Saturday, July 19, 2008

>Marcus Jackson: “Mary At The Tattoo Shop,” The New Yorker, 7/21/08

>"Mary At The Tattoo Shop"

It’s impossible not to read Jackson’s “Mary” without thinking about Elizabeth Bishop’s “In The Waiting Room.”  In Bishop’s piece, the speaker—a little girl—discovers a sense of self while waiting for a dentist to finish with her Aunt Consuelo.  She’s a precocious, introspective child; in the quiet of the waiting room, her mind runs wild, internalizing the riches of the external environment and eventually plundering the internal treasure of me-ness.

            In Jackson’s poem, the speaker is much more passive than this, stumbling on a sense of self rather than actively engaging it.  Other characters—the bold “she” and the “guy who ran the shop”—play active roles, while the speaker, presumably a “he,” is a passive participant along for peer support and to do whatever else is asked of him by the girl.  In the final moments of the poem, he raises “her hazel hair…[his] finger glistened in salve / as [he] reached for her swollen name.”  It’s a baptismal, a blessing, but only for Mary who had her name tattooed on her neck “in a black, Old English Script” in all caps (as written in the poem).  Our poor speaker…is he just now realizing she’s out of his league, that Mary, though also fourteen, is moving in circles whose orbits he has yet to penetrate?

            Perhaps that’s the speaker’s epiphany.  Perhaps that’s his eureka! in a poem that needs to have such a moment (it’s otherwise a bit prosaic and boring, though not necessarily poorly composed).  In contrast to Mary and to Bishop’s little girl, the speaker (possibly) arrives at selfhood by being a passive participant, a follower, to the poem’s action.  He rides the coattails of Mary’s rebellion—cigarettes and tattoos at fourteen, the brazed decision to tattoo one’s own name on her body—but isn’t a rebel himself.  Poor sap.  And, that’s the poem’s central paradox: the speaker’s acquired sense of identity is that he doesn’t have one, or anyway not much of one.

            As aforementioned, the prosody in “Mary At The Tattoo Shop” is prosaic with no real surprises in syntax or line breaks or rhythm, much of which is loosely trochaic and iambic depending on the line.  That having been said, the lines are self-assured and well-paced, and the consequent voice is appropriately taciturn: the speaker isn’t wont to take chances, and neither really are the lines of his poem.  The images are urban, precise, and familiar, and the detail is sufficient for the narrative with a few particularly telling moments.  The tattoo artist leans over the girl “for forty minutes / with a needled gun / that buzzed loud / as if trying to get free” is, for me, the most telling.  It’s a sexual thing: the girl’s fourteen, she’s exploring her body, she’s pricked by one dude while another dude voyeuristically witnesses the event he dreams he was part of.  If you want to push it, something with “Newport,” as in cigarettes, and the loaded name “Mary” could be done, too, though I’m not necessarily advocating it.

            Lastly, returning to Bishop, the influence, intentional or not, seems clear.  In addition to both poems being about identity, they have similar lineation (Bishop’s is a loose trimeter, a loose three-stress line, really), similar body exploitation (Bishop’s speaker peruses a National Geographic with photographs of native women/cultures who practiced cranial shaping via wooden plates and neck elongation via brass rings), and similar quick shifts to the outer—meaning outside the immediate scene—world (Jackson’s speaker notices the sun setting against the city skyline; Bishop’s returns to a cold, February night in Massachusetts).

            Jackson is a young, up-and-coming poet whose work, based on the few other of his poem’s I’ve read, is a welcomed contrast to much of the inexplicable, quasi-hyper-intellectual, hyper-lyrical jibber-jabber running around the poetry zoo these days. 

1 comment:

  1. >Marcus Jackson was interviewed for the article, "Photo Exhibit Showcases Black Poets." Please read it at