The tattoo, as a thing of memory, takes on memory’s double (or triple, or quadruple, or quintuple) life. Like a poem, it becomes prismic with the passage of time and the shifts that occur in one’s personal narrative; what once was a single beam of meaning refracts at innumerable, even contradictory, angles. Seen this way, the lyric-moment textual inscription and the tattoo are both gestures of commemoration—they are crystalline at least initially, at least at the moment of their conception. They share a source, a motivation: not so much to document, if the sense of that word implies a rigorous facticity, but to remember—if the sense of that word implies not journalism but a clutching-onto. That very clutching-onto might morph the very thing it wants to keep, and this is where the factual and the memorial part ways. The latter lets the thing in question decompose and regenerate; the former plunks it in formaldehyde.
It is clear that projects of historical accuracy and projects of general commemoration, in which erosion and shape-shifting are accepted developments, fork at crucial junctures; it seems fair, unless we are looking to poems for such accuracy, to place poetry (a certain brand of it; that which I’ve labeled, above, as concerned with the “lyric-moment”) in the realm of the commemorative. There it dwells alongside the tattoo, the epigraph, the epitaph, and all other forms of textual inscription that clutch onto a valued quantity. But this clutching is of a very particular sort: it is the attempt to retain a zeitgeist, a psychological state, a mood or a sensation or the semblance of something otherwise unable to be rendered coherent “factually.” The lyric moment is one of these untranslatables; the tattoo is another. But they are not total equivalents even then—there are distinctions to be made between them that provide an opportunity to reframe an understanding of these forms, both of which embody (in the sense meaning to provide a body for) a moment of memory. This moment can be epiphanic or calculative; it can be spontaneous or reasoned-through. It is not so much what is held onto as how it is held that is of interest: how do the poem and the tattoo, as works of art, negotiate the fact that their existence has a duration? In the previous blog post in this series, I wrote that the tattoo makes permanence finite, makes it time-bound, and because of this performative. It lasts as long as the body does; each necessitate the other’s existence. Unlike the tattoo, however, an eraser can be taken to poems; they can be crumpled and tossed in trashcans. But as much as the experience behind any written poem cannot be scrubbed from the psyche, it stays: shards of what provoked it—memory or mood—persist. In a primitive sense, this is what makes the lyric moment appealing: its reductiveness allows it to be not understood but felt, while at the same time not stifling all the shafts of light that shine through it.
At the site of the intersections and divergences of these formal modes, Charles Wright’s series of poems titled “Tattoos” takes as its matter the page-space and the flesh-space where memory physically manifests. In these poems there is a sense of a dream narrative (and some of the poems are termed dreams), a reality that should feel unreal to us but which is so convincingly presented that it usurps reality; the poems move in a cloudy dialogue between the existent and the invented, their lyric moments fluctuating, or outside of, both categories of knowing. The series, which first appeared in the American Poetry Review and later in Wright’s Country Music: Selected Early Poems, commits itself to the act of commemoration via both the implications of its title and the curious annotations that follow it. After the twenty poems in the series, “Notes to Tattoos” appears, offering what seem to be explanatory footnotes to each piece, clarifications of the commemorative focus of each.
All of this must be understood with respect to the series’ title, which seems to acknowledge that the tattoo is of interest for its formal qualities: its locus, by definition, is in the flesh of a body, or in the mind; Wright’s poems are on the page. He orchestrates a collision between them. Though a tattoo is a chemical addition to a biological organism which will one day cease to exist, it is a more permanent addition than that of a poem, or the event of a poem’s creation. So why the analog? Wright, in titling his series thusly and thereby commanding the numbered poems that follow to be read under its sign, juxtaposes the sequence’s lyric moments with the implication that each is, in its own way, a lasting mark. In turn, this questions whether or not permanent-ness is a material quality: the materiality of tattoos is tangible, but the emotional underpinnings to Wright’s poetic bildungsroman are not. They are made tangible through the poem. In terms of consciousness, the poem and the tattoo carry comparable loads despite their material differences. To what extent, then, is the act of commemoration an act with its own idiosyncratic meaning (the tattoo sans context), and to what extent is it an act whose purpose is to convey some other meaning (the tattoo as memorial)? The twelfth poem of the series most directly conceptualizes language as dwelling between the worlds of ideas and things themselves:
Oval oval oval oval push pull push pull…
Words unroll from our fingers.
