My thanks to David Lehman and Best American Poetry for the opportunity to be guest blogger for this week. The invitation is timely, because, as it happens, I have a theme I want to explore, and writing for this blog will provide me the opportunity and the much-needed impetus to get it done. Here, then, begins a series of entries that will progress under the overall title “Available Surfaces."
character c.1315, from O.Fr. caractere, from L. character, from Gk. kharakter "engraved mark," from kharassein "to engrave," from kharax "pointed stake." Meaning extended by metaphor to "a defining quality."
I grew up in a place and time wherein the art of tattooing
was virtually unknown—or, to be more accurate, was beyond the pale. A map of
local businesses would not have included a tattoo parlor, any more than a list
of the local houses of worship (and that would have been a lengthy list) would
have included a Church of Elvis, however many Elvis worshipers might actually
have lurked among us.
The only member of my family who had tattoos was my Uncle Ernest, who we rarely saw, because he lived Elsewhere. Furthermore, he came from Elsewhere, as he was “only” an uncle by marriage anyway, having courted and won Aunt Eunice after the Great War; and Aunt Eunice was not “really” an aunt in any case, as she was adopted (though she was in fact Family, being the daughter of another aunt and uncle, both of whom perished in the Great Train Wreck, but that, children, is another story).
As if that weren’t enough, Uncle Ernest obtained his tattoos
in an even more distant Elsewhere. During the Great War he had been a marine,
serving in the Pacific Theater, where, I gather, he saw a good deal of combat
on islands whose names, when I was a child, were utterly strange to me. I
remember hearing him tell a story about lying on his belly firing his rifle
(from under a jeep? Or have I imagined that detail?) while the bullets of an
unseen enemy inscribed furrows in the sand to the left and right of him.
Uncle Ernest had an anchor on his shoulder and a naked woman
on his forearm. Both were tattoos of the crudest kind available from a
professional--utterly stereotypical hack work executed in one color: mimeograph
blue. Uncle Ernest was deeply ashamed of them, and always wore long-sleeved
shirts. He would display them only rarely, under a combination of duress and the
influence of a drink or three.