Paul’s Tattoo

The flesh dreams toward permanence,

and so this red carp noses from the inked dusk
of a young man’s forearm as he tilts

the droning burren of his trade toward
the blank page of my dear one’s bicep

—a scene framed, from where I watch,
in an arched mirror, a niche of mercuried glass

the shape of those prosceniums in which still lifes
reside, in cool museum rooms: tulips and medlars,

oysters and snails and flies on permanently
perishing fruit: vanitas. All is vanitas,


for these two arms—one figured, one just beginning
to be traced with the outline of a heart—

are surrounded by a cabinet of curiosities,
the tattooist’s reflected shelves of skulls

—horses, pigs?—and photos of lobes and nipples
shocked into style. Trappings of evil


unlikely to convince: the shop’s called 666,
a casket and a pitbull occupy the vestibule,

but the coffin’s pink and the hell-hound licked
our faces clean as the latex this bearded boy donned

to prick the veil my lover’s skin presents
—rent, now, with a slightly comic heart

warmly ironic, lightly shaded, and crowned
as if to mean feeling’s queen or king of any day,

certainly this one, a quarter-hour suddenly galvanized
by a rippling electric trace firing adrenalin


and an odd sense of limit defied.
Not overcome, exactly; this artist’s

filled his shop with evidence of that.
To what else do these clean,

Dutch-white bones testify? But resistant,
still, skin grown less subject to change,

ruled by what is drawn there:
a freshly shadowed corazon now heron-dark,

and ringed by blue exultant bits of flame
—yods, the Tarot calls them, fire-tongues

of intensity, as if the self contained too much
to be held, and flung out droplets

of sweat or flame, the dear proud flesh
—stingingly warm—a steadier hand

has raised into art, or a wound, or both.
The work’s done, our design complete.

A bandage, to absorb whatever pigment
the newly writ might weep,

a hundred guilders, a handshake, back out
onto the street. Now all his life

he wears his heart beneath his sleeve.