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by Michael Ondaatje

You are 20, a male tree-planter working the cleaving mountains west of Spatsizi in northern B.C. Mid-summer blackflies. You ache for the brown and blonding women on the crew: the ankle bracelets below calf muscles, the ginseng and ginger in their water, the letters packaged off to their city boys, tears for Tibet and Sarah McLachlan; you like how they ignore the lice in their pubic hair. In the canvas kit bag, under toilet paper and decaying socks, you carry: Coupland’s Girlfriend in a Coma – too urban. Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale – too obvious, too old. Last month’s Adbusters – getting there. The Wealthy Barber – who put that in? Here it is. Michael Ondaatje’s new poems, Handwriting. The women unlace their boots, reach under t-shirts to wipe the sweat, their dustburned eyes entreat, “Read some out loud.” What will happen when you have to pronounce the word “aureoles”?

Handwriting is deft and intellectual: pay attention, think hard, connect. There are pure images and Ondaatje’s trademark rhythms and diction – “…Cormorant Girls / who screamed on prawn farms to scare birds”; there are lines that stun with emotional immediacy and compression of life’s facets – “ a night without a staircase”; there are trysts and longings that suggest an esthetic pressed forward by crisis – “My path to this meeting/was lit by lightning.” Very cool.

The path to Handwriting begins in 1982 with Running in the Family, Ondaatje’s invention of family history in Sri Lanka (once Ceylon), his attempt to place himself as “part of a human pyramid” comprising members of a liquored and lewd colonial leisure class. That book is a comic circus broken by moments of poetry. The poems – “The Cinnamon Peeler” is one – began to address Ondaatje’s curiosity and respect for the culture his ancestors ignored. They allude to sensuality, desire, the form these take in language. There is an alphabet carved high on mountain rock “whose motive was perfect desire.” Ondaatje remembers being five and writing out Sinhalese letters – “the most beautiful alphabet” – and suggests these letters are the autobiography of language. One critic suggested that “Sri Lanka offers him a family history, but no tradition, no way of passing things on.” But Handwriting, his first book of new poems since Secular Love in 1984, his ninth in all, captures Sri Lanka’s violence, the turmoils that erased an alphabet and its poets, threatened to silence an ancient culture and bury desire and its twin, faith, in mud and rubble. These poems bear witness to Sri Lanka’s history and enact Ondaatje’s inheritance.

You wonder if this is like Tibet or Quebec or Yellowknife. Maybe there’s a history you can look up so you’ll understand the poems. One woman braids hemp as you read, asking, “What are all the nines for, is he talking about Buddhism maybe?”

The book is in three sections. The first poses as an historical document, an elliptical journey through Sri Lanka’s past. The poems exhume a history buried by conflict. In particular, Ondaatje reveals how “[t]he poets wrote their stories on rock and leaf” and “slept, famous, in palace courtyards/then hid within forests when they were hunted/for composing the arts of love and science/while there was war to celebrate.” Poetry, too, dies in wartime, as these artists “were killed and made more famous.” The next poem begins “What we lost” and lists in a sort of “elimination dance” the amputations borne by a contemplative culture: “Nine finger and eye gestures/to signal key emotions”; “The pattern of her teeth marks on his skin/drawn by a monk from memory.” Notice the “we” the speaker is collected in. As with The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, in Handwriting Ondaatje visits the possibilities of another life, other times. For much of the collection he is invisible, cameo appearances hint at autobiography or confession.

You listen for Hollywood, don’t hear it. Likewise, Toronto, and you’re glad. You like the ones about him, but tell the women that the political and spiritual ones are more important, more mature. The one with blisters on her cheeks has 30 credits in Women’s Studies and CanLit: “We did Atwood’s poems last year – the Burned House ones? – and the class decided she was past poetry. This guy is still there. These are real poems.”

Section two, “The Nine Sentiments,” connects the body with politics. The poems turn to women, the way their livelihood – the work they do – is sensual, the desire present in their domestic or economic roles. The speaker is voyeuristic. He hears the village women’s “laughter when husbands are away,” observes how “All day desire/enters the hearts of men” because they hear the “calling bells” around the women’s hips, and captures the public sexuality of work on the river. The speaker translates Sinhalese words, tropes, and cultural gestures, underlining his role as outsider. And then the desire shifts to the specific. (You ask them to pronounce “aureoles” and they don’t know how.) A “tryst” leaves the speaker bewildered and longing for “Life before desire, /without conscience./Cities without rivers or bells.”

They ask to look at the author’s photograph and you wait politely while breaths are taken in, the wine passed. You wonder if Ondaatje himself is in crisis or if the “I” is a lie. You wish you had jungle ancestors.

Section three cuts to quasi-autobiography – a travel journal – as Ondaatje rides Air Lanka Flight 5 and notices another passenger with hair like his mother’s. We hear about Rosalin, Ondaatje’s ayah from childhood in Sri Lanka. The tone turns anxious as Ondaatje, now lashed to Sri Lankan writers via the poetic line, experiences ancient terrors: loss of language, death of the poem, fear that words will lose force and no longer express. He resorts to blocks of prose in “Death at Kataragama”: “What I write will drift away. I will be able to understand the world only at arm’s length.”

In “Last Ink,” the book ends with an image that echoes moments from other Ondaatje poems, where the male lover scorns the confines of domesticity because desire, and the art it incites, cannot abide there:

The moment in the heart
where I roam restless, searching
for the thin border of the fence
to break through or leap.

Leaping and bowing.

Does he mean something about escaping the rules and still honouring them? Maybe he’s talking about being an artist, you think, and how the fence is meant to keep intruders out but also keep things in. Next to you, the woman with the bells on her wrist says it’s like the Buddhist monks earlier in the book: celibacy keeps sex out but makes them want it more, she says. At midnight in what was once and will be again a forest in B.C., this is, you recognize, a moment of possibility.


Reviewer: Lorna Jackson

Publisher: McClelland & Stewart


Price: $19.99

Page Count: 88 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 0-7710-6877-8

Released: Sept.

Issue Date: 1998-9

Categories: Poetry