At thirteen I asked my father for a tattoo.
I might as well have asked for a bar mitzvah.
He said I had no right to alter the body
he gave me. Aping what little of Marx I learned
from the sisters down the street who wore torn
black stockings with Doc Martens, I said
I was a man because I could claim my body
and the value of its labor. This meant I could
adorn it or dispose of it as I chose. Tattoos,
my father said, are like children: have one,
you’ll want another. I knew there was a connection
between the decorated body and reproduction.
This is why I wanted a tattoo. Yet I reasoned,
not in so many words, his analogy only held
in the case of possession, i.e., I possess my body,
but can not possess my children. His laughter
was my first lesson in the human Ponzi
scheme of paternalism, the self-electing
indenture to the promise of material inheritance,
men claiming a hollow authority because,
simply, their fathers had claimed
a hollow authority. Knowing I had little
idea as to what my proposed tattoo might
resemble, my father sent me to my room
to sketch it using the pastels he had given me
for Christmas. Based on his critique, he said,
he would consider my request. But he had
already taken the shine from my swagger.
How can I beautify what I do not possess
and call it anything but graffiti? Chris Rock says
my first job is to keep my daughter
off the pole. Whether or not I agree with him,
I get his point. As a father myself
I now see every mutinous claim of independence
as the first steps toward my sweet pea’s
falling in with a bad crowd. Richard Pryor
says we are bound to fuck up our kids
one way or another. My father would
split the difference: I made you, he’d say,
I can un-make you, and make another one
just like you.
Copyright © 2014 Gregory Pardlo
Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of Four Way Books.