Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The Lesson of the Moth

So Close
Originally uploaded by chinese_fashion.
The only tattoo I have is by a guy named Chris O'Donnell, currently working out of New York Adorned on Saint Mark's Place, NYC. It is of a gigantic moth, covering my entire back. Its wingspan goes from one shoulder to the other, and all the way down to my waist.

In order to understand why I would choose to have a giant moth tattooed on my back, you will need to understand a few things:

1) I was 22 and living in Richmond, Virginia in 1999. Tattoos were huge in the under-culture then, and practically standard-issue for artsy types in Richmond. It was really either a tattoo or a pitbull with nuts the size of peaches, and I could barely afford to feed myself at the time. I could, however, afford a $1500 tattoo. Ah, youth.

2) Chris O'Donnell was one of the greatest working tattoo artists alive, and his shop was literally around the corner from my apartment.

3) Don Marquis' 'the lesson of the moth' touched me in this incredibly deep, resonant way when I was fourteen, and I still feel that poem every day.

This last one may take a bit of explaining. In essence, Marquis was a columnist for the New York Sun in the '20s, and wrote a brilliant series of free verse poems about life, beauty, art and passion. He claimed that the poems themselves were actually written by a cockroach named Archy who was posessed by the soul of a reincarnated poet. Each night, Archy would body-slam one key at a time on a typewriter, slowly, painfully banging out his life, one line at a time.

I admire that kind of passion. Always have.

Mehitabel was his best friend, an alley cat possessed by the reincarnated soul of Cleopatra. You can learn much more about Marquis, Archy, and Mehitabel here, and here.

The poem that changed my life at fourteen reads like this:

the lesson of the moth
By Don Marquis, in "archy and mehitabel," 1927

i was talking to a moth
the other evening
he was trying to break into
an electric light bulb
and fry himself on the wires

why do you fellows
pull this stunt i asked him
because it is the conventional
thing for moths or why
if that had been an uncovered
candle instead of an electric
light bulb you would
now be a small unsightly cinder
have you no sense

plenty of it he answered
but at times we get tired
of using it
we get bored with the routine
and crave beauty
and excitement
fire is beautiful
and we know that if we get
too close it will kill us
but what does that matter
it is better to be happy
for a moment
and be burned up with beauty
than to live a long time
and be bored all the while
so we wad all our life up
into one little roll
and then we shoot the roll
that is what life is for
it is better to be a part of beauty
for one instant and then cease to
exist than to exist forever
and never be a part of beauty
our attitude toward life
is come easy go easy
we are like human beings
used to be before they became
too civilized to enjoy themselves

and before i could argue him
out of his philosophy
he went and immolated himself
on a patent cigar lighter
i do not agree with him
myself i would rather have
half the happiness and twice
the longevity

but at the same time i wish
there was something i wanted
as badly as he wanted to fry himself


I can own the fact that I sort of got the tattoo to be cool. If it hadn't been cool and convenient to get what is inarguably an incredible piece of artwork, it probably wouldn't have happened. However, I like thinking that there's something more real underneath that.

Sorta Like This

Here's the realness: I want something as badly as that moth. It changes from time to time, but man, I want it, whatever it is at the time. That thing and the whole rest of the world knows it, too. I'm intensely passionate and pretty transparent about it. I went through a period of real depressing creative dryness a few months ago, and one of the things that pulled me back was this thing I got to be cool.

I looked in the mirror and thought "well, are you going to bring that passion back to writing like you thought you could, or is that big moth just gonna flutter around the world glued to a lifeless poser?"

So many people have so many lame tattoos, just moments of youthful indiscretion, like bluish stickers on a permanent bumper that fattens at every birthday. I wanted this thing to mean something when I got it.

I wanted to have the energy to make something creative, beautiful and lasting, and the passion to see it through. And I wanted to want something, bad, every day, like Archy did. I can do without the flaming self-destruction that comes from hitting the flame, though. But the important thing here is that this big, inky indiscretion that is already fading serves a deeper purpose-- it pulls me back when I weaken, and if that only cost me $1500 and let me feel like a cool guy for a couple years in my early 20's, isn't that a bargain in disguise?


At 12:52 PM, Blogger KassyK said...

Wow...Jeff-great post and I am feeling it 100%. That poem is beautiful as well in a weird Naked Lunch kind of way. I love it. Thank you. I am going to print it out bc I do feel the same way often...I dont want to burn in the fire but I do want to get damn close.

At 9:53 PM, Anonymous said...

"i could barely feed myself, but i could afford a 1500 dollar tattoo" thats one of the most oxymoronic thing ive ever heard. come on. you sound like a rich kid trying to sound like your struggling. just get your tattoos we dont care how much money you can pay for a tattoo.

At 9:59 PM, Blogger Jeff Simmermon said...

Ephraim -- it was sarcasm, man. I was making fun of my financial priorities at that age, which tend to come with the territory. It was supposed to be an oxymoron.

As opposed to a regular moron, who leaves caustic comments like this and misses the point altogether.

At 12:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read this poem many years ago in class, and it has stuck with me ever since! I've only been able to locate it now.. Thank you for posting! it means a lot to me :)

At 11:20 PM, Anonymous Tabetha said...

I discovered that poem just today, and it touched me, as so many great poems do (try "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T.S. Eliot, especially the last verse..gets me every time). I found your blog on Google trying to locate the poem, and it's a great post. If there is any beautiful reason to get something permanent on one's body, that should be it.

At 7:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Awesome... I am 14 and just read that poem in class and it's affected me a lot! It's definitly my favorite poem of all time!


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