Patient English

Poet (and novelist) Michael Ondaatje mines the culture of old Ceylon for the lapidary essence of language

It does no disservice to the Canadian poet and novelist Michael Ondaatje to suggest that readers may be more familiar with his work owing to the Academy Award-winning version of his novel, The English Patient, than to the ten volumes of poetry that he has produced over the past three decades. For those acquainted with the work of the Toronto-based, Sri Lankan-born author in his pre-Oscar career, however, it remains the poetry, not the fiction, that continues to define the writer's aesthetic topography: fiercely and extravagantly lyrical; startlingly, often violently image-driven; unapologetically romantic; and structurally poly-vocal and innovative.

Ondaatje, who had penned but a pair of slim, idiosyncratic novels (1976's Coming Through Slaughter, and 1987's In the Skin of a Lion) prior to the more conventional The English Patient, always has been a poet first. His debut, The Dainty Monsters, appeared as early as 1967, followed by The Collected Works of Billy the Kid three years later, and the exquisite Secular Love in 1984. With his new collection, Handwriting (Knopf), Ondaatje demonstrates once again that he is also a poet last, from the high-modernist bone to the postmodern marrow. Indeed, at this stage in the writer's career--he will turn 56 in September--it is increasingly evident that as his work endures, it is the poems that will likely best weather time's reckoning.

His new offering features fewer than 20 poems. One of them, "The Nine Sentiments," is a suite or sequence that stretches over 11 pages. Two of them--"The First Rule of Sinhalese Architecture" and "Driving with Dominic in the Southern Province We See Hints of the Circus"--contain less than 25 words each. Yet another, "Death at Kataragama," both typographically and metrically blurs the distinctions among poetry, poesy, and prose, a quality characteristic of Ondaatje.

As