A plash of leaves through the windowpanes,
A smell of tar from the streets:
Apple, arrival, the railroad, shoe.
Is this a list of objects, or of the names of objects as they are written? There is no concrete indication that the latter is the case; the words aren’t italicized, nor does the colon connect them with the act of writing described in the stanza’s first two lines. But that this cataloguing of the surrounding environment is preceded—and thereby foregrounded—by a description of the writing act appeals to a reading that blends the word and the object it represents. The revision of the physical world that writing constitutes summons these objects into existence, if only in the headspace of the poem. Wright’s speaker continues to trace the parallel lineages of signifier and signified: “The words, like bees in a sweet ink, cluster and drone, / Indifferent, indelible… Back stairsteps to God, ropes to the glass eye…” They are organisms (“bees”) bound to physicality (“sweet ink”), but at the same time they carve a trail to the ineffable (“Back stairsteps to God”). And they are made things, things called into being by a process of material forging—the description of letter-forming that Wright’s speaker puts forth at the beginning of the poem. The poem offers no clear answer to the question of materiality and its influence on the act of commemoration. But it does offer an awareness to its complexities and contradictions, which for Wright’s speaker take on the ambience of the almost-divine, a combination of the illusory with the sublime. “…Sure sleights of hand, / The news that arrives from nowhere: / Angel, omega, silence, silence…,” the poem concludes. Silence: the only method by which the war between materiality as object of consideration and materiality as vehicle can be halted.
The twelfth poem is exceptional in that it most directly interrogates the materiality of language; it is useful, perhaps, as a “way in” to “Tattoos,” a hypothesis not intended to resolve the question but to more clearly restate it. Wright’s speaker—or speakers—throughout the collection grapples with commemoration as a means to access the commemorated thing. In some instances, the distance between the two appears to the speaker as mitigated. In the series’ second poem, the note to which reads “Death of my father,” the voice asserts:
Between us again there is nothing. And since
The darkness is only light
That has not yet reached us,
You slip it on like a glove.
Between the addresser and the addressee “there is nothing”: nothing, perhaps, except the fact of the poem, the tattoo that both recalls and reforms. Nothing except the edifice of language which, for all its perversions and failings, offers the main avenue for communication “about” experience. This stanza seems to realize language’s most inexorable and titanic fault: its inability to ever remove itself from communicative interaction, to filter itself out of the received message. The lyric moment—the comprehension of the distance, or lack thereof, keeping the speaker and recipient apart—is caught up in the structure of its own linguistic formation: there “is nothing,” as though nothingness is, as though it has substance when the nature of its being nothingness is that it is free of substance. In the same way, the “tattoo” of the poem is the window that warps what is seen through it. It is both what binds the remembered to those who remember, and what prevents the remembered from ever taking on the aura of actual existence. The living and the dead are grouped together into an “us” governed by a suite of similar laws; the speaker affirms the universal application of his maxim that the darkness “is only light / That has not yet reached us…” Darkness is worn “like a glove,” an article of clothing that covers and temporarily redefines part of the body; this description of death—if we are to take the note to the poem seriously—is marred by its articulation via simile; there are supposedly all-encompassing truths here, at least in the moment the speaker is experiencing, but they are partially beyond language. Language marks and points, which it can do, but also corrupts. Nothingness is forced into somethingness; the indescribable described.
Reading Wright’s series through the lens of “Notes to Tattoos,” which follows it, is to interpret the poems as being importantly tied to external, descriptive facts about the experiences that foreground them, just as a tattoo might be viewed as importantly tied to that which it commemorates or that which prompted its obtainment. This is certainly not the only interpretative approach available: “Notes” might be ignored altogether, or seen, as it might be by those who are dubious of mixing nods to objectivity in poetry, an afterthought capable of being detached from the poems themselves. For others it might be farcical, or problematic in the above ways. Though the notes to the poems have a sheen of facticity, a slight resemblance to scholarly addendums, they might also be read as another poem altogether—a pastiche of reportage, data regurgitated as aesthetic bounty. Wright, in a 1977 interview with David Young, disowned this possibility: “No,” he said, “I would have given anything not to have used the notes,” highlighting that he put the notes at the end of the series so that the reader would “try to figure out what was going on” before stumbling upon the facts.
