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Alumni Profiles
reed magazine logoAutumn 2009

A Body of Literature

Standing in line behind Tasia Bernie ’02 at a coffee shop, you can’t help but stare. Before you know it, you’re reading her like a book. A chapter from Lolita down one arm; the opening lines of As I Lay Dying across her back. Words from Rilke, Shakespeare, and Sharon Olds disappear beneath folds of fabric.

Tasia Bernie

The stark black words inked onto Tasia’s pale skin match the black workout clothes she wears for her job. She’s on her way to Body Balance Techniques, a downtown Portland gym, where she whips clients into shape without giving them a moment to peruse passages from the 10 literary works that grace her body.

“They don’t really have the time to read me,” explains Tasia, who majored in English and creative writing. “It’s not show and tell.”

Tasia was barely athletic at Reed (one of her P.E. credits was yoga for relaxation) but discovered her penchant for physical activity after graduation, when she worked on a construction crew. Suddenly she found herself craving exercise. “I didn’t care about what was happening to my body,” she says. “I just wanted to be able to lift up the front end of my car.”

By 2006, her body was a taut but empty canvas, a literary landscape in waiting. That’s when she got her first tattoo, a line from Rilke’s poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” etched across her left bicep: Du musst dein Leben ändern. You must change your life.

To her, the poem is a reminder to get back on track if you drift from a true passion. In her case, that passion is writing. Away from the gym, she crafts essays, short stories, and memoirs.

Before long, she had mapped out a theme for her tattoos: the unreliability of language for expressing love. Her tattoo artist, Sean Pipkin of Captain Jack’s Tattoo Studio, laid out an overall design: a vine of words winding around her torso, with discrete passages forming the leaves.

Tasia had already committed to memory the snatches of poetry and prose that were destined for her flesh. Down her left shoulder, in a precise, hand-crafted Courier, went the first chapter of Nabokov’s Lolita, 37 lines that she memorized when she was 15 years old.

The stalk of the vine, in boldface type, is a passage from William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Just below her neck it begins: “He had a word, too. Love, he called it.”

Other tattoos include two poems from Sharon Olds; a line spoken by Portia from The Merchant of Venice; passages from short stories by Charles Baxter and Amy Bloom; a line from James Salter’s novel Light Years. The current work in progress, gradually filling her right hip and thigh, is Billy Collins’ poem “Aristotle.” Still to come are passages from Hemingway and Ellen Gilchrist.

Tasia knows that in time, the letters will lose their shape, and the passages will look more like leaves than literature. She is not concerned. Legible or not, the words and their meaning will always be a part of her.

—Susan Hauser

reed magazine logoAutumn 2009