[11 October 2002]
Razords pain you / Rivers are damp / Acids stain you / And drugs cause cramp / Guns aren’t lawful / Nooses give / Gas smells awful / You might as well live
Much like sex, drugs or rock ‘n’ roll, tattoos are a topic practically guaranteed to raise interest. A custom involving needles, pain, permanence and danger can never be boring. This is the idea behind Kim Addonizio and Cheryl Dumesnil’s project Dorothy Parker’s Elbow, a collection of stories and poems about tattoos and tattooing.
Even though it could, the anthology doesn’t rely solely upon a fascinating hook. Drawing upon the talents of classic and contemporary authors like Rick Moody, Flannery O’Connor, Sylvia Plath, Herman Melville and more, the book is a collection of solid writing. That it just happens to deal with the subject of body mutilation (or art, depending on how you look at it), simply solidifies Dorothy Parker’s Elbow as a rich collection of stories.
Everybody, inked or not, has an opinion of tattooing, whether it’s viewed with fear, admiration, loathing, or 21st century cynicism. It’s a relief, then, that despite the majority of tattooed authors in the book, not every piece is a loving dedication to the art and meaning of tattoos meant for tattoo apologists. Ray Bradbury’s excerpt from The Illustrated Man is a sad tale of a man who couldn’t stop decorating himself and suffers unimaginable punishment from it. Steve Vender’s story “Mando” is a depressing story of a killer who expresses himself through violence and body art: “[The tattoos] provide a look at the inside of a man, sometimes showing you things you just don’t want to see.” Franz Kafka’s story “The Penal Colony” is a chilling take on tattoos that wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of The Twilight Zone. Tattooing is merely a theme, and not necessarily a hero.
The extent of the descriptions and tales that can be woven around a tattoo, or the experience of getting one, is impressive. Many unexpected themes pop up, such as Jesus Christ, the devil, love letters, tattoos that come to life, the varying degree of honesty and kindness of tattooists, and, of course, the very permanency (although, in this day and age, it can be arguable) of tattoos. Despite the connotations and meanings each tattooed person thinks are original to them, an unexpected lesson is that although a tattoo is a mark for an individual, it also can be a universal symbol, even a cliché.
Any reader should be certain to peruse the short bios of the authors at the end of the book, as they provide insightful and sometimes surprising information about the writers. Read Robert C. Allen’s nakedly straightforward “Convict K00457,” and then find out that the 22-year-old author has been imprisoned since he was 17, and you read the story again with new perspective.
The only down side of the contents is that the poetry occasionally waxes a bit overbearing and flowery. While many capture a story in a succinct manner, they often lack the capacity to spin a new take on the tattoo, and the never-ending descriptions of inks and designs and flowers can become a bit monotonous. However, some poets still capture a hook that fits in nicely with the rest of the book, such as Denise Duhamel’s clever, repeating “Tattoo Pantoum,” discussing television’s favorite Tattoo (from the ‘70s series Fantasy Island, and played by actor Herve Villechaize), or Mark Doty’s beautifully concise “My Tattoo,” which says, “Go ahead: prick and stipple and ink me in: I’ll never be naked again.”
Despite the high quality of the writing, it’s hard to read Dorothy Parker’s Elbow without thinking that it could have been more timely a few years ago, when tattoos were hitting the scene as a fashion statement en masse. While many female authors, for instance, illustrate inked women as modern-day warriors and rebels, one also thinks about the sorority sisters and socialites who have delicate dolphins and roses tattooed on their slim ankles. As Frank Martinez Lester says in “Dyeing a Three-Dollar Bill,” “When you see a tattoo here, it is a fashion manifesto, a signal of coolness, an advertisement that you belong to a trend.”
Thankfully, the book recognizes that tattoos are not as taboo as they might have been a decade ago, and wink at their popularity. With nods to every aspect of tattoos, from their art and beauty and pleasure to their pain and cost and negative connotations, Addonizio and Dumesnil give readers, inked or not, something pleasurable to read. As the editors say in their introduction, “Behind every tattoo stands a story that people want to hear.”