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A Year of Last Things

by Michael Ondaatje

Michael Ondaatje (Daniel Mordzinski)

Michael Ondaatje’s latest collection is impossibly good. It is the work of a mature poet at the zenith of his talent.

T. S. Eliot wrote, “The mature poet, in the operations of his mind, works like the chemist. He is aware, not that he wants to say something, but that there is something to be said.” Ondaatje says much. So much, in fact, that one must read slowly, digest, cleanse the palate, then start again. The sheer weight of both allegory and allusion demands and requires contemplation. This is a book of time and tribute, elegy and ekphrasis, with the intricacy of a Roman mosaic tile.

The press of time is ever-present in A Year of Last Things. The poem “Last Things,” a triptych, holds an understanding that the nature of time itself abandons life in the middle, that all lives run out of time before they are complete, and despite the continuity of the years, reflection continues after the end of a life.

Adjusting her sandal, losing her hair,
the four of us at breakfast. Our storyline
feels almost continuous these years later
as if we are oaks lining the road
of a linear village, or within
a posthumous diary.

Unrequited loves, lost possibilities, past friends, and dreams emerge as lost futures, images arrive through the subconscious and mysterious means, and all without the sentimentality of desire for anything to be different. Ondaatje points to past times as a reason for candid rambling and free love: “It was the sixties! – a time when I / was still naïve, unaware of the secret lives in others.” The poems drift beautifully, a meander through past times, people, and places. Lovers get a nod in various remembrances such as “Nights When I Drove.” In these instances, the reader feels like an eavesdropper overhearing intimacies. “Yeah, that would have been nice, to travel alongside you, sometime.”

An old-world charm tempered with realism and muscular imagery prevails. The typical music of Ondaatje’s lines is omnipresent: “When you are surrounded with ornaments / of the old world, you need to hear one living vein.” Soft, subtle commentary is the dominant mode of the poems that range from a brief six lines to an extended personal memoir. “What Can Be Named in the Earth” becomes exceptionally and specifically humane as it moves from a musical accounting of geology and geography to taxonomy to cartography, and culminates in “political maps / with named mass graves, / the thousand illegal burials.”

Deliberations on things that last and those that do not emphasize ways in which everything moves through states of impermanence: “At midnight the stern entrance of dyers who steal colour / out of the bark of trees to paint temples.” Lost loves are conjured out of memory; poetry and memoir collide to create a “distinct fragment . . . a remembrance, some of which could belong to another, during the hunt for your own story.”

Indeed, there is much here that belongs to us all. A Year of Last Things is a collection that bears multiple and complex readings. Ondaatje’s finest.


Reviewer: Micheline Maylor

Publisher: McClelland & Stewart


Price: $34.00

Page Count: 128 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 978-0-7710-1231-0

Released: March

Issue Date: March 2024

Categories: Poetry, Reviews