Poems in Stone and on Paper


Harald Leusmann

Ball State University, Muncie IN

Copyright © 2001 by Harald Leusmann, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

Review of:

Ondaatje, Michael. Handwriting. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart,1998.

  1. Michael Ondaatje's Handwriting is dominated by poems of exotic exuberance and exquisiteness which is characteristic for a writer who can fall back upon the colors and forms, the legends, aphorisms and sayings of Sri Lanka. Therefore it is not difficult for him, in 'The Nine Sentiments (Historical Illustrations on Rock and Book and Leaf),' which constitutes the second of three divisions, to follow the trails of "[a]ncient dutiful ants / hiding in the ceremonial / yak-tail fan" or observe that "[t]he Bhramarah bee is drunk / from the south pasture" (37). Living in the North American Midwest myself and having encountered the poems' shimmering, iridescent flora and fauna maybe in coffee table books, the sheer mentioning of "a Dilo Oil tree, a Pig Lily / A Blue Dawn Bonnet flower / Parrot trees. Pigeon Berries" or the casual enumaration of names like "Kalka, Churna / Dasamula, Tharalasara" (26) can make one as drunk as the aforementioned bee.

  2. Born in Sri Lanka, of Dutch-Tamil ancestry and living in Canada, Ondaatje has become known, especially in the last decade, as a gifted writer and splendid colorist with the publications of Anil's Ghost and the commercially very successful The English Patient. The reasons for the beguiling and intense shining of colors in his prose and, in this case, poems can be found in the fact that Ondaatje's ideas for those pictures derive, on the one hand, from the ancient myths of the country he was born in and, on the other hand, from the harsh realities of today's world. Accordingly in the first poem, 'A Gentleman Compares His Virtue to a Piece of Jade,' he writes: "We began with myths and later included actual events" (3). This can be regarded as a hint at the lively border traffic that is going on in the poems between Sri Lanka's archaic antiquity and the most recent civil war that ravages the country. The myths Ondaatje unearths and tackles are hardly anymore distant from the political world of the closing millennium than the archeologist's cut of the spade: "Our archaeologists dug down to the disappeared / bodies of schoolchildren" (27). The beautiful decoration with myths as well as the ornate words underlining the poems' gracefulness do not serve the purpose of self-adulation, rather they point at the transparency the poems carry and at a cut into the present which in most cases means that something dangerous is happening. Laconically, almost in news reporter style, Ondaatje bears witness to current events that accompany life in Sri Lanka on a day-to-day basis: "Above ground, massacre and race. / A heart silenced. / The tongue removed. / The human body merged into burning tire. / Mud glaring back / into a stare" (8).

  3. With regard to 'The Nine Sentiments,' not only does this cycle of eleven poems in the second section emphasize the nine sentiments of Indian love poetry but also historical poems that lament the centuries of terrible persecution, like 'Buried' and 'Buried 2.' They are lyrical narratives about statues of Buddha that had been buried and were dug up after a long time: "Burying the Buddha in stone. / Covered with soft earth / then the corpse of an animal, / planting a seed there. / So roots / like the fingers of a blind monk / spread for two hundred years over his face" (12).

  4. In Handwriting Sri Lanka comes across as a huge poetic room of sound the wealth of which becomes productive only for those who are, like Ondaatje, steeped both in the mythical wor(l)ds of the ancients and the psychology of the modern. Then it is possible that a group of stilt walkers somewhere in the countryside appear as "[a] dance of tall men / with the movement of prehistoric birds / in practice before they alight" (17). Thus, the poem 'To Anuradhapura' continues, "men become gods / in the small village / of Ilukwewa" (17).

  5. But it is not always gods the poems deal with. Inconspicuous at first sight, 'Flight,' introducing the final section of Handwriting, is a short clip about an encounter "in the half-dark cabin of Air Lanka Flight 5." An old lady begins to comb her long white hair, "then braids it in the faint light" -- right at that moment this meticulously registered scene becomes a current intersection of past and future: "Her husband, Mr Jayasinghe, asleep beside her. / Pins in her mouth. She rolls her hair, / curls it into a bun, like my mother's. / Two hours before reaching Katunayake airport" (47). Ondaatje makes us see how knowledge and observation, distance and identification, remembrance and projection meet in this mysterious, elementary ballad.

  6. he last poem of the first division has a citation as its title -- "All those poets as famous as kings" (29) -- and bears the characteristics of a double-columned vocabulary book. Four idiomatic expressions are listed that do not seem to have any relationship with each other, but they get into a correspondence and even anticipate 'Flight': "A woman who journeys to a tryst," "having no jewels," "darkness in her hair," "the sky lovely with its stars" (29). Actually, these are not vocabs, but fragments of poems or even fragments as poems.

  7. The poems' quality lies in their capacity to narrate the obvious, and it seems that Ondaatje is, just for once, not in search of exquisiteness of whatever kind. The scenes the author describes have been taken place already prior to their usage in this poetic expression; in fact, they were there as ingredients of a culture that aims at a rhetorical and ceremonial sophistication. 'A Gentleman Compares His Virtue to a Piece of Jade' is the first poem's title, and when poetic ingredients can be literally found scattered across the street, it is no wonder and no one to be blamed who tries to pick them up.

  8. Anyway, Ondaatje is not keen on having his findings exhibited under glass and being rewarded for its beauty. The poems are able to move, away from precious metaphors, away from Sri Lanka; they float, both in spoken and sung fashion, the world from one end to the other and finally arrive at the "tightrope-walker from Kurunegala / the generator shut down by insurgents" (5). There is a polyhistoric fantasy of a flowering and organic nature to be found in Ondaatje's poems, just like the ancient poets' stories that were written "on rock and leaf / to celebrate the work of the day / the shadow pleasures of night" (23). One is tempted to believe that Handwriting is intended for a different surface than paper. And that its actual purpose is the celebration not so much of a day's work, but of a reality the wealth of which "the yellow age of paper" (74) can hardly fathom.

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