Gertrude Stein
Gertrude Stein

Tattoos are in the zeitgeist.

Go back to Peter Greenaway’s The Pillow Book (1996) and take another look at the beauty of script on skin. Consider the strange attractiveness of Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2007) where skin is a canvas on which art can be created. Think Angelina Jolie and Rihanna.

My favourite tattoo on Angelina Jolie’s body is from Tennessee Williams: “A prayer for the wild at heart, kept in cages.” Jolie says, “I am still at heart—and always will be—just a punk kid with tattoos.”

Pop princess Rihanna sports a range of tattoos, all delicately placed on her body like small inked masterpieces—cascading stars down her neck and back, a star in her ear, a musical note on her ankle, a Pisces sign behind her ear, a Sanskrit prayer on her thigh, an Arabic phrase on her ribcage, “rebelle fleur” on her neck, a “shhh” on her right index finger.

Compared to the svelte Rihanna, the rotund Gertrude Stein had the face and body of a Roman emperor, a body that Picasso painted over a 100 times for his famous portrait. Kathy Bates plays Stein admirably in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, but she’s physically too slight, too non-imperial. You need at least 200 pounds, preferably 300, to play the fleshy Stein.

Stein pronounced like a Pope, held court like a movie star and was “The Presence”at 27 rue de Fleurus where Picassos and Matisses hung from her walls and supplicating young writers paid homage.  A mother of modernism, she wrote as a mischievous leprechaun might – cryptically, sometimes hermetically. Godmother of Hemingway’s first child and his early muse and mentor, she learned to do cubism in language and then taught Hemingway to do the same in his poetic vignettes, in our time, and his subsequent collage of stories and the same poetic vignettes, In Our Time, his first and last modernist works.

Along with Hemingway in A Moveable Feast and our own John Glassco in Memoirs of Montparnasse, Stein wrote one of the great Paris books of the age – The Autobiograhy of Alice B. Toklas, her autobiography – disguised as a biography.

Stein’s most famous sentence is “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose,” four thumps rather than the often misquoted three. She seemed to write this line conscious of Shakespeare and what Juliette said to Romeo – “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose. By any other name would smell as sweet.” Not according to Gertrude Stein.

Pick your body part. Any one of these Steinian lines would look good on you:

Let me listen to me and not to them.

There ain’t no answer. There ain’t gonna be any answer. There never has been an answer. That’s the answer.

You look ridiculous if you dance. You look ridiculous if you don’t dance. So you might as well dance.

It is awfully important to know what is and what is not your business.

If you knew it all it would not be creation but dictation.


J.S. Porter


  1. Eric Mader May 13, 2012at4:50 am

    Yes–the intersection between tattoo and literature is a subject that has hardly been explored. Which is odd. Perhaps one should say “the possible intersections,” because there seems so much that could be done. One would have thought Greenaway’s brilliant film would have led writers to start inking this still almost completely blank book.

  2. David Wagg May 13, 2012at12:21 pm

    Mr. Porter admirably brings together the previously separate. Over there, Gertrude. Over here a tattoo. Let them become one.

    Can a tattoo be delicately placed? Porter, the accomplished wordsmith, will have readers believing it possible via his delicately placed words.

    The delicate: skin, Noomi Rapace’s diminutive body, shhh, Rihanna’s svelteness, poetic vignettes, and, a rose.

    The indelicate: punk, Stein’s face, the fleshy, mischievous leprechaun, Hemingway, and, thumps.

    The secret of his writing is hinted at in the concluding lines; the lines he would have us tattoo on our bodies.

    A word from each tells us about his honed gift: listen, answer, dance, important, and, creation. Porter possess an acute literary ear with which he listens to music, word cadence, and, life. He provides answers to life’s questions.

    The man can dance. Recently I watched him on a Cuban dance floor lovingly glide with his just-married daughter.

    He makes important connections that previously were not seen as important; if fact, they were not seen until he saw them. And, the creation is finalized giving a reader a new perspective with which to see and ponder.