Columns » Penny Post by Andrei Codrescu

Ancient Art Form is Reborn in the French Quarter



A form of poetry pioneered by ancient Japanese poets is taking off in New Orleans. A few days ago at the Goldmine Saloon, poet Herbert Kearney wrote haiku on performing artist Andrea Garland's nude body. Haiku is a form of poetry that notes with great precision and melancholy the passing of human life and the cycles of nature. Its subject is transition and illusion, and its ideal medium for expression is the human skin. The Japanese "skin-haiku" poets of the mid-18th century exhibited their models at fairs in mountain villages where audiences stood mesmerized by the swift brush work that turned beauties into books. The ephemeral nature of the brush work was in keeping with the tenderness and fragility of the form.

Unfortunately, the practice took a dangerous turn when certain poets tattooed, incised or burned their work on a model's skin. Such living (and permanent) books were a perversion of the brushstroke method that involved, as part of its process, the washing of the beauty in spring water so that she might re-emerge new and rewritable. The tattoo practice of turning a person into a book was outlawed during the Westernization of Japan, but continued underground and was documented by photographers in Tokyo. The written skin (the book) was carefully preserved after the model's passing, and it adorns many a secret baronial chamber in Japan even today. The CEO of a certain Japanese company, who also owns six paintings by Van Gogh, has an entire pavilion dedicated to skin-books of haiku. Word (and a movie) has it that this man now commissions the work of his favorite poets to be burned into the skin of young models who are then ritually killed.

This sort of thing is far removed from the original practice of composing directly on the skin with brushes and colors. The New Orleans event is the culmination, in my opinion, of a fashion that began with the tattooing of words on their bodies by textually inclined young people. The majority is, of course, drawn to pictographs, but I have observed more and more citations in Hebrew, Arabic, Spanish and English snaking their way along the spine or flowing over the arms and legs of people who like them to be seen. Most of this text consists, as far as I'm able to ascertain, of citations from holy books or verses and proverbs with a quasi-universal meaning, and, as such, it is related to T-shirts and samplers, the earlier public performance of text. Written people must be read, which is why all such inscribing is a public performance (often, the written can't even read themselves, not even with a mirror).

Happily, the awareness has dawned on some people that there are no permanent texts, no universally valid words, no prosody that doesn't (like skin) age. The brush-stroking of haiku, by its impermanence and guaranteed renewal, is, paradoxically, the most enduring form of body-writing. What is also remarkable is the complete involvement of all the artists: the poets create something new, and the model experiences something that can be rectified if it is ungainly, s(he) can even participate in the process by speaking words and pointing to their ideal placement. The documentation allows the book to read itself before dipping into the spring water, and the work endures digitally even as the medium is renewed. The book that cannot read itself is dead, long live the book of summer in New Orleans!

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