Ted Kooser's "Tattoo"

Updated on December 12, 2017
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Ted Kooser

Introduction and Text of Poem, "Tattoo"

The four movements in Kooser's "Tattoo" play out without a rime scheme or even a hint of a rhythm sequence. They do feature prominently a folky kind of jauntiness but unfortunately a bit of superciliousness on the part of the speaker, as he observes this aging biker at a yard sale.

Kooser's speaker forces a folksy but judgmental attitude on a man whom the speaker obviously does not know personally but is still delighted to concoct his own scenario about the man's thoughts and inner being.

Makes one wonder if the poet might have experienced a bit of run-in with a biker type somewhere in his illustrious path.

Tattoo

What once was meant to be a statement—
a dripping dagger held in the fist
of a shuddering heart—is now just a bruise
on a bony old shoulder, the spot
where vanity once punched him hard
and the ache lingered on. He looks like
someone you had to reckon with,
strong as a stallion, fast and ornery,
but on this chilly morning, as he walks
between the tables at a yard sale
with the sleeves of his tight black T-shirt
rolled up to show us who he was,
he is only another old man, picking up
broken tools and putting them back,
his heart gone soft and blue with stories.

Reading of Kooser's "Tattoo"

Commentary

First Movement: A Sagging Image

What once was meant to be a statement—
a dripping dagger held in the fist
of a shuddering heart—is now just a bruise
on a bony old shoulder, the spot
where vanity once punched him hard
and the ache lingered on.

The speaker in Ted Kooser's "Tattoo" observes a sagging image of the very popular dagger-through-heart tattoo on the shoulder of an aging biker. The speaker assumes and thus asserts that the tattoo once had a purpose; it was meant to be a statement.

But now it just resembles a bruise as it sags "on the bony old shoulder" of the man who still seems to proudly flaunt it. Of course, people become tattooed for their own individual reasons, but this speaker concludes that the man got his dagger-through-heart tattoo out of sheer vanity.

But because undergoing the tattoo process is not without pain, the speaker assumes that this spot on this aging biker's skin is where "vanity once punched him hard / and the ache lingered on."

Because the meaning of this particular tattoo is often linked to a broken heart, the speaker also implies that the man probably got the tattoo because of a broken relationship. The speaker's own vanity seems to be motivating him to assume the worst about this tattooed individual.

Second Movement: Reading Character

He looks like
someone you had to reckon with,
strong as a stallion, fast and ornery,

The speaker then reports, based solely on the man's looks, that he would have been "someone you had to reckon with," that is, someone who would not run from a quarrel or physical altercation.

The speaker can see that the man was, and perhaps still is, "strong as a stallion." The speaker also assumes that the man was, and perhaps still is, "fast and ornery."

Third Movement: Past His Prime

but on this chilly morning, as he walks
between the tables at a yard sale
with the sleeves of his tight black T-shirt
rolled up to show us who he was,

The speaker shifts from the possibilities of the man's past to what he is now observing: the speaker sees the man at a yard sale on a rather cool morning, but the man is wearing a tight-fitting black T-shirt, and he has his sleeves "rolled up to show us who he was."

The speaker assumes that the man is still quite proud of his dagger-through-heart tattoo because he has it displayed so prominently even on this chilly morning.

The man is still so identified with the period of his life that fetched him the tattoo that he still has to exhibit it to the world. This speaker's attitude toward the tattooed man is one of unearned disdain.

Fourth Movement: A Vain Creature

he is only another old man, picking up
broken tools and putting them back,
his heart gone soft and blue with stories.

The speaker concludes that this vain creature is just "another old man." And this old man is doing what the other old men are doing at the yard sale, "picking up / broken tools and putting them back."

The speaker is unduly hard on this target of observation. As the man picks up the tools and puts them back, the speaker assumes that his heart has "gone soft and blue with stories."

Of course, he is playing on the term heart, referring to the biker's physical heart as well as the tattoo, giving the speaker a smug sense of accomplishment for his lame double-entendre.

Because of the sagging soft flesh to which the aging physical body is heir, the tattoo has sagged into a softness that the speaker associates with the man's inner spiritual stamina.

The speaker's unfairness to this man in the final lines cheapens his overall observation, making the speaker a quiet bully.

While the body's sagging flesh denotes age, it does not necessarily reveal anything about the soul of the individual where the stories would be memorialized, and those stories might be quite bright, not blue.

Questions & Answers

    © 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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