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Book Review: Michael Ondaatje's "Handwriting" (Newsday)

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Speaking From Memory

By Emily Gordon

HANDWRITING, by Michael Ondaatje. Knopf, 78 pp., $22.

THERE IS SOMETHING almost boyishly game about Michael Ondaatje’s poems: He takes risks he rarely approaches in his prose, despite the tremendous ones he ventures there. It can be startling to come upon such tender honesty, so much personal reflection and detail, in fragments from a writer whose characters and narratives—like those in his best-known book, “The English Patient”—are so well formed. We may catch ourselves wondering whether this material would be better served in fiction or memoir. But these stories are undeniably his, and his to make into poetry.

Throughout “Handwriting,” his ninth book of poems, Ondaatje continues to demonstrate that he is an emissary of the world. A Canadian who lives in Toronto, Ondaatje was born in Sri Lanka, and speaks from memory when he summons up saffron, parrot trees and jackfruit, “a silted water garden in Mihintale,” “a nine-chambered box from Gampola.”

The book’s first section (of three) presents landscapes and historical vignettes from his first home, replete with buried Buddhas, bronze Buddhas purloined by shaking men in the dead of night, a Buddha’s tooth “smuggled…from temple to temple for five hundred years,” heady smells, stealth and secrets. It’s clear Ondaatje loves the sounds these scenes evoke. Indeed, the names of the plants and the cities alone are redolent and magical, unfamiliarly intoxicating.

Yet what this collection proves even more clearly is that Ondaatje’s true mastery lies in his diplomacy of the senses. The book’s second section, titled “The Nine Sentiments” and drawing on themes of classical Sanskrit and Tamil poetry, is a celebration of the body, particularly in the form of a beloved woman. Ondaatje’s eroticism occasionally crosses the line into excess cleverness: “I hold you the way astronomers / draw constellations for each other / in the markets of wisdom.” And sometimes it’s simply too much (“Ancient dutiful ants / hiding in the ceremonial / yak-tail fan / move towards and climb / her bone of ankle”); the English Patient would raise what’s left of his eyebrows. But the great majority of these poems are winsome and stirring, and Ondaatje’s reverent stance—“My path to this meeting / was lit by lightning,” “her fearless heart / light as a barn owl / against him all night”—allows for buzzed and empathetic reading.

And so, if the first section of “Handwriting” concerns an almost-buried time, myth, symbol and a sensory return to the childhood realm, “The Nine Sentiments” is a study in the geography of the body. It’s full of trysts, lovers’ breathing, the discovered truths of and underneath the skin. This section tells a complete tale of anticipation, connection and attendant terror, and ends with questions—“Where is the suitor / undistressed / one can talk with / Where is there a room / without the damn god of love?”—that are, alas, unanswerable, but still full of a kind of partisan allegiance to passion. In the third (untitled) section, Ondaatje exposes other devotions, as with the sentimental rush of memory for “the tears / I gave to my ayah Rosalin on leaving / the first home of my life,” and his identification with the 14th-Century poet-calligrapher Yang Weizhem, composer of an elegy for Zou Fulei, “almost unknown, / who made the best plum flower painting / of any period.”

In the lucid prose poem “Death at Kataragama,” Ondaatje leaves the human realm altogether: “There is a woodpecker I am enamoured of I saw this morning through my binoculars. A red thatch roof to his head more modest than crimson, deeper than blood…. Can my soul step into the body of that woodpecker? He may be too hot in sunlight, it could be a limited life. But if this had been offered to me today, at 9 a.m., I would have gone with him, traded this body for his.” He captures perfectly a craving for escape without death or erasure - the violent gratitude for being alive coupled with the heartache of being oneself.

The poems in “Handwriting” emphasize narrative structure less than those in his previous books of poetry (collected into one volume, “The Cinnamon Peeler,” and very much worth adding to any Ondaatje library), instead lingering in spaces and pauses that sometimes cause more puzzlement than respite. Ondaatje can tell a story, but sometimes he chooses not to, and the result can be frustratingly glancing and elliptical.

Still, the stories he does tell—in longer lines, and occasionally in the form of a prose poem—are corkers. “The Story,” for instance—which begins with a king’s premonition to his pregnant wife of a war, a seven-man journey among dancing rope-makers and a fateful creep into a dangerous castle, and continues as his son becomes one of the seven - lives the story as a fairy tale adventure, rather than as abstract parable. There is wisdom here—“There is no way to behave after victory”—as well as the humor that glitters off many of his earlier poems. The story in “The Story” is tumultuous, vibrant, tragic and over too soon.

If there is a larger theme in “Handwriting,” it is the one its title suggests: Ondaatje longs for a less corrupted life of creation, one in which, for instance, “the poets wrote their stories on rock and leaf / to celebrate the work of the day, / the shadow pleasures of night,” or a stonecutter who has only one tool and uses it expertly. Just as essential is the humility required in these endeavors, recalling Robert Frost’s line in “The Woodpile” about the dignity of abandoning fuel “far from a useful fireplace.”

In each section, through the poets and artisans he invents or recalls, Ondaatje reveals his own methods and designs, failings and desires. Like Zou Fulei, Ondaatje is concerned with explicit accomplishment: making, in words, the best plum flower painting - rather than, for instance, the great Canadian novel. He celebrates craft, vision and intense concentration, even as he is lovingly, and constantly, distracted.

Certainly, there’s ambivalence inherent in this kind of life—evident in his reverie on the woodpecker, which ends, “This woman whose arm I would hold and comfort, that book I wanted to make and shape tight as a stone - I would give everything away for this sound of mud and water, hooves, great wings.” Yet his choice of “Last Ink” to end this book returns him to the company of the calligrapher, Fifth Century seals that contain multitudes, a time “before the yellow age of paper.” Ondaatje has inherited this century’s mediums for expressing the human condition, but he can be counted among those who “shared it / on a scroll or nudged / the ink onto stone / to hold the vista of a life.”

—Published in Newsday, March 21, 1999

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