Indigo, Tattoo, Ink

Apr 30, 2024 by Amber McClain Shaw, in Blog Posts

On West Cliff Drive

The tattooed torso and arm reached out from my email. The email was from Patti Digh in her Poetry Wednesday dispatch, with a photo accompanied by Indigo, a poem by Ellen Bass.

The first line mentions a walk along West Cliff Drive, a place I walk often. It goes on to describe a tattooed young man with gages and sunglasses, pushing a baby jogger. A sight I’m familiar with. I read the rest of the poem, invested, feeling a geographic familiarity. I forwarded the poem to a poet friend, Jean, who said yes, Ellen is my favorite; please read more of her work. I looked Ellen up, and sure enough, she lives in the same Northern California seaside town of Santa Cruz where I spend a lot of time. I posted a comment on Patti’s Substack article, marveling about how two people passing each other, a young tattooed father and a woman almost 70, can spark such a poem. I wonder what poem the young man would write if he were to muse on passing the poet?

I wonder if this young man would notice the poet, a silver-haired woman walking past. Like him, she is not an unusual sight in the area. But older women, as I am starting to notice personally, are less visible than our younger counterparts. Would she be invisible to him?

Later that day, the day that started with the poem, I didn’t hesitate when a friend wanted to walk on West Cliff Drive. West Cliff was calling to me. The hot air inland was pulling cool fog in from the ocean, creating a chilling breeze. We put on our coats and walked along the oceanside pathway, no lack of things to chat about.

As we were briskly walking back toward the car, I saw a young man sitting on a blanket on the grass near the lighthouse. He was sitting cross-legged on a yellow blanket, barefoot, his bright yellow Crocs next to him. In front of him sat a compact-sized yellow manual typewriter. And he noticed us. 

“Well you two look like characters who are having fun! Would you like a poem?”

A poem today, on West Cliff? Yes, it was that kind of day.

“What would you like the poem to be about?” he asked.

“Menopause!” My friend yelled out.

I sensed a more relevant topic for a poem today on West Cliff Drive.

“Tattoos,” I said.

We chatted for a few minutes while he prepared his paper, carefully ripping off a piece of brown grocery bag into a roughly 4” square. He inserted it into the adorable yellow manual typewriter, fingers poised for typing, and looked up at us.

“Do you both have kids?”

Yes we do. All boys, 5 between us, about his age. He told us he’s visiting Santa Cruz from the East Coast, after driving across the country. He’s sleeping on a friend’s couch, but he likes it here after two weeks near the ocean. He’s looking for a job in sustainability and farming. After a few more lines typed methodically with his two pointer fingers, he pulled the poem on brown paper out of the typewriter. He signed it, then read it (or more correctly, performed it) aloud.

He handed the piece of paper up to me and I took it, delighted. Mysteriously, I had in my hand the answer to the question I asked that morning: what would the young man in Ellen’s poem have to say? And on West Cliff Drive, I was called glowing by a young poet named Nate with tattoos, not on his body, but on his mind. 

No one is invisible. Ink can hold more than art on skin.

 Read Ellen Bass’s poem Indigo here

Listen to Ellen read her poem Indigo here

Find Patti Digh’s substack here