S K I N N E T S iii

Two final poems by Wythe Marschall.

I’m fascinated by tattooing, in part because of its status as a quasi-medical procedure. Tattooists give detailed instructions regarding the care of recently inked skin. Both tattooing and surgery involve preoperative consultations and postoperative follow-ups. Both involve specialized instruments including devices that penetrate the skin. In some ways, tattooing is the aesthetic parody of surgery (elective plastic surgery aside).

Meanwhile, cephalopods such as octopi can change their skin coloration and texture in seconds. Their camouflage parodies the long and careful work of the surgeon or tattooist.

I could perhaps, with intense effort, capture this web of thoughts in a cycle of sonnets. For now, my double-sonnet on tattooing and the image of George Motta’s work on my body will have to serve as my synthesis of several syzygies—body and art, art and medicine, permanence and transience, concern for the future and inability to exit the mores of the present.



…An octopus uses its sophisticated skin… to produce a range of patterns, often described as uniform, mottled, and disruptive, to achieve deceptive and general resemblance…[1]


We rarely invite pain into the body.

When we do, it’s through the skin.

I once knew a young woman

who begged to be scratched bloody.

She arched her back: “In another

life, I was a cat,” she said. My brothers

meanwhile race across freezing mud

and finish breathless with studs

of rock stuck deep in their heels.

I wince. My beloved pain

is ink, a vampire I invite to remain

forever. I do not fear the squeal

of the needle’s motor, only that one day

I will less proudly brandish the gray


octopus whose tentacles proffer

the artichoke crowning my arm

with butler-like aplomb. Is this harm

unavoidable? Do we empty our coffers

only to plan what we’ll resent—

to plant traps in our future flesh?

Wave-to-wave, enmeshed

in the ocean of the present,

are tattooists “transmuting verdure

into onyx?” What if I endure

my octopus’s caress for years

only to find she has grown ugly or, fear-

of-fears, boring? Sleeve up, I squint

into her eyes for any spectral hint.


[1] Josef, Noam, Piero Amodio, Graziano Fiorito, and Nadav Shashar. “Camouflaging in a Complex Environment—Octopuses Use Specific Features of Their Surroundings for Background Matching.” PLoS ONE 7, no. 5 (2012): e37579. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0037579.

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