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Skin Deep: Editors Kim Addonizio (right) and Cheryl Dumesnil show off their tats.

When in Needle

A new literary anthology traces the pain and poetry of tattooing

By Gordon Young

I'M PROBABLY not the best person to review a book about tattoos. I have such an irrational fear of needles that I literally go into shock during routine blood tests. I couldn't even make it through the needle scene in Pulp Fiction. While this means I'll probably never be a heroin addict, I also won't be getting a hula girl inked on my biceps anytime soon.

The fact that I'm indecisive and have a fear of commitment makes it even more unlikely. I'm not a big fan of Jimmy Buffet, but I pretty much agreed with his pronouncement that tattoos are a permanent reminder of a temporary feeling--in other words, a mistake.

My views changed after finishing Dorothy Parker's Elbow: Tattoos on Writers, Writers on Tattoos. The title is a reference to the star Parker had tattooed on her elbow, and the book is an engaging collection of stories, poems and memoirs edited by Kim Addonizio and Cheryl Dumesnil. Both editors have tattoos and Bay Area connections. Addonizio, who was a National Book Award Finalist for Tell Me, lives in Oakland. Dumesnil attended Saint Francis High School in Mountain View, graduated from Santa Clara University and went on to teach there from 1996 to 2001.

After reading the varied work of literary kingpins like Herman Melville and unknowns like 22-year-old prison inmate Robert C. Allen assembled by Addonizio and Dumesnil, there's still no way I'd ever suffer the needles of a tattoo artist, but I now understand the allure.

"They hold your ticket to change. After you get a tattoo, you will never be exactly the same," writes Seth Mnookin his essay "It Only Hurts a Little." And if, as the saying goes, changes comes from within, some of the best writing conveys that tattoos are an outward symbol of a person's inner world and a reflection of their experience.

In "The News," a poem by Tony Hoagland, the narrator wears his health "uneasily, like a borrowed shirt," with a knowledge that "there are terrible things that happen to you / and the terrible things that you yourself make happen." When the narrator considers a tattoo, the only choice is a fist and a rose, together. "Fist, that helps you survive. / Rose, without which / you have no reason to live."

Poet Cherise Wyneken's tattoo is also intimately connected with life and death, but not in the way one might expect. "The attendant directs me to lie on a stretcherlike table," she writes. "Measurements are made. My breast is marked with blue pencil. The tattoo is etched between them. A mark for future reference. Radiation begins."

By the end of Dorothy Parker's Elbow, the meaning and purpose of tattoos have been thoroughly tested and altered by the authors. J. Acosta makes it clear that a person can be "tattooed" without ever submitting to needle and ink. These metaphorical tattoos hold much more appeal to me than the real (painful) thing.

"My tattoos are not on my skin. (Not true: I have kisses and scratches tattooed on my back)," he writes in an excerpt from The Tattoo Hunter. "I have tattooed on my retina a painting by Magritte, a regret on my esophagus, a tongue on my crotch, a silence on the decade of the seventies. I have tattooed on my throat the words I did not say, the ones I spit, the ones that live in the uncertain future of my unborn children."

But not every author imparts such profundity to the concept of tattoos. Rick Moody, who managed to capture emotional paralysis so well in his novel The Ice Storm, gets his first tattoo simply because he'd wanted to get one for years. There really seems to be no deeper meaning behind it. Compared to the emotional pyrotechnics of some of the other authors, Moody's piece is tepid and disappointing--at first. But then again, Moody does claim a very real and quite common rationale for getting a tattoo. He did it for the hell of it, which is as good a reason as any.

Dorothy Parker's Elbow: Tattoos on Writers, Writers on Tattoos, edited by Kim Addonizio and Cheryl Dumesnil; 262 pages; Warner Books; $13.95 paper.

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From the October 24-30, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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