Wear your heart on your skin in this life

Poetry Ireland News March/April 2010

I wrote a post about literary tattoos on my blog last year, featuring the tattoo site, Contrariwise, where people display photographs of their writing-inspired body art. The photo from Contrariwise which I displayed shows two lovers hand-in-hand. The woman has Sylvia Plath’s ‘I am, I am, I am’, from The Bell Jar, tattooed on her inner arm, from elbow to wrist; the man has Marlowe’s ‘Fly, o man’ (Homo fuge), from Doctor Faustus on his. Interestingly, the Plath phrase also appears in her poem 'Suicide Off Egg Rock’: ‘And his blood beating the old tattoo / I am, I am, I am.’ 

Most of the traffic that comes to my blog as a result of this post uses the search string Sylvia Plath tattoo. Plath’s introspective but direct style clearly has huge appeal to younger readers and the variety of Plath tattoos on the Contrariwise site is an interesting demonstration of this. One of the tattoos on display use three lines from Plath’s poem ‘Tulips’: the lines are winding tattooed stems that hold up three scarlet tulip heads. It looks beautiful. Another young man has ‘by a mad miracle I go intact’ on his chest from Plath’s ‘Street Song’:

By a mad miracle I go intact
Among the common rout
Thronging sidewalk, street,
And bickering shops…

That poem continues rather bloodily – ‘heart and guts hung hooked / And bloodied as a
cow’s split frame’, but I suppose that’s not pretty or profound enough to be inked forever on the skin. Other favourite poets for tattoos include ee cummings, Longfellow, Poe, Frost and Ginsberg. (It’s an American-based site). On another site, Every Tattoo, I found a woman with the words ‘Virginia Woolf’ tattooed in large letters on her breastbone, like a torc. There is also a quote, on a shapely foot, from Maya Angelou’s poem ‘Phenomenal Woman’:

It’s in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Most tattoos on these sites are introspective and life-affirming. They follow the dictum of the tattooist Carmey, in Plath’s short story, ‘The Fifteen-Dollar Eagle’: ‘Wear your heart on your skin in this life’. One wonders what an Irish poetry fan – or, indeed, an Irish writer – might get inked on their body. Maybe Seamus Heaney’s squat pen in the form of an arty quill? Or a tattoo of a disused shed in homage to Derek’s Mahon’s signature poem? Or the line ‘Hunting words I sit all night’ from Robin Flower’s translation of ‘Pangur Bán’?

Tattoos are not the rebel yell they once were; it’s probably more unusual now to find a thirty-something without a tattoo. But they often have deep meaning for their owner – and probably even more so when they are taken from a much-loved poem. My favourite book on tattoos is Dorothy Parker’s Elbow: Tattoos on Writers, Writers on Tattoos. One of its editors, poet Kim Addonizio says: ‘It’s natural that writers and literary readers would be drawn to commemorating some bit of language that has moved or changed them – or that maps a direction they want to go.’ However, although she has five tattoos already, none of them are text-based. She says, ‘As soon as I find the right words, they’ll be inked somewhere on my skin.’ I’m in the market for a new tattoo but I think I’ll follow Kim’s lead and take my time choosing the words.

Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s poetry collection Tattoo:Tatú was published by Arlen House in 2007. A pamphlet, Portrait of the Artist with a Red Car, is new from Templar Poetry, and a full collection, The Juno Charm, is due from Templar later this year. Her novel You appears from New Island in April.

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