Poetry of the Flesh

Every time my brother-in-law comes to Austin from Houston, he’s astonished by the radical appearance of our local checkout clerks.

“Did you see that one?” he’ll ask, as we leave the store.  “All those piercings — especially the one through his lip.  And the tattoos up and down his arms?  And the purple hair?”

“I hardly noticed,” I like to say airily.  “We see that all the time in Austin.  You should check out my yoga class.  I’m practically the only one in it without a tattoo.”

As usual, I’m striving for an attitude of weary sophistication and nonchalance.  Maybe I’m middleaged.  But hey, I’m cool, with it, liberal, accepting, blase.  I’m not an old bat yet.

I do pretty well — until I see something like the article in today’s Austin Statesman about the 42-year-old Unitarian minister and her cornucopia of tattoos.  Her epidermis sports animals (raven, bear, turtle), lines of poetry, sayings, memorials.  On her left forearm, the article says, the woman has a tattoo of Walt Whitman’s quote that, “Your very flesh shall be a great poem.”

I have to say that this woman, Eliza Galaher, sounds like a lovely, soulful person and a wonderful minister.  But, oh, honey!  What happens when the great poem and the flesh start to sag?  All of a sudden the bear starts drooping onto the raven and Whitman’s bouncing all over the place and, besides, you can’t read the lines because they’re so wrinkled.

Look down at your body, if you’re feeling brave.  You’re already carrying around the residue of so many earlier choices you’ve made — stretch marks from pregnancies, scars from mishaps and surgeries, a sneaking pot belly because you’re not 19 or possessing the metabolism of an athlete any longer, sun damage, lack of elasticity, you name it, you’ll probably find it after a few decades.

Live long enough and/or hard enough, and you’ll eventually reach what Barbara Howar once called “the age at which you shouldn’t wave good-bye at the beach.”

Reading the article also made me wonder what kinds of designs and sayings I’d have collected if I’d permanently etched some of my thoughts on my skin when I was younger.  I cringe, just thinking about it.  I’d probably be hauling around a Peanuts character from my childhood, some hackneyed Fritz Perls adage from my brief hippie era, bon mots from Gloria Steinem or Simone de Beauvoir after my discovery of feminism, my husband’s name, my kids’ names, a peace insignia (a classic design, useful for so many continuing conflicts, from Vietnam to Iraq), the Beatles, Willie Nelson, Sam Ervin.

As it is, tattooed or not, Whitman was right:  Your flesh does become a great poem.  At the rate my generation is declining, maybe we should all just opt to tattoo our own names where we can see them.  As the skin stretches out, the writing will get bigger and bigger.  Reading this, peering through my reading glasses, I’m thinking that would work pretty well.

(Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker)

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