Once a month over the next year, we’ll be posting the tale of poet Ali Liebegott’s epic train trip across America. Destination: the Emily Dickinson House in Amherst, MA. Along the way, she stopped and spoke with female writers (mostly poets) about art and writing and life. It’s these conversations we’ll be posting. Maggie Nelson, Claudia Rankine, Sarah Bynum, Eileen Myles… we’re excited to bring you all of them. But the journey begins in a tattoo shop…
I waited ten years to get an Emily Dickinson tattoo because when I was twenty-seven getting roses inked across my chest in a Brooklyn shop, I watched the guy next to me get three different photographic faces tattooed on his forearm, one sitting on top of the other like a totem-pole. One of the heads was bald. Then it clicked. “Really?” I thought, “You’re getting the Three Stooges tattooed on your arm?” But people get all sorts of things tattooed on them. They get an arm-length syringe filled with Rockstar energy drink plunging into their vein, or a necklace of dicks, or once in a magazine I saw this guy, probably not even thirty, who had his entire chest tattooed as a rainbow pastel vagina. What could’ve happened so young in his life that he’d want his entire chest to be permanently covered in a pastel-vagina? Some questions only God can answer.
After my roses were finished, I walked past the guy getting the Three Stooges tattoo and gave him the tattoo solidarity smile.
“Three Stooges!” I said, putting my arms over my head in a victory salute.
He looked at me blankly. In the tray next to him, along with ink and smudged paper towels, I saw the reference photographs the tattooist was using. The photos were not of the Three Stooges after all, but instead what I assumed to be baby pictures of the man’s children.
From that day on, I knew I had to make sure I got the right person to do my Emily Dickinson tattoo, otherwise she’d end up looking like one of The Three Stooges.
I first read Emily Dickinson in high school, where our textbook had edited out all her dashes. Our tenth grade teacher, Mrs. Solarez, sat on a stool in the front of the class and tried to impart the importance of Emily’s intended dashes by reading a few words and then shooting her hand out, and yelling DASH. She was on a crusade, DASHING Emily’s intentions back into the present. Each student took turns reading a poem. It was impossible to not be nervous as we waited to be interrupted by Mrs. Solarez, who held a text with Emily’s original manuscript and intended dashes. “DASH!” Mrs. Solarez yelled, simultaneously shooting her arm out in a sideways Heil Hitler each time. All of these theatrics did not make me feel closer to Emily Dickinson. I didn’t get it.
Twelve years later, I made it to college and waited for my turn to read THE EMILY DICKINSON poem in class.
“Do we really have to read Emily Dickinson?” I asked, looking at the illustration of her in the book I’d checked out from the library. She was wearing a white dress with a crazy ruffled Elizabethean collar. The collar was so big it looked like a cone you put on a recently spayed dog. Her hair was still parted down the middle, but like a wavy Dorothy Hamill.
My professor said, “Just read the poem,” like you’ll understand in a second.
I started reading—I felt a Funeral in my Brain—and that was all I needed for it to become my anthem.
“I’m gonna get that tattooed on me,” I blurted, “under this picture of Emily Dickinson.”
I waved the book, and Emily’s Elizabethean dog cone fluttered.
“If you’re going to get a tattoo of her you have to get the right one,” my professor interrupted. “This is the publisher’s attempt to feminize her, make her more palpable.”
I wanted the right tattoo: that was the whole reason I’d gone to college, right?
“This one,” my professor said, tapping her finger on the only proven picture of Emily Dickinson in existence: the daguerreotype of her sitting in a high-backed chair with her hands weirdly in her lap, ribbon crossed around her neck and her eyes boring holes into the lens of the camera.
Every time I thought about getting the tattoo in the years to follow, I’d chicken out, afraid she’d end up looking like one of The Three Stooges. Then one day, over a decade later, I found a tattooist who specialized in portraits. His Elvises looked like Elvis and his Muhammad Alis like Muhammad Ali. I handed him a greeting card that had the famous Dickinson daguerrotype on it.
“I just want her face,” I said, “and a quote.”
I still wanted I felt a Funeral in my Brain to accompany her portrait, but I was afraid to get that, since my psychiatric health had improved since I’d first gotten the idea. Emily’s face was going to be tattooed above some flying birds and under a fanged, barking deer named Reeve’s Muntjac that lives in Southeastern China. I narrowed the quotes down to A Wounded Deer—leaps highest— and “Hope” is the thing with feathers.
“Don’t get I felt a Funeral in my Brain,” my girlfriend said. “People will think you’re crazy.”
There’s this weird superstition about tattoos—like if you get something sad tattooed on you, then you’ll always be sad. I decided on “Hope” is the thing with feathers—.
The tattoo artist said he needed a week or two to sketch, then I could come back and he’d do it. I never want to come back for a tattoo, even if it means I’ll get a shitty one. I want the instant gratification, but I’d waited over a decade for my Emily Dickinson tattoo. What was another week?
“We have to make sure the punctuation is right in the quote,” I said. “She does weird shit with dashes and “Hope” is in quotes,” I said.
One of the things I love most about that poem, is that “Hope” is in quotes.
I like to read it as there’s no such thing as “hope”. Quotation marks change everything. Like on the bottoms of menus where it says, “Thanks” or “Sorry no substitutions,” I always pretend the quotation marks can only be read as passive aggressive, like, “Sorrrryyyy.” Or, “Thanksssssssssssss.”
When the day of my tattoo appointment finally came, I walked in and the tattooist hadn’t done anything except trace the outline of Emily’s face. I didn’t understand what had taken him a week.
“What about the quote?” I said.
“Oh, you want a quote?”
“Yeah,” I said.
My heart was sinking. I made him Google the quote to make sure the dashes and capitalization were correct. As he was setting up, he told me how he was going on vacation with some buddies to Mexico—it was all-inclusive, as much alcohol as you wanted. He’d just gone through his second divorce. Once he started tattooing he got very quiet and we said nothing to each other for a half an hour, and then suddenly he said, “Who is she again?” meaning Emily Dickinson.
“Emily Dickinson,” I said.
“Who’s that, again?” he said.
“She was a poet.”
“Oh yeah,” he says, “I knew that.”
Then he fell silent again, concentrating on the tattoo.
“She looks like a woman with a lot on her mind,” he said finally.
It’s my new favorite way to think of Emily Dickinson, as a woman with a lot on her mind. My tattoo took a few hours to finish and for the most part it looks like Emily Dickinson, but her expression is slightly off—something in the pursing of her lips.
“Thank you,” I say, “have fun in Mexico.”
I leave the tattoo shop and go to the drug store to get ointment and the woman who rings me up says, “Oh, that’s sick,”—pointing at my new tattoo. “I fucking love Frida Kahlo.”
I don’t point out that Frida Kahlo had one eyebrow instead of two— I just drive home, and before I get into bed for the night, I wash my tattoo as directed. That’s when I notice for the first time that the first set of quotation marks around the word “hope” are backwards.
- Ali Liebegott
(Image: Shary Boyle, 2009, The Letter. Polymar clay, gouache, beads. 10 x 21 x 23cm. Photo: Rafael Goldchain. Shary Boyle is represented by Jessica Bradley Art + Projects, Toronto.)