Reading: Tattoo by Ted Kooser

From the Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry book “Delights & Shadows” by Ted Kooser (b. 1939) today the poem ‘Tattoo’. Kooser was a life insurance executive for many years. He is now retired and teaches poetry part time at the University of Nebraska. He gets up at 4:30 in the morning and writes. Every day (which is why he’s good at it):

What once was meant to be a statement—
a dripping dagger held in the fist
of a shuddering heart—is now just a bruise
on a bony old shoulder, the spot
where vanity once punched him hard
and the ache lingered on. He looks like
someone you had to reckon with,
strong as a stallion, fast and ornery,
but on this chilly morning, as he walks
between the tables at a yard sale
with the sleeves of his tight black T-shirt
rolled up to show us who he was,
he is only another old man, picking up
broken tools and putting them back,
his heart gone soft and blue with stories.

The tattoo is pretty standard, I’ve seen it a lot in the motorcycle club. Fading green hearts and bluish daggers on hairy shoulders. A bruise, yes, that captures it. Is it always vanity? I reckon the motives for a tattoo are more diverse and include peer pressure and soul searching (which comes before vanity). The ache that lingered on means his vanity could not be satisfied, assuming the tattoo artist didn’t really leave a painful wound.

I’ve see such moody guys at a yard sale, looking at old tools because they can’t afford to buy new things. The rolled up T-shirt is a good image of mankind’s vanity: He desires to show who he was but the faint tattoo is but one of the most generic and clichéd icons ever. The closing metaphor, itself in danger of sounding kitschy, drives the point home. His own heart has gone soft and blue with stories, and he didn’t need to punch himself for it. The fading of the tattoo is inversely proportional to the mollification of his own little heart. It speaks some home for mankind.

I find it an okay poem. Wanted to include Kooser because he is such a prolific and enthusiastic and popular artist. Here’s another poem by Kooser from the eponimous collection, quoted from his website, Flying at Night:

Above us, stars. Beneath us, constellations.
Five billion miles away, a galaxy dies
like a snowflake falling on water. Below us,
some farmer, feeling the chill of that distant death,
snaps on his yard light, drawing his sheds and barn
back into the little system of his care.
All night, the cities, like shimmering novas,
tug with bright streets at lonely lights like his.

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