In honor of National Poetry Month and its final day of celebration, poet Rita Banerjee, her tattoo, and her poem “Paper Men” from Echo in Four Beats (Finishing Line Press, March 2018) are featured today (Monday, April 30, 2018) on Tattooed Poets. Since 2009, over 320+ tattooed poets, including Joy Harjo, Carl Phillips, Eileen Myles and Noelle Koch, have appeared on Tattooed Poets in celebration of National Poetry Month.
And today, on this final day of celebration, poet Rita Banerjee explains the history behind her tattoo:
“By my senior year of college, I had been tapped into a secret society. When dusk fell over New Brunswick, we wore our dark robes long, accompanied by tawny-colored hats, as we tagged skulls and messages on the sidewalks across Rutgers College. Our secret society, which had been modeled after Skull and Bones and Quill and Dagger, had existed in our quiet but peculiar corner of New Jersey for over a hundred years. Paul Robeson, Ozzie Nelson, Al Aronowitz, Dick Standish, and Rebecca Quick were all members. We let our black robes and anonymity guide us. We wore our mystique close to the vest. Only a handful of deans and administrators kept the roster of our names. And so, in senior year, we easily flitted between the worlds of academic and cultural excellence and our shadow selves. But in May, during our graduation ceremony, our identities would officially be revealed to our fellow classmates and graduating seniors. So before we left the banks of the Old Raritan, broke our clay pipes, and signed our names inside the bell tower of Old Queens, we decided to take up one last dare. One evening, between finals and graduation, we took a trip to Montclair at night. I was the designated driver, and I was in charge of transporting my fellow skulls to a rather funky tattoo parlor in town. I was only there to hold hands and offer encouragement. Just half of us were willing to take the plunge and get a tattoo after all. But before the night was over, I, too, had been persuaded. While other members of our secret society got skulls emblazoned on their biceps and buttocks, I got the words ‘Spectemur Agendo’ inscribed on my lower back. The phrase was from Ovid, from The Metamorphoses. In Book VIII of The Metamorphoses, Ajax the fearless, exclaims: ‘Denique (quid verbis opus est?) spectemur agendo!’ That is, ‘Finally (what is the use of words?), let us be judged by our actions!’ A beautiful and terrifying sentiment. The perfect challenge for a writer: What is the power of words, dear poet? Let us be judged by our actions.”
And offers a sample poem:
Paper Men xeroxing epiphanies at 5¢ a page, the messiah standing next to me has been speaking the word of hope and rage for 37 years. with 4000 books living in his mind, he’s international, a sage who hands me a song of California. and anaheim—anaheim—been on my mind for seven straight minutes. why? 7 for luck and anaheim for memories not mine. brushing the tattoo of a carnivale, he says there isn’t a circus in the world he hasn’t been to. and he’d like to be called Nesmith if you don’t mind. and when he says Nesmith, i think of mike and white out. white out morning after crash—seven days of meditating Tantric verse and I crashed, crashed for six long hours at the highest level of understanding and do you understand me, child, when I say, I cannot describe it to you? the Supreme spoke to me and I had something to say. and this I’ve said for years. and when his eyes ask, believe me, i do ’cause there isn’t a story i haven’t believed in. and when i nod yes, he says, I have found in your eyes a kindred spirit. and i think of the paper man i once met on an island. in my back-pocket wallet, the name Yoshida’s inked, hand-pressed on rice-white paper. Yoshida sighed once, look at the color of our women—hair the color of the sun—there is no space for dark anymore. just the shade of this paper store and the wait, the wait for a word-maker to pass by. and so he tells me of Korea, the blasphemy of emperors disgraced, and the beauty of his wife when she wakes him. we talk and talk and talk of the greatness of rome, sartre, and curry. and somehow beneath the talk, i can hear his heart. and tonight after kissing another man of verse, i walk down white halls with a book of words on my head, and think. today, i met a poet.
Read the full post on Rita Banerjee, her tattoo, and poem “Paper Men” on Tattooed Poets here.
“Paper Men” originally appeared in the literary journal Objet d’Art and is featured in Rita’s new collection Echo in Four Beats (Finishing Line Press, March 2018).