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Tattoos on Writers, Writers on Tattoos

Dorothy Parker's Elbow

In San Francisco these days, half the riders on the bus have tattoos rising from under their collars or swirling along their forearms. Is this simply a fashion statement?

If you're tattooed, is your design a declaration of your place in the world? An essential statement about your soul? An announcement of kinship with others so adorned? Or is it just something cool to see or know is there?

Tattooed or not, if you're intrigued by the idea of body art worn by the people with the spirit or the lunacy to emblazon their skin for life, you're bound to enjoy Dorothy Parker's Elbow: Tattoos on Writers, Writers on Tattoos, a new anthology edited by Bay Area poets Kim Addonizio and Cheryl Dumesnil. The title refers to the editors' delight upon hearing that Dorothy Parker did, indeed, have a star tattooed on her elbow.

The collection features poems, stories, excerpts and memoirs -- looking at tattoos from every possible angle -- by an intriguing range of authors, including William T. Vollmann, Rick Moody, Thom Gunn, Flannery O'Connor, Sylvia Plath and even Franz Kafka.

Dorothy Parker's Elbow is not only an excellent, varied literary anthology, but a cool read. While the book is laced with stories and poems describing the world of the tattoo artist, the sights and smells of the tattoo shop and the buzz and blood of the needle, the collection is equally dependent upon works in which tattoos operate as metaphor, rather than subject matter.

For example, in Alejandro Murguía's vivid "A Toda Máquina," a man bombs down a California highway in a Camaro at 80 mph on his way to Los Angeles to turn a dope deal and bury his brother. Along the way, he's tempted to divert to a path even more uncertain by a fiery woman he picks up in a roadside gas station. The man's tattoos play a central role in the tale he spins, helping to define the connection that grows between these two tumbling souls ... but the story is not about the tattoos.

Addonizio, a widely published poet whose collection, Tell Me, was a National Book Award finalist, says that receiving Murguía's story helped clarify what Dorothy Parker's Elbow could come to represent: "This story made us realize that tattooing could become a lens through which you could observe all kinds of human experience, not just the experience of being tattooed."

So, for example, in Elizabeth McCracken's "It's Bad Luck to Die" a woman says of her own tattooed body, "I'm a love letter, a love letter." In Steve Vender's harrowing "Mando," a criminal defense investigator facing his client, a stone killer, inside his jail cell, is suddenly exposed to the man's tattooed torso, "a canvas painted by a lunatic, a road map to hell … one long nightmarish wail." And in the poem "Embellishments," Virginia Chase Sutton sings, I still tingle to those tiny kisses. / explosions turned to oil, spoiled skin, permanent heat / all the way down to the bone.

As a whole, Dorothy Parker's Elbow presents tattooing as something inclusive, rather than exclusive. Through the layered personal, cultural and spiritual insights the book presents -- both positive and negative -- having a tattoo is ultimately portrayed as one more passionate symptom of being human and alive in this world.

The collection is put together with a flow that takes the reader through traceable themes -- love, war, prison life and self-discovery. As Addonizio says, "Tattoos are where dreams meet the skin." The dreams you enter here radiate with every color in the palette.

Dorothy Parker's Elbow: Tattoos on Writers, Writers on Tattoos
edited by Kim Addonizio and Cheryl Dumesnil
Warner Books; ISBN: 0-446-67904-6
Softcover: 257 pages (October 2002)

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