My own note about interpretation: in reading the poems through the title and notes that bookend them, I am encapsulating them in a manner that assumes the significance of their sequential nature. Wright, in giving the poems numbers and not individual titles to be referred by, seems to be inserting a colon next to the title itself. “Tattoos:”, he seems to establish, and then lists them: “1., 2., 3., 4…” The “Notes” are the only text items that resemble facts in the entire presentation, and even then, they refuse to be addicted to, or addled by, the conventional constraints of facthood. The note to the third poem reads “Snake-handling religious service; East Tennessee,” which could be read as journalistic a tagline as any. But when compared to the tenth poem’s note, “Visions of heaven,” the list of notes divorces itself from a standard devotion to the “factual.” It does not reject factuality, per se, but expands its definition to include the cryptic: a snake-handling religious service and a vision (not a “hallucination”; the sixth poem’s note reads “Blood-poisoning; hallucination; Hiwassee, North Carolina”) of the afterlife stake equal claims as components of the speaker’s memory. One is not more relevant or “real” a psychological experience than the other. This is complicated further when we consider that even the ostensibly “real,” such as the locale described in the third poem’s note, isn’t made intelligible in the poem in terms of documented fact. What does one make, after all, of the lines “Current and godhead, hot coil, / Grains through the hourglass glint and spring”? To what digestible unit of fact might they be reduced?
Wright’s speaker suggests that we see through things, or despite them: and that the uncertainly factual “Notes,” by virtue of their placement after the poems, do not foreground the lyric moments the poems have tattooed into the speaker’s consciousness. The lyric moment, that aspect of the poem on which its mental relevancy and verisimilitude hinges but which is irreducible beyond the poem, serves as a gravitational center; it commands the attention of the speaker and the poems’ appropriation of language, all of which regulate the “seeing” of the thing being remembered—how one encounters it, whether in the library or on an inked bicep. In the eighteenth poem of the series, described in its note as being about “The Naxian lions in Delos, Greece,” the speaker moves through the poem’s reality as if descending the tiers of an Aristotelian cosmology. The scenery is colored in before the beasts, which are positioned as the poem’s capstone:
And everything dry, wrung, the land flaked
By the wind, bone dust and shale;
And hills without names or numbers…
In this landscape where “The dead grass whistles a tune, strangely familiar,” the human and the natural—material objecthood and active consciousness—are conflated. Phrasal groupings like “bone dust and shale” and “hills without names or numbers” bring the body back into reconciliation with its origins; geography is unfastened from the artificial labels that classification systems impose on it. Following this return to beginnings, the starkness of the land and its paucity of warmth, Wright concludes the poem by drawing toward the core of all its concentric rings: “The rubble quick glint beneath their feet, / The lions stare, explaining it one more time.” What is it here? Maybe some voracious, carnivorous consumption—an endless dialogue of things being consumed, things consuming. But there is also repetition. The speaker implies that the lions have taught this lesson before, perhaps inadvertently; now, caged in the poem—and presumably in the memory of the speaker—they can be revisited endlessly. The explanation offered takes its shape as a poem that allows it to reenact its lecture again and again in front of a backdrop of namelessness. The moment of comprehension, if not of the “it” then of the fact that the lions are explaining “it” anew, is placed at the end of the poem, lending it a sense of linearity, of being led up to. (It is more strictly linear than most of the poems in the series.) The poem offers us a sense of the image as the form of commemoration for both the tattoo and the written work; the act of recollecting a mood or a meaning is facilitated by the image, which is necessarily pared down but also irreducible, also capable of carrying multifarious sentiments.
Not just the image, but the image of—because the erection of an edifice in the name of a memory points to, and partakes of, the thing it memorializes. And there is something inherently elegiac about the image, even if what it preserves is still living, as one might imagine the lions are. Whatever the case with its roaming particulars, Wright’s “Tattoos” and “Notes to Tattoos” affirms the elegiac mode as the primary mode of the tattoo as art object—or of any monument, for that matter, that finds its practical basis in the disappearance of the thing it remembers. Even the tattoo, even the photograph, even the poem. Plaques dedicate themselves “To the memory of…” not “To…,” because to do the latter assumes a durability in the thing itself; the former makes no bones, to use a bad pun, about the object of its emulation turning to bones and then to dust. As this disintegration occurs, a conversation—the sort that the act of writing a memory down to keep it entails—is needed to staunch it, though questions turn up as many riddles as they solve. The material of the means of remembrance becomes a speaking voice, one that speaks for the image that it holds and what that image represents. In the nineteenth poem in “Tattoos,” Wright’s speaker observes the hemlocks “forming something—questions:”
Which shoe is the alter ego?
