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Michael Ondaatje's poetic ways

The Longhand of Art



Michael Ondaatje's tenth book of poetry (released in hardcover March 1999 and re-released in paperback last spring) is a collection of exquisitely crafted poems about love, history and landscape set in the poet's first home, Sri Lanka.

Ondaatje, who is a Canadian citizen now, is a novelist with the heart of a poet. He was a respected poet long before the success of The English Patient brought him fame as a novelist. He began his writing career with a collection of poems, The Dainty Monsters, in 1969, and has since published nine other books of poetry, including There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning To Do, which won the Governor General's Award in 1980, and The Cinnamon Peeler in 1992. His landmark novel, The English Patient (1992), won the Governor General's Award as well as the Booker Prize -- the first and only such award for a Canadian. The film adaptation was released in 1996 and won nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

It's almost impossible to categorize Ondaaatje's work. He is a formidable craftsman and artist, a kind of mad scientist among poets -- always experimenting, always trying something new. Consider the offbeat syntax he invents in Coming Through Slaughter (1976) about American Jazzman Buddy Bolden, or his fantasy-memoir Running in the Family (1982). Ondaatje is famous for using a pastiche of different materials -- poetry, prose, interviews, photographs, even white space. The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970) is part poem, part historical novel. The result is a new poetic life form: Sometimes Billy is listed as a novel, sometimes as verse.

The poems in Handwriting rise up out of Ondaatje's birth culture. They interweave Sinhalese myth and history, autobiography, Buddhist and Hindu wisdom, and richly evocative descriptions of life in Sri Lanka, the paradise island formerly known as Ceylon.

With a minimum expenditure of words, Ondaatje creates an entire world. He invites us to follow him into this "mirror-world of art," to a time before books, when "handwriting occurred on wave,/ on leaves, the scripts of smoke,/ a sign on a bridge along the Malaweli River. // A gradual acceptance of this new language."

With agile, narrative hands, he transports us into the heart of another time and place. Ondaatje's Sri Lanka pulses with beauty; his images are so vivid you can almost hear the whirring of cicadas. But this homecoming is no pastorale. Sri Lankan soil is drenched with blood from a multisided civil war. Ondaatje's observations are sharp and wry, but at the same time profoundly wise and honest.

He gives us an amazing tapestry of Sri Lankan history in brilliant colors and textures: a land of bangles, saffron, rice, Cormorant Girls, a family of stilt-walkers crossing a field, cattle bells and a 1,000-year-old stone Buddha buried for safekeeping "in Anuradhapura earth,/ eyes half closed, hands/ in the gesture of meditation."

Ondaatje has the gift of clear sight. He revisits his heritage, re-creating the past in sparkling takes: "Once we buried our libraries/ Under the great medicinal trees/ Which the invaders burned."

One of the remarkable things about these poems is the juxtaposition of a culture's loss of civilization and art with an individual's personal sense of loss. Ondaatje tries to capture what is lost in "Buried 2 iv," citing "deeper levels of the self"; "the rule of courtesy"; "the art of the drum"; and "lyrics that rose/ from love."

I love Ondaatje's honest approach to poetry, the words put down in "wild cursive scripts" with a kind of careless grace. There's a corner-of-the-eye perception, a whiff of cinnamon lifting off the page.

In "Last Ink," the last poem in the book, Ondaatje emphasizes the importance of preserving human experience through art. Like the poet, art is a seasoned calligrapher. It keeps a record:

In certain languages the calligraphy celebrates

where you met the plum blossom and moon by chance

the dusk light, the cloud pattern,

recorded always in your heart.

Ondaatje is a heartfelt and gutsy writer trying to make sense of a difficult world. These poems are resonant and heroic, and Handwriting is a beautiful addition to any bookshelf.

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