A Writing Surface of One’s Own

By | 1 February 2014

Woolf was an extraordinary woman who had (made squalid, inhabited, peeled, dissected, imbued and) left marks on a desk, and made it extraordinary – by her own hand.

And how the marking of things had engaged and preoccupied her – from the opening lines of Jacob’s Room , which she wrote at Monk’s House between 1920 and 1922 – ‘Slowly welling from the point of her gold nib, pale blue ink dissolved the full stop; for there her pen stuck; her eyes fixed, and tears slowly filled them.’ – and from the (beautifully childlike) hyper-observing and disjointed opening lines of The Waves, which she wrote, in two drafts with corrected typescripts and proofs, between 1929 and 1931 this, perfect to my ear, observance of marked and graphic beauty, ‘“Cold water begins to run from the scullery tap,” said Rhoda, “over the mackerel in the bowl.”’

Mackerel of course, appear to have been marked or pricked with an exotic script.

Images of tattoos had begun to bubble to the surface in searches (I undertook a month ago) relating to ‘emily dickinson’s writing desk’ on Bing. A wilful caricature of that definitive adolescent daguerreotype appeared. Various book covers. An Emily Strange tattoo popped in. Countless tattoos of some of Dickinson’s lines, still to heal, and in various stages of rawness, swelling, dishabille and exhibitionism are posted there, it seems with some degree of immediacy. There is nakedness there; there is novelty. There are tattoos that spiral around fingers. This skin-deep esoterica, with thrill and risk (infectious specificity, unreliable transliterations, translation, unfortunate unintended solecism) in which there is room for very permanent regret, the osmosis of another’s work, pushes the envelope of one’s own writing surface painfully and extravagantly. That new (and personally baffling) societal need to ‘share’, to show, and always at speed, is nurtured and satisfied there, to some measure. (Seemingly Woolf once stated that, ‘Nothing has really happened until it has been recorded.’ Perhaps she too would have managed such ‘accounts’.)

Consensus appears to be that it is Dickinson’s hope that resonates. ‘Hope is the thing with feathers’ is popular, as and with an owl on the back of a shoulder, or in toto, vividly swelling on a hip. ‘I shall not live in vain’ with blown dandelion fluff spreads around a shoulder. There is a full back portrait – again, that endemic daguerreotype! – her face between his shoulder blades. Goethe’s ‘nothing is worth more than this day’ trespasses in, sanguinely, on a back, rendered in the style of its recipient’s seven-year-old daughter’s handwriting, as does Gandhi’s ‘be the change’, it follows the arc of an instep, ‘dwell in possibility’ runs along a forearm, as does ‘spread wide my narrow hands – to gather Paradise – ’. ‘Love is immortality’ curves freshly beneath an augmented left breast – and something to contemplate – ‘forever is composed of nows’ dips low across a taut young belly (of the new ingénue?) in unevenly spaced script. This will, with experience, expound and lose all reckless allure. The full ‘I’m nobody! Who are you?’ sits largely in the small of a woman’s bare back – a lioness (or tiger?) is on a television screen in the background. A comment reads, ‘nice one!’

A line, or lines, of poetry or song lyrics can easily, by their independent nature, lend themselves to a statement of affiliation or a kind of marginal extremophile’s solace – but can the weave of prose?

It’s a natural progression to tap in ‘virginia woolf tattoos’. Again, Bing and Google yield page after page from their ‘literary tattoos’ (shimmering, elastic) portals.

So what resonates in these images? It is certainly not ‘hope’ – and I take into account the gulf between the American and the English mindsets and the romanticism, predominantly amongst students, attached to suicide. Perhaps it is her lack of it. It seems to be Woolf’s determinate will, her perceived resilience, her sense of self, decision making, survival and identity, on her terms, that seems to reach quite a different partisanship and inspire such deliberation and discussion on not only which words and why – but where?

There is discussion on ratings of pain, the foot opposed to the wrist, and so on. As I approach 50, I just don’t have that much fascination with my own skin or a need for membership. (My son, at almost 20, wears one indigo existential word.) I decide this group embrace ‘defiance’. These are a tougher lot.

Assorted book covers, including Albee’s, and a fierce Taylor appear (on the movie poster), stills from the play, a grinning (and then modified to Woolf) Kidman, and in this context, it is a good and relevant question to ask – who is afraid of you-know-who?

A tea towel of the lilac cover of A Room Of One’s Own (essays and belle-lettres, complete (little modernist penguin) unabridged, ninepence), packaged in a tube with the same iconic Penguin Books (typographic perfection) design is available. As are various T-shirts.

