Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Hey, what's yer tattoo say?

I have five tattoos. My fourth, which I got in Montreal in 1994, is a line from "Ode on a Grecian Urn" by John Keats: "beauty is truth, truth beauty" (which continues "that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know"). You can read the whole poem here. Like many of you probably did, I read this poem in my Grade 12 English Literature class, and it really made an impression on me. For several reasons, I decided to get the tattoo, and I've never regretted it. The only negative part is (some of) the attention from other people.

Strangers will touch me to try to read my arm, which always shocks me; maybe it's something like pregnancy that way, in that my body has become public property somehow. It came to bother me so much that for a couple of years I wouldn't go sleeveless, but I'm over that now. People also read it out loud and then say, "What does that mean?" I usually reply that it's from a poem and kind of hard to explain. Nine times out of time, that answer is sufficient.

I had it for three or four years before someone commented on it who actually knew what it was from: a waiter at a Vancouver restaurant said to me, seemingly out of the blue, "That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." I was blown away. Since then, maybe half a dozen strangers have expressed to me that they recognize the line. A few years ago, for example, Bill was playing in a golf tournament, and I was waiting for him in the bar. (Yeah, where would you be?) Another golfer, probably in his late fifties, started smiling at me; it turned out that he was a Keats fan, and not a creepy flirt. Always a nice surprise! When Bill and I were on an elephant ride in Thailand in 2002, a similar thing happened: a man I'd figured was creepy came out as a Keats buff.

But I continue to be surprised that so few people recognize the line. Maybe lots of people do, and they're the ones who leave me alone. Maybe they know it, and they think it's stupid. Who knows?

I'm thinking about all of this because of a feature in one of the Australian papers today: "Tattoo fleshes out the wise words of a poet". The writer had been at the beach and noticed a young woman with words tattooed on her back; she approached the woman and found out the words were a line of poetry by Ben Okri. Turned out the young woman was an interesting character. It's a good story.

p.s. I have to say I'm more than a little disappointed in the news that Charlize Theron will play a "bikini-clad assassin" in an upcoming film. Her role in Monster inspired no end of comments about the need for gritty, multifaceted roles for women in Hollywood, for opportunities for women to really act. Is anyone (actors, writers, studio execs) going to put their money where their mouths were after the Oscars?

p.p.s. Sadly, the body of Spalding Gray was found in the East River on Sunday. If you're not familiar with Mr. Gray's work, I'd recommend renting Swimming to Cambodia (1987, dir. Jonathan Demme) and/or Monster in a Box (1992, dir. Nick Broomfield). Smart, smart, funny guy.

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