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Poetry and Medicine
September 15, 1999

My Tattoos

Author Affiliations

Edited by Charlene Breedlove, Associate Editor.

JAMA. 1999;282(11):1020C. doi:10.1001/jama.282.11.1020

The telephone lineman whose tattoos
I so admired was less than 30.
They encircled his arms from shoulder
to wrist, his chest from the base of his neck
to the muscular ridge of his belly—
serpents, women, even St Francis
whose arms are raised to bless the animals
he's preaching to. He had nothing
on his copper-colored back—not one piece
of body art emblazoned in a spot
the lineman couldn't see. Men like him—
rejection or weakness never occurs to them
until it happens. Can you imagine
the crush of his embrace? Or the weight
of his Garden of Eden at the moment
of transgression pressing against you?
I'm sitting at my desk where autumn sun
has etched my hands and arms with brilliant,
but ghostly, tattoos. It's chilly in here—
one day soon I'll turn on the furnace.
That lineman was one of those patients
who jump like a tongue from embarrassment
whenever the cold of the stethoscope
touches the skin. Complete before 30,
he was fully formed—except for his back,
on the surface of which was his future.