Lines from Mrs Dalloway begin to emerge. Its first line runs down a young woman’s neck and spine in a delicate tracery, almost like a wisp of hair.

A busy décolleté with hurricane lamp, foaming waves and a scrolling ribbon of text of ‘some little language such as lovers use’, from The Waves, she cups her breasts in her hands. Another, has simply ‘Virginia Woolf’, stamped along both clavicles, distal to distal, in large bold letters inside the open collar of a blouse. A 2 a.m. bee in one’s bonnet? Whim? Or a measured and effected aspiration? A torque? A yoke? Its brash initiate admits that it was a ‘middle of the night thing in NYC’. Another has wrapping wings, roses and a padlock heart, with Woolf’s ‘friends’ quote, re: priests, poetry, friends.

‘Who is more real?’ rawly runs across a shoulder and unaccountably so. Its proximity (on another site) to the ‘busy décolleté’ has drawn it here. It is attributed to (the American science fiction author) Robert A. Heinlein and is curiously apt. ‘Who is more real? Homer or Ulysses? Shakespeare or Hamlet? Burroughs or Tarzan?’ Woolf or Mrs Dalloway? Whatever ‘real’ is. A large, filled semicolon on the inside of a wrist is an affectionate reference to Woolf’s fondness for them. (This organic marking could well be found within the text of a mackerel.) Fresh lines, ‘Fear no more …’, referred to as ‘My Mrs Dalloway’, and posted and looking for comment within the hour (and gets nine – one reads, ‘i love that.’), run in rings around the ribs of a young woman. And another – although a tenuous connection through Woolf’s reading life, a line from William Cowper; it is perhaps the most inclusive of her (and at the snuffing of a mackerel in To The Lighthouse, it is spoken). Then, ‘First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable’ typed on the inside of a tender bicep. Then a sensuous full upper arm and shoulder sleeve of the thinking wo/man’s sylph Woolf, with long plait and pots of colour.

A full inside forearm portrait of a wan Woolf is a Kidman/Woolf overlay, amalgam. On a swollen forearm, and from To The Lighthouse, is mention of ‘minnows’. And a Plathian ‘diary entry’ interlopes, through ‘chat’, on both inner forearms, (the right) ‘i listened to the bray of my heart…’, (the left) ‘i am i am i am’.

Somewhat disappointingly, it makes no reference to Eeyore or Nick Cave’s transcendent novel.14 (And sadly there are no attenuated Cave links to (birthday) party planners, seed suppliers or grinders.)

And we can only imagine what Dickinson and Woolf would make of each of their two very distinct, inked-up groups of chatty pilgrims? Perhaps Dickinson would watch hers pass her house – on Fridays – and perhaps Woolf would call hers, in a warm and winsome letter to a friend or lover, in which she may use pet-names, such as Creature and Berg15, something like ‘Springtime in Soho’, with some fascination. She may mention Mitzy – what she ‘see’, what she ‘do’. I’m guessing the intimacy they have achieved with their (still new) readers would stagger them – or is it an intimacy these readers have achieved without them? Either way, and each way, it is an emblazoned and pervaded writing surface – with some sensitive swelling and inflammation, which passes.

And why did Leibovitz travel to Amherst to photograph Dickinson’s last white dress and why to Rodmell to sit (reluctantly) alone with Woolf’s desk, and then lovingly capture it? They are amongst 25 other subjects, including Elvis Presley, Ansel Adams, Charles Darwin and Georgia O’Keeffe, who contribute to (feed, clothe, fuel) her pilgrimage.

None of these profound portraits are of people; they are all personal studies of the juju of associated objects and places sacred to her, simply through their significance, to her. At 61 and tired of being tired, Leibovitz looks again, with her young children, at the slippery physical world and remembers that she likes it a lot.

She exemplifies her impetus and intent in an ‘Opinion’ by Dominique Browning, from The Opinion Pages of The New York Times’ Sunday Review of October 29th, 2011, titled ‘A Pilgrim’s Progress’ (what else?).

‘I needed to save myself,’ says Leibovitz. ‘I needed to remind myself of what I do, what I can do … My book is a meditation on how to live.’

A waitress here has The Owl and The Pussycat tattooed on her goose-pimpled biceps.

Leibovitz would perhaps want to photograph the coin-encrusted teapot stuffed with salt sachets – the one I made with words; the matador too. (Coins actually encrust the kitchen’s doorjamb.)

I am reminded by her and rill the tips of my fingers with scalloped foreign currencies, river water, postage stamps, the edges of pages, this qwerty keyboard, the sharp edges of my own body, the four corners of this café table.

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