In celebration of American Archives Month, the National Archives is teaming up with the Academy of American Poets. Throughout the month we’ll be publishing original poems inspired by the holdings of the National Archives. To view the poets performing their original work, visit the National Archives YouTube Channel.
Today’s poem, “Much Tattooed Sailor Aboard USS New Jersey” by Jehanne Dubrow, was inspired by a photograph of sailors during World War II.
Lt. Comdr. Charles Fenno Jacobs took this photograph of two sailors in December 1944. Jacobs was part of the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit—a group of military photographers, under the command of Edward Steichen, who documented activities of the United States Navy during World War II.
Like other photographers in the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit, Jacob’s photos focused on the human side of war. He captured this image while on assignment to photograph life—both on and off duty—on the ship USS New Jersey.
Here Jacob’s camera captures a sailor tattooing a shipmate aboard the battleship.
For more Charles Fenno Jacobs photos, visit our online catalog.
Much Tattooed Sailor Aboard USS New Jersey
By Jehanne Dubrow
Squint a little, and that’s my husband
in the photograph, the sailor on the left—
the one wearing a rose composed of ink
and the Little Bo Peep who stands
before a tiny setting sun and the blur
on his forearm which might be a boat—
while the sailor on the right is leaning in,
his fingers touching the other man’s skin,
tracing what looks like the top of an anchor
or the intricate hilt of a sword, perhaps
wiping blood from the artful laceration,
in his other hand something crumpled,
his cap I think or a cloth to shine brass,
lights on a bulkhead, fittings and fixtures,
because let’s not forget this picture
must be posed, the men interrupted—
mops laid down, ropes left uncoiled, or else
on a smoke break, Zippo and Lucky Strikes
put aside—the men shirtless on a deck,
legs bent at beautiful angles,
a classical composition this contrast
of bodies and dungarees, denim gone black
and their shoulders full of shadow—
although on second thought how effortless
this scene, both of them gazing toward
a half-seen tattoo so that we too lean in
trying to make out the design on the bicep,
close enough we can almost smell the salt
of them and the oil of machinery,
which is of course the point, as when in a poem
I call the cruiser’s engine a pulse inside my palm
or describe my husband’s uniform,
ask him to repeat the litany of ships and billets,
how one deployment he sliced himself
on a piece of pipe and how the cut refused
to shut for months—Hold still, I tell him,
I need to get the exquisite outline of your scar.