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Pediatrician Kelley Jean White has worked in inner-city Philadelphia and rural New Hampshire. Her poems have appeared in Exquisite Corpse, Rattle and JAMA. Her recent books are Toxic Environment (Boston Poet Press) and Two Birds in Flame (Beech River Books). She received a 2008 Pennsylvania Council on the Arts grant.
When is a tattoo not a tattoo? When it is a Kelley White poem. In A Field Guide to Northern Tattoos we see that a tattoo can contain a message, a statement, a memorial, is ultimately a metaphor for man’s relationship to society. Some of these poems are dark, others laugh out loud funny, a joy to read. Above all: Beware the misspelled tattoo! It is yours for life. ~Alan Catlin, poet, Asylum Garden: after Van Gogh
We begin with barbed wire and end with Glow-in-the Dark Zodiac Belt and in between, this abecedarian Field Guide to Northern Tattoos offers the anguish and absurdity of being human, our desires inked into us. No one writes with more compassion and wit than Kelley Jean White, gifts not always found together, but reflecting her experience as doctor serving under-represented communities and poet encouraging us to bring play of the mind to all we encounter. ~Christopher Bursk, author of The First Inhabitants of Arcadia
Kelley White’s poems give me chills. Her remarkable and intimate portraits, written from her perspective as a physician, are emotionally dramatic: reverential, explicit, frightening, always arresting. A biker, an Irish cop, a WWII vet: her characters vary, as does her range of forms and her subjects’ range of tattoos. Her beautifully written and very readable poems fascinate, revealing human beings as extra-ordinary. ~Tina Barr
It’s honest dirt, blackening his fingers, though a shock
against the newborn’s head—he knows how to cradle
a newborn, has a natural way of rocking just a little
as we talk, and the mother’s on her cell phone in the hall.
You can see how much he loves the child. I don’t mind
the ragged jacket, the leather vest plastered with patches:
Vietnam vet, Harley-Davidson, Gypsy Motor Tour,
Native Riders. He’s earned the black and iron gray braid
hanging down his back. He whispers to the baby’s scalp,
kisses a patch of sparse pale hair, his huge hands cross
around her buttocks, knuckles spelling L-O-V-E H-A-T-E.
I explain the signs of illness to look for, give him my home
phone number. He warms a bottle under the faucet, shakes
a few drops on his wrist, the baby pale as milk against
his arm. We’ll recheck a weight in two weeks. Does he have
any questions. Yes, do we do DNA testing? Her last boy friend’s
kids all have red hair and blue eyes and I’m… I hold
his eyes. Do you want to know? What will it change?
Everything. Yes. Does it matter? He calls me two days later
from a bus on the way to Lowell. The baby has a diaper rash.
I talk him through the way to treat it. The mother’s sleeping—
she needs her rest.
It’s been a year now, well child checks,
a few colds, a fever. He always brings the child. Now
the woman’s pregnant. Another red head? It doesn’t matter.
The love is in him. Who looks at hate.
The Cartoon Character
Here is the bride
Dressed in satin and lace
Here is the veil
That covers her face
Here are the flowers
Here are the rings
Seems that she’s thought of
Every last thing
See her pale shoulders
Strapless and bare
What! Woody Woodpecker’s
Peeking out there
Larger than life
With pointed red head
Right into her breasts
in radiology 2-16-15
A pipe burst in 19-degree weather, at 6 am.
When they came in to open up, the lights
were out, odd in that shadow-dim country.
So a row of us are parked in wheelchairs, nurses
passing with heated blankets down the corridor
to wrap around johnnys and bare skin. The kid
in front of me looks healthy enough, gives a big
smile and a nod as they turn him towards a door.
Then I see the pajama leg pinned just below the left knee,
the right calf unnaturally pink in the light that falls
only from a window at the far end of the hall.
It is snowing outside. I have a cough. Tears are dripping
down my cheeks. I do not want the surgery postponed.
It will take me months to save up enough sick days
again, and will I become one of those horrors begging
for narcotics if I postpone an offensive on this pain?
A new man is parked beside me. All tattoos are gray
in this pre-dawn light. His left arm might be an eagle,
and on his back, the color turning to sepia as a back-up
generator kicks in. I think I see the facade of a cathedral,
niches dripping with melting candles of saints. He nods.
The braid half-way down his back flicks like a little whip,
and I think of my own arms, my shoulders a white tallow
shawl dripping over my fallen chest. And I know if they turn
him towards me his chest will display, mixed with his own
graying chest hair, an eagle, in its talons the flayed face
of the man he once was.