Removing the Father
This rogue vein, an unwanted genetic hand-me-down
from him. I remember his lumpy, squat legs, blue
snails bulging and curling, their meandering paths
across his skin; a horrible yet fascinating map.
In the ‘80s, he had them painfully stripped, with long
recovery time, but that treatment—my doctor calls it
barbaric—has advanced. My own unruly varicose vein,
never allowed to degenerate to the same point, is being
plucked out of me, phlebologist with surgical crochet-hook,
inching down my numbed and perforated calf. I ask to see
the pieces, which are white, stringy as the bands
that marble a wedge of steak. With each snip comes
relief, as the doctor rips defective bloodlines out.
My body, a warehouse: anger in the muscles, grief
in the deep fat, memories stewing in subcutaneous layers,
sometimes dull and vague, sometimes raw and searing,
contaminating blood, strangling flow. What did my father
do, or not do? Does it matter? A child knows love, or
its absence. The vein, with its swell, its itch, its burn,
is the last thing connecting us, and I want it
dead. After the throbbing, irritation, and left-over
tenderness of the procedure come the sobs, hot
and surging, as I release him. Up and down my leg,
the tiny scattered scars, like blossoms along a rocky trail.
Story of Ink
At 16 I am a cliché butterfly. The artist is fresh out of prison, and we meet in a dimly lit basement, as a party roars above, on a dark New Hampshire winter evening. He is moon-faced, ignorant, and untalented. The tattoo: half-dollar sized, crooked placement, wobbly lines on my right bicep. I am surprised by how much it does not hurt. I hide it from my mother for months, hide it from myself, until summer blooms a metamorphosis.
Later, the faded smudge. I walk into a tattoo shop, looking for a wolf, and find him. The artist is a few years older, with a sticker on the shade of his gooseneck lamp: Scum always rises to the top. He wears ripped jeans, motorcycle boots, leather vest with colorful biker insignia. My butterfly is transformed into a wolf howling at the moon. I sleep with the artist, a one-time thing, after he designs a chapbook of poems for me—cover, artwork on individual poems—one a vintage heart and dagger, with dripping blood.
My roommate’s insane, criminal boyfriend, also fresh out of prison, but talented with the gun—sitting at the kitchen table, he applies a dreamcatcher around the wolf and moon. We drink beer and smoke joints, Led Zeppelin reverberating from giant stereo speakers; a good time, which no one has anymore. The art now stretches from shoulder to elbow, and I love it.
The faded wolf and moon now upgraded to a large wolf’s head, staring straight on, filling the parameters of the dreamcatcher shield, by a no-nonsense professional artist, in a bright, antiseptic studio. Other details—feathers, beads—are sharpened, highlighted, some shading added. It is only a business transaction between us. After, edges peek out of my dressy blouse at work, as I type up real estate documents.
Post-divorce, I march into a shop and ask for a Jolly Roger, a skull with crossed swords, on the back of my neck. The artist wants to know, Why something so masculine? I tell him this is my rogue fury, a warning to those who would wound me. He understands, and we chat about failed relationships over the sounds of The Cramps, The Misfits, The Ramones. I am strong and fit now, prepared for trouble.
A decade passes. In Kathmandu, Nepal, I ask the young man, Kisi, an award winning artist, to add classic red roses and leaves around the neck. Have I softened? No. If anything, I am more hardened than ever. It has taken a long time to get here.
Two sparrows with swirling wings, applied with care, one on each shoulder, facing each other, by the gifted Jessica. She understands the searing grief of SIDS, and works with a gentle touch, soothing presence, as I weep freely. The birds: flights of angels, after the death of my granddaughter. One day, I will fly to her, but now is not that time.
Chiang Mai, on a sweltering evening, as the chanting of monks in the temple next to the shop waft in the window on a cloud of incense. Thai bamboo—the solemn artist meditatively dots two military stars, one to each shoulder front. I am doing this for the symmetry, balance, and nothing more. At least, that’s what I believe. The sharp stick tap-taps in, over and over, unrelenting, unforgiving, but I know how to tolerate such things.
