Much Tattooed Sailor Aboard USS New Jersey

Jehanne Dubrow

Squint a little, and that’s my husband
           in the photograph, the sailor on the left—
the one wearing a rose composed of ink
           and the Little Bo Peep who stands
before a tiny setting sun and the blur
           on his forearm which might be a boat—
while the sailor on the right is leaning in,
           his fingers touching the other man’s skin,
tracing what looks like the top of an anchor
           or the intricate hilt of a sword, perhaps
wiping blood from the artful laceration,
           in his other hand something crumpled,
his cap I think or a cloth to shine brass,
           lights on a bulkhead, fittings and fixtures,
because let’s not forget this picture
           must be posed, the men interrupted—
mops laid down, ropes left uncoiled, or else
           on a smoke break, Zippo and Lucky Strikes
put aside—the men shirtless on a deck,
           legs bent at beautiful angles,
a classical composition this contrast
           of bodies and dungarees, denim gone black
and their shoulders full of shadow—
           although on second thought how effortless
this scene, both of them gazing toward
           a half-seen tattoo so that we too lean in
trying to make out the design on the bicep,
           close enough we can almost smell the salt
of them and the oil of machinery,
           which is of course the point, as when in a poem
I call the cruiser’s engine a pulse inside my palm
           or describe my husband’s uniform,
ask him to repeat the litany of ships and billets,
           how one deployment he sliced himself
on a piece of pipe and how the cut refused
           to shut for months—Hold still, I tell him,
I need to get the exquisite outline of your scar.

More by Jehanne Dubrow

Before the Deployment

He kisses me before he goes. While I,
still dozing, half-asleep, laugh and rub my face

against the sueded surface of the sheets,
thinking it’s him I touch, his skin beneath

my hands, my body curving in to meet
his body there. I never hear him leave.

But I believe he shuts the bedroom door,
as though unsure if he should change his mind,

pull off his boots, crawl beneath the blankets
left behind, his hand a heat against my breast,

our heart rates slowing into rest. Perhaps
all good-byes should whisper like a piece of silk—

and then the quick surprise of waking, alone
except for the citrus ghost of his cologne.

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The Buttonhook

President Roosevelt, touring Ellis Island
in 1906, watched the people from steerage
line up for their six-second physical.

Might not, he wondered aloud, the ungloved handling 
of aliens who were ill infect the healthy?
Yet for years more it was done. I imagine

my grandmother, a girl in that Great Hall’s
polyglot, reverberating vault
more terrible than church, dazed by the stars

and stripes in the vast banner up in front
where the blessed ones had passed through. Then she did too,
to a room like a little chapel, where her mother 

might take Communion. A man in a blue cap
and a blue uniform—a doctor? a policeman?
(Papa would have known, but he had sailed

all alone before them and was waiting 
now in New York; yet wasn’t this New York?)—
a man in a blue cap reached for her mother. 

Without a word (didn’t he speak Italian?)  
he stuck one finger into her mother’s eye,
then turned its lid up with a buttonhook,

the long, curved thing for doing up your boots
when buttons were too many or too small.
You couldn’t be American if you were blind

or going to be blind. That much she understood.
She’d go to school, she’d learn to read and write
and teach her parents. The eye man reached to touch

her own face next; she figured she was ready.
She felt big, like that woman in the sea
holding up not a buttonhook but a torch.