Back in September, at the Best American Poetry 2016 launch reading, I snapped this photo of Alan Michael Parker's forearm:
Truth be told, Alan told me back in 2011 that he was un-tattooed, but that he was considering one. Fortunately, we stayed in touch, and he was happy to share and participate. He explained this ladder tattoo to me as follows:
"I had been haunted for years by the image of the ladder, which figured prominently in a novel I wrote (Whale Man, WordFarm Press, 2011), and then recurred in a poem that particularly mattered to me. I had sketched the tattoo I thought I wanted, and with the assistance of my partner, Felicia van Bork, who’s a visual artist, had drafted an image of the tattoo. Then I went looking for an artist, and finally found one in New York at Infinity Tattoo, But the artist I made an appointment with, when we arrived, wasn’t there: instead, we met So Yeon (@sona_art), took a quick look at her book, and said 'yes.' She did a lot of thinking, mixing colors (with my partner’s input), and adding outlines and angles; the tattoo is really her work, ultimately, a fact I like a lot.
But the image and the symbolism matter to me the most. 'The Ladder' is the title poem in my most recent collection, published by Tupelo last August. In that poem, in the penultimate couplet, the speaker asks of a wise one not present, 'Teach me to climb / down from ambition.' These lines have served me well, in my relationship to external rewards, artistic compulsions, and acquisitiveness; I’m practicing how to be ambitious for the work without being ambitious in the world. The ladder is there on my body — upside down for me to see, but right-side up for you — as a reminder of this struggle."One note, So Yeon, the artist who ultimately inked this tattoo, is now working out of Body Language Tattoo (@bltnyc), in Astoria, Queens.
Alan chose to share the aforementioned poem with us, as well:
When I finally made my way across the ice
of my twenties and thirties and forties
and up the mountain through the cedars,
a great sage gave me a grass sack
to start my new life.
In the grass sack I found
a dull gray stone,
a box that once held a gold locket,
a toy fire truck, and a ladder.
I have learned to use the stone
in love, to turn the stone over.
I keep the box closed,
the gift its own cherishing.
The toy fire truck—well,
fate burns, as it will.
The great sage said a grass sack
is a thing, just a thing,
all things empty.
But Master, the ladder.
I hitched up the ladder to every height,
and still the moon rolls away.
Above the clouds
the airplanes are small and cold,
and the ladder sways.
Teach me to climb
down from ambition.
Beyond my fingertips
rolls the moon.
- Alan Michael Parker, The Ladder (Tupelo Press, 2016); https://www.tupelopress.org/product/the-ladder/
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Alan Michael Parker is the author or editor of sixteen books, including most recently The Ladder and the coedited volume, The Manifesto Project. Douglas C. Houchens Professor of English at Davidson College, he also teaches in the University of Tampa’s low-residency M.F.A. program. He can be found too often online, www.alanmichaelparker.com.
Thanks to Alan for sharing his two ladders with us here on Tattoosday's Tattooed Poets Project!
This entry is ©2017 Tattoosday. The poem and tattoo are reprinted with the poet's permission.