself, their uncharted
skins marbled by the weak Paris street lights coming off the sill.
“We’re never coming back,” she writes. Though they do,
hand-in-hand, resigned to three months’ pregnancy.
“One little tat,” says Carleen. “That’s all it took for me.”
* * *
“–fathom water an owsey bottom, the shore of bay a sandy beach–“
Imagine the sight of new land, islands like stockings in a tub of water.
My father and mother step down from their respective
trains and scan La Gare Nord in its grainy fog, the smell of dogs
and coffee wafting toward them from the Metro. Vendors
yawn their customers aside; two Algerians hurry into a cafe.
“They are of various colours, nay some of the women
are almost as fair as Europeans,” mused Cook
upon first meeting the Tahitians. Which thought occurred
to my father, perhaps, seeing my mother six years after school’s passage
and a stint in the air force. The autumn, like her hair,
smelled of rain. “With tattoos you never have to go cruising
the bars or baths, looking for beauty.”–Skin Rag
No indeed, it stays with you. Sun springs hotly
from its cloud and the stationary trains wait like capped needles.
Smokey, done, hands me cellophane. My parents-to-be
(sensing this? sensing me?) stop in their tracks, blinded
by this sight of each other. Round the bed of bay Cook’s men
spy the beach, the chieftain and his tattooed daughters waiting.
Slowly his sailors lower their oars.
Then cover their eyes in greeting.
1. Why Torture?
Pain is a threshold that changes. Thus muses Bacon, 1597,
at the torture of John Gerard. This Jesuit priest they racked
and beat three years off and on, after the report he “did receive
a packet of letters out of the Low Countries . . . he being
noted to be a great intelligencer and to hold correspondence
with traitors beyond the seas.” Bacon leans against the Tower
wall chewing his thumb. “To resolve nature,” he’s thinking,
“into abstraction is less to our purpose than to dissect her
into parts.” Perhaps Bacon thinks
less of himself cranking the strappado, buckling
down the screws. Perhaps he appreciates the weight
of torture’s doing. But Gerard’s no saint
or even falsely accused prophet.
He’s no simple William Hacket mounted on a cart
in Cheapside convinced he’s Christ. Whose arms they tied
to drafts in the market, yanked out like stubborn teeth.
Though Bacon may feel sympathy, this isn’t the anonymous
father accused falsely of sedition who broke himself
for family’s sake under the weights, knowing that to confess
meant the property of his children would be seized
by the state. Peine forte et dure. We don’t like to think
what pressing would entail: the weights, at first enough
to be sustained, increased gradually till one’s internal organs
burst. It can last nine days if you are given water.
In torture manuals the body’s tender points are elaborately
labelled L and D, latus, dorsus, the head under its curve of C
drawn aghast with horror. It’s amazing that they draw the pain.
So Bacon’s unconcern might pale compared with fact, this man
pressed, nude and grey with stone dust, the victim
of a choice. Though injustice comes to mind it’s really sacrifice
illuminating purpose here: a parent willing flesh
as flesh reaped, sown; that time’s intangible path should thread
through houses, a cast about the eyes or mouth so like
and yet so distant. This is loyalty. It is said even Hacket
had a child or two, though he left them nothing.
Because of poverty, he had no choice but torture. He died instead
a pauper’s death, on record calling all saints as witnesses
to gather. To come for the insane, the broken and dog-eared.
To come for him, a poor man like Christ: simply a body for the heirs.
* * *
2. Why Not?
The child claims to hate her. After the two hour drive, no
ice cream at the supermarket. Haven’t we all
eschewed a parent once in pique? This evening
my friend is close to tears, her five year-old denying interest
in speaking to her on the phone. “He’s eating dinner,”
her ex says, trying for supplication. Across the line she hears
television’s comic blare, the stepmother worrying
a new toy before him on the carpet. But though, she says,
she can rationalize her child’s behavior lacking
logic for her own, this isn’t enough to stop
unrecognition’s pain; the disinterest shown
when she shouts his name above the din of other whispers,
the cars and slot-machine gumballs of every
attractive passerby. Perhaps to her what is of interest
about Bacon’s torturing at the trial is not how he endured
the sight of men eviscerated, but that he went on
as a scientist who recommended repeated and controlled
experiments. The New Atlantis. After torture
what is pain? “It is not,” Bacon wrote, “the lie
that passeth through the mind, but the lie that sinketh in,
and settleth in it, that doth the hurt.” My friend assumes
that torture stopped because human life
became more valuable, though it was for proof
that we redefined the laws. Coercive force (surprise)
might make one lie under pressure.
So “I hate you,” children everywhere say as once, in anger,
I stuck crayoned “For Sale” signs above my father’s bed.
“He won’t admit it,” my mother says, “but it really hurt him.”
It’s a lie families depend upon to work: father’s gloss
of patience, gentle understanding from mother. We played it
like a card trick all the years I was growing up. This sacrifice
of one (so easy! so natural!) for anger’s privilege in the other.
* * *
3. And How to Do It?
Particle and wave. Light that spackles and penetrates.
The beam that sizzles eye-skin red, glues
retina, refracts and illuminates
from prism. A prison, I know, isolates with purpose
thus prism is its synonym in this, each hue tortured out
so that a spectrum is possible to the naked human
eye, its rods and cones. Aunt Ruby lies in pieces
trapped, as the cliché goes, in the prison of her body
as it shrinks and feasts upon itself. There’s her skin
looking celadon at its edges, her white mouth floating off
into the pillow near the raised arm’s slug-colored pit. Not much
from which I can divulge those biblical texts she used
to torture me with as a girl, repeating, “Husband and child.
You can’t have one, you must have two,” thus making the duality
of love my greater and greater pressure. Pain is a threshold
that changes, she knows, and would have me bounce, like sunlight off
whale or apple skin, into the beholder’s eye being forever
the appropriate Christian tone and hue. Particle and wave.
Nothing is a single moment, she instructs.
No private event lacks history.
So science threatens through veils of health in which
Ruby is our newest Bacon, testing limits of the world’s sincerity.
“Must I really swallow a gallon of enamel?” she whispers.
I look through her, this prison of sickness turned prism
to see where light might pierce as knife might cut, when God
isolated the past so finally: a single gray beam.
“All together then?” she murmurs. “Good.”
Then sinks into the fat white solid of her bed, hands yellow
as a Whistler wash. “I’m doing this for you.”
Watches, during the hour, our stares, which concentrate
and divide her. Like light, we’ll help erode the things we want
to illuminate. It is a kind of desire.
Copyright © Paisley Rekdal 2000
These poems and accompanying material may not be archived or distributed further without the author’s express permission. Please read the license.
This electronic version of these poems is published by The Richmond Review by arrangement with the author and her publishers.