028.1: Bonnie Nadzam:: Tattoo & Self Esteem & You Tell Yourself a Story 028

Last weekend, after seeing the film Inception, I felt tremendously refreshed to come home and review Bonnie Nadzam's work. Whether you love, hate, understand, or remain befuddled by Christopher Nolan's film, it points to a sentiment in both popular culture and high art that seeks to reinvent or at least question the authenticity of "reality" by warming the world over with Cartesian notions of dream as reality or reality as dream within dream within dream within dream (last year's Avatar also attempted this with greater or lesser degrees of success). The common denominator here may, gasp, imply that the real world is passé, twice-told, and has been mastered, explained, and understood, and therefore the frontier lies in the imaginary, the subconscious, and the virtual in order to better demonstrate, through art, the "real" world.

All of this would seem otherwise unconcerned with Nadzam's work. It is far less pseudo-subliminal than it is straightforward. I admit, in "Tattoo" we have a woman wanting to permanently have a man's name inscribed on the "wet muscle" of her heart. Surreal? Perhaps, but what is not is Nadzam's depiction here of sheer human will. The literary champion of human will is Don Quixote—one who does, and imagines, at will when the "actual" world of Cervantes' hero is far removed from him in both situation and circumstance. Nadzam's brilliant story here is a similar declaration of the will in the arduous acts of loving, naming, writing, and art-making—all through: "the word thoroughly inextricable from the flesh." Moreover, there is nothing flashy or panoptical on the surface of Nadzam's poems. In fact, "Self Esteem" and "You Tell Yourself a Story" are set in situations common to us all—in the former, sleeplessness from memory and in the latter, erotic intimacy. The poems thrive in a Dickensonian brevity where the toils and spoils of being are imbedded in the moment. All three pieces are visceral and argue that the hardest human task is not making, destroying, loving, or remembering, but living. Such a sentiment is an important one indeed, for we had better get it right in this world before we move on to the next. Cody Todd


When she told the tattoo artist where she wanted it, he sat her down, pulled up a chair, and leaned in close. The alphabet was written across his chest like a talisman. She could read it through the open collar of his shirt.

“Listen,” he said. “Are you sure? That would really be permanent. And it’d hurt. A lot.”

“You listen,” she took him by the front of his shirt. “If I don’t have his name printed on my body, I’m going to die.”

“What about your arm? Your hip bone?”

“I’ve made up my mind.”

“What about the bottom of your foot?”

She sat down and unbuttoned her shirt. “Do it,” she said.

So he tied her ankles and wrists to the chair, opened up his pocketknife, and sliced a wet red line from the hollow of her throat to the smooth white plate of her sternum. Her body arched and she inhaled sharply.

“You’re open,” he said. “I’m going to use my tattoo gun to separate your ribs, okay? Just a little pressure,” he said. She felt her bones crack apart from the middle, then a long pause.

“What?” she asked. “What is it.”

“His name is already there.”

“I knew it,” she said. “Put it on again. Make sure you capitalize his first and last names.”

“You want it on there twice?”

“Yes. And don’t rush. I want to be able to picture it there very clearly. Be really careful with the vowels.”

So he bent over her and went to work with his needle and ink, carefully tracing each letter in fine and even print until it was stamped across her heart, twice. Like a question posed and confirmed. Like two quick punches to the chest. Like a stutter—a name she could scarcely utter out loud if she dared. So perfect a name that—as with all the beautiful things she’d seen in her short life: soft brown birds flying in cursive loops against a paper blue sky, a hundred thousand black ants crossing the blank sidewalk in a spill of broken words—it was compelled to repeat itself, to write itself in typescript again and again across the wet muscle of her heart, the word thoroughly inextricable from the flesh.

Self Esteem

Oh come on now
You’ve always known your breath
Glides with the shadow of the window frame
Across your bedroom wall at one a.m. when
Everyone else in the universe is sleeping save
The driver of that lone car passing below,
Headlights casting messages into
The night that swim like dark fish over
The bookshelves and wilted dresses hanging
From the back of the closet door to
Remind you that the print of tree leaves on
White paint in the dark is |
Your heart and the sound of an old
Chevy disappearing down a cool and
Empty rain-soaked street is
Your heart and the cricket caught
In the hall is singing a tune you know
Something about
Its broken liquid notes
A wild spill of tiny lights pulsing
Behind your eyes
The awful silver crush of it
Spinning noiselessly outside
And flashing dimly through a gauze of clouds
Miles and miles above the rest of the world.

You Tell Yourself a Story

Wet night,
One cold beer.
And ok.
One kiss.
Arches of my socked feet pushed
Against your hip bones.

Editor’s Note: “Tattoo” can also be found in the anthology The Loudest Voice Vol. 1 from Figueroa Press.