Back in Kathmandu, a grueling, seven hour sitting for the left arm, a bust of Green Tara, beloved bodhisattva, my patroness. Kisi etches her serene green countenance, jeweled crown, elongated earlobes and golden hoops, mudra clasping lotus blossom—flowers, so many flowers—and flames for good measure. Around hour five, my arm swells to the size of my calf, but I tell him to go on, finish it, we must not stop. Om tare tuttare ture soha, Tara’s mantra echoes, swirling through the air of the shop, as Kisi wipes blood and excess ink from my bloated red arm. Compassionate one of action, liberator of human misery, I pray, Green Tara, free us all.
When You See It
A dead cat in the street, flies feasting, early morning sun a horrifying illuminant. And last night, the rich bitching about the help, these Eurotrash trust fund kids at the overpriced rooftop terrace bar. The dichotomy always slays me. A blind man, palm outstretched, squatting against the mosque, while the tourists pour past, guilt-ridden behind designer sunglasses—and it’s true—if you don’t see him, he doesn’t exist. I always look. Coins if had. The press of privileged flesh, the cold metal into the claw. In the main square, an attractive young man advertising himself: Life Companion. Oh, downtrodden of the world, I write of you. In the brief flash of existence, I pray, and I press the coin, as the private yachts sail by.
The Belly Dancer
I’d never seen a man move his body
like that, and I was grateful
for the darkened theater
as I felt heat rise, flushing
my face, while he undulated
over the polished floor
surrounded by a shimmying
coterie of veiled women,
hips tracing figure 8s
in the humid summer evening
of Istanbul. Mythical, god-like,
he twisted his pelvis into my
memory, to the rhythm
of the tabla, light silk
of his harem pants
clinging to his form
a trace of hair
sloping down his abdomen
under his waistband.
And his torso,
his perfect torso
glistening under stage lights,
his long black hair plastered
to the fine sheen of sweat
coating his sculpted shoulders.
As the throbbing
of music and pounding
of feet reached a crescendo
he threw his head back,
emitting a yelp of ecstasy
his loins quaking, coins
of his hip scarf
—and he was art—
a statue come to life, and he
knew it, offered himself for our pleasure
and we, rapt audience, tremored in our seats,
idolatrous at the altar of the orgasmic.
A Melancholy Café
Pick a city—Istanbul, London, Buenos Aires—and find the café along a cobbled side street where, sitting inside during the deepening evening and looking out, you may feel you’re in Paris, circa 1927. Something to do with an arched window, a stone casement, a sweep of burgundy velvet. Perhaps there’s a framed sepia photo, a red rose, a stack of tattered books. Jazz will be essential, and you must be wearing a soft scarf, while drinking coffee or tea from a vintage cup, which offers a graceful clink against a saucer. There should be a lover sitting across from you in the glow of a candle, and a man in a hat should ride by on a bicycle, preferably with a basket of bread. The other patrons must not sit too close, and the staff should not approach too often. You’ll need to be an artist of some sort, to have read Baudelaire or Rimbaud. And if your life has been full of misery, which I’m betting it has, it helps if you can remember with wistful detachment. Stay there, lost and found in reflection, with your understanding lover until closing time. Quietly, say merci. Go on, now, you’ve everything you need to endure this world.
Lauren Tivey is the author of four chapbooks, most recently Moroccan Holiday, which was the winner of The Poetry Box Chapbook Prize 2019. Other titles are The Breakdown Atlas & Other Poems, Her Blood Runs through Me, and Dance of the Fire Horse. Tivey is a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee; her work has appeared in South Florida Poetry Journal, Saw Palm, Connotation Press, and Split Lip Magazine, among dozens of other publications in the U.S. and U.K. She lives in St. Augustine, Florida, where she teaches English and Creative Writing at Flagler College.