Which glove inures the fallible hand?
The reference to the glove harks back to the beginning of the series, wherein, ostensibly, the speaker’s deceased father slips the darkness on “like a glove”; here, is the fallible hand the one that writes, the one that is destined never to make a thing that lasts forever? No answers to these particular queries are given, and something else settles in instead—a somber knowledge that implies fatalism but which does not, however, reek of complacency:
Regret is what anchors me;
I wash in a water of odd names.
White flakes from next year sift down, sift down.
Not even the future is safe from its inevitable destruction. White flakes: snow, or ash? Either way, the not-yet-created and not-yet-born enter an a-temporal space where they come into contact with Wright’s speaker. These flakes or shredded bits that are “from next year” have already begun to fall, to blend with the “water of odd names” that are odd either because the concept of naming seems superfluous or because they have been scrubbed from their objects, set loose into the world. In either case there is a sense of futility in the endeavor to label, and thereby remember. The project of description likewise breaks down in sections of the series, such as in the fifteenth poem. “Notes” indicates the setting (mental, geographical) of the poem as leaping from one continent to another: “The day of my mother’s funeral, in Tennessee; Rome, Italy.” In this poem, too, can be found a blending of the objects of nature with the intentions of consciousness and civilization. It begins with a description of the destruction of a home by saw before it turns to meditate on the dogwood tree: “—Dogwood, old feathery petals, / Your black notches burn in my blood…” The funeral, the ritual by which the extraction of loss is officiated is met through two images: one of the existent undergoing a process of disassembling, and the other of things existing, the speaker and the dogwood—sharing, as it were, the same vein. The body is everywhere in these poems, and nowhere; it recedes into the flora and fauna. It echoes in the eighth poem (“Harold Schimmel’s morning prayers in Italy,” “Notes” says), which describes a man wading “waist deep in the waves…”: “The book a fire in his hands, his movements / Reedflow and counter flow…” And similarly in the ninth, where the barren vibe of the Naxian lions returns: a body is being cremated, the fingers “ground and scraped clean, / Reed whistles in a green fire.” And after, as though the undertaking of meaning extends into death, “The bones blow on, singing their bald song.” The lyric moment, itself in constant danger of disappearing, becomes obsessed with its mirror image: that which ventures to eulogize the image (tattoo, poem) ends up eulogizing itself.
Wright’s “Tattoos,” then, is a series helplessly grounded in the world of objects, which is both a wonderland and a prison. The very least the speaker can do is concede the reality of his chains. In the series’ seventh poem, an ekphrastic piece on The Resurrection of Christ by Piero della Francesca—and therefore an image canting an elegy for another image—some mystic force (cosmic? angelic?) binds the speaker to the archetypal iconography in the painting of Christ, to the perpetual remembrance staged there: “Nameless, invisible, what spins out / From this wall…” pulls “The scorched syllable from the moon’s mouth. / And what pulls them pulls me.” There are no exceptions to celestial motion; none are absolved from its cycles. Wright’s speaker, throughout “Tattoos,” seems uninterested in constructing axioms from these sometimes-loud, sometimes-oblique theological instances. The poem containing “Visions of heaven” begins with the proclamation that “It starts here, in a chair, sunflowers / Inclined from an iron pot…”—in the realm of the so-called “domestic.” But the domestic proves itself capable of providing a canvas for the supernatural: “A wren-colored evil eye stares out / At the white blooms of the oleander,” the speaker observes. There is something vaguely Miltonic, even, in the poem’s conclusion: “The leopard sips at her dish of blood, / And the vines strike and the vines recoil.” There is no certainty here, no utopian order; it is as if Wright’s argument is either that heaven—or, at the very least, the human capacity to envision heaven—is tinged with cyclical violence, or that the afterlife is not structurally different from this one. The poem is both a monument and an augur: it memorializes the moment of mirage, but the nature of visionary sight is that it reveals something not seen, something to come. Heaven is as much uncovered as it is recalled, as much worldly as it is otherworldly. “It starts here, in a chair…”
But where does it end? Wright’s stripped and desolate landscapes range from this life to the (purported) next, waking routine as well as hallucination and dream. Each of these places can be similarly inhabited by the psychological, and each can be useful in pinning down the self’s coordinates. The repetition of the series is one of both poetic and psychological form: the numbered poem and its lyric moment. All else is variable. In the dream of the fourteenth poem, even the land self-contradicts, repeats the motif of self-consumption; “The clouds no clouds,” Wright writes. He follows this immediately with an imperative that at once draws the terrifying figure back into the realm of art, though not so fully as to impose on her (“She stands in a field,” he indicates [emphasis added]) his human intent: “Call her Untitled.” Wright’s dream snowballs into a gestalt of off-kilter surreality; by the last third of the poem, the sections of which are separated by asterisks, there are nine figures, all dressed in white nightgowns and black masks. But how many of them are the narrator’s self? How much is a tattoo, a mark of the external made internal, a part of oneself? At the end of the poem he notes that “A wind / Is what calls them, that field, those same clouds / Lisping one syllable I, I, I.” So many Is, so many individual onenesses, and each insistent on asserting itself over and over again. And a memory, and memorial, for each.
In this series, the imagistic beacons that draw one toward a “real” thing get lost in the hall of mirrors that is object, representation, and re-representation—these images become denizens of the nebulous region of pre-recollection, the purgatory where what the mind retains lurks before it is called up. We know not how many of these experiences are Wright’s, or even if, in this assortment of lyric moments seared into the page with a molten brand, there are any literal ink-in-flesh tattoos to be found. But maybe this is not the point as much as the tattoo, in any event, is a healed-over (or unhealed) scar. The twentieth and last poem, after all, seems to bring the series back to its beginnings, where the death of the speaker’s father is contemplated. (It is curious, though, that the notes for the second poem and the nineteenth—not the first and the twentieth—both read “Death of my father”; the note for the twentieth mentions that the last stanza was adapted from lines in Serenata Indiana by Eugenio Montale.) The only poem in the series written in the second person, it could easily be taken as a self-address, a culmination of the edgeless sense of being that the preceding poems invoked. After talking of the graveside—“where the ash falls”—Wright evokes the image of an octopus sliding along a reef. He, Wright says, can “use you”:
You’ve prayed to him,
In fact, and don’t know it.
You are him, and think yourself yourself.
The loop of the series’ logic comes to a frightening head: identity is nullified, as is the hope of ever evading the reality that those memorializing are themselves susceptible to the disappearances they wish to combat. Latitude and longitude are collapsed, as is the here and the there, the commemorated and the commemorators. In the midst of this imaginary wildfire, “Tattoos” invites itself to be read biographically, with each poem as a concrete testament to some moment in Wright’s life. Ignoring his own assertion, in the interview with Young, that “each one of these [poems] was an actual situation, that it had not been made up but had actually happened, that it became a psychic tattoo in my life that would always be with me,” there is some evidence for this—each poem is dated, and in the sixteenth poem the speaker’s age is pegged at fifteen; dated 1950, this would mean the speaker shares Wright’s year of birth, 1935. And the series is followed by a poem called “Hardin County” whose function is elegiac—a possible remembrance for Wright’s father, who died in 1972, the same date appended to the poem whose note claims his death as its subject. But biographical “accuracy” is more often than not a cloak for ad hominem conclusions, and in this poetic sequence, it is far from the point. Just as one poem in this series is no less relevant as a moment of inspiration, is no less valid a focus of commemoration, than any other, neither is it necessary for us to “know” the speaker is Wright for a survey of the commemorative lyric moment to take place. There is also, in the title, the potential for “tattoo” to bear its other definition: as a drum and bugle signal for soldiers to return to their barracks—or, as the Oxford American Dictionary puts it, “a rhythmic tapping or drumming.” Like a persistent music, the poems press on, knowing nonetheless that their sounds will subside before being violently resuscitated. The eleventh poem asks how life might be resumed after the rebirth of surviving a car crash. “And what do we do with this, / Rechuted, reworked into our same lives… The cracked light flashing our names?” Wright has an answer; it is the answer of ink, of the needles that bring it into skin, not a belief in lastingness but in resilience: “We stand fast, friend, we stand fast.”
Thanks to Zachariah Paul McVicker for introducing me to Wright, and to these poems.