With thanks to Kerry Gentle and Anna Maxwell
The idea behind these poems was inspired by reading Helen Mort’s book – The Illustrated Woman. I wanted to write about what my tattoos mean to me, and what they say to others.
I’ve seen so many marks on skin
over the years. Gym-addicted, I’ve watched
them grow in popularity, spread as fashion
statements or self-expression
for men and women.
I like many of them, and I remember
the first one I thought beautiful.
A supple woman, a subtle flower
across one shoulder, was all it took
Lunges. She walked past me,
dipping, holding weights, and she
was the flower, and the flower was her.
I looked away, then at her eyes,
focussed ahead, confident,
in her own skin.
What would mine be like?
Not an abstract design, a pattern,
not a jumbled sleeve, a symbol,
of what I am, of what I’m like.
An open book, apt for a writer,
and right for me, and that was my first
at 74, an old dog in a new world.
At fifteen, a paper round helped me
buy that first clarinet. It squeaked at first
but that’s the same for all learners.
First public gig was in the school orchestra,
2nd trumpet part in the Water Music.
Suitably scared to perform in public,
but buzzed, I did it.
I wanted a sax, listened to a lot of tenors
but the budget only stretched to an alto,
like the clarinet, second-hand.
Still, I learned it, bonded in a trad band,
played for dances, until I lost my steps,
my way, a drop-out, then a barman,
with no time for anything.
Then love, a proper job, career path,
marriage, family, and the horns silenced.
Hankerings sometimes surfaced.
Shoulda been a tenor player, but that waited
until I was seventy.
Felt right immediately, still does.
Another symbol for the left arm, a sax,
and Kerry put it there. The second.
The last leg, Hakone back to Tokyo,
mega-city, sprawl along the Pacific coast,
so different from the California highway.
Dawn, a final view of Fuji,
a good breakfast, hit the Tokaido.
A view of little Pacific waves
lapping gently on the beach,
then city after city, Yokohama,
Kawasaki, all merging at the end.
At Kamakura, the huge bronze Buddha
photographed, then I bought the brass
souvenir that still sits on my windowsill.
Last temple, three last bows, a bento meal,
a kendo match on TV, and the next day’s
long flight home.
The photo, traced, now inked on me,
the green patina, serene expression,
temple memories and a long life
on the eight-fold path, part of me,
and that’s the third.
Stewarding at a book festival,
met the geneticist, special offer,
the spit kit, questionnaire.
He found that males whose grandads,
like mine, were from the north-east
had a specific marker he named Pictish.
Results came in, memories, travels
in Buchan and Moray, vague histories
and a family tree, all came together,
added up. I am Pictish.
I remembered the carvings, the stones,
the books that explain, but don’t really.
Academics with theories, romantics with dreams
have had their say, but only the stones are real.
Enigmas, often crosses on one side,
images on the other.
Fish, warriors, bull, boar, Z- and V-rods,
a mythic Beast as alien as Grendel,
didn’t appeal. An Inverurie horse,
more like a pony, heather or head-dress
woven in the mane, was the one I chose.
I was born in a Year of the Horse, and I admire
their strength, their stoic fortitude.
On a whim, I wanted it blue, and spotted,
and that was fourth.
Visiting my local town I found
a tattoo studio had opened. This
just when my first artist moved.
Seemed like an omen.
I’d had a thought for a design
to unify the Buddha and the book
by twining two vines round both
in a figure-of-eight.
I popped in with a rough sketch
met apprentice Anna, liked her.
She did flowers; I specified mine,
a blue and a yellow. We made dates
for two three-hour sessions
in that draughty upstairs room.
We talked as she worked, as you do.
She spoke about her daughter,
her day job, why she needed
extra income. She’d gone online,
had bud and leaf shapes, colours
of the flowers I wanted. Accurate.
Great to find an artist who’d share
my thoughts, make them real.
Lines first, the freehand stems a scaffold
for leaves, buds and blossoms, and parts of that
hurt, I won’t disguise it. Next week she added
colour, shading. By the end, the yellow flowers
were orange, from plasma, but that dispersed.
Right arm’s complete, a thing of meaning
and beauty, elegant, in a floral framework,
and that was fifth.
You know how much I love hills,
how I need to see the views.
Never a Munro-bagger, I’ve managed many.
It’s some years since the last one,
but I remember: the Arrochar Alps,
all of them, the Ben Lawers group, Stob Binnein,
Ben More – a big hill indeed. I found some flecks
of yellow paint from the helicopter crash,
smelled the spilt fuel. Beinn Dorain, seeing MacCaig’s
frogs in the wet grass, the hare on the summit.
And the ravens, of course. They checked me out
on my solitary walks, spoke in that bass croak.
I didn’t need their language to know
what they meant. A pair, tumbling, claw-birling,
under a crag in Glen Turret; a family having fun
below me on Schiehallion, their rapid chatter
on the saddle between Cruach Ardrain
and Beinn Tulaichean. Raven has to be
my spirit bird, my sixth.
It was winter, snow drifting down
outside the draughty windows,
a barely heated studio, a great barn
of a room, and me, stripped to the waist,
shivering, as Anna inked the bird
on my shoulder, shortcut
to mountains of memories.
My six designs, done in old age,
are still fresh, good as new.
Then things happened.
The big one was the pandemic; studios shut,
no personal contact, and with reason.
With no immunity, the thing
would have run riot. I know
the equations, could do the sums,
make the same predictions
as the experts.
Some places never re-opened.
The problem for me is
I can’t decide what I want.
The right arm’s a whole picture,
but the left one needs something
to bring the symbols together.
Trouble is, I don’t know
what that would be. Thoughts
of a DNA ribbon, a wavy stave
of musical notes. A Pictish knot
And who would do it? Artists
move around, move away,
and it’s such a personal thing,
artist and skin.
I’ll let things settle, print a photo,
of what I have, sketch a line
to link what’s there,
before I’m too old.
31/08/2022 – 05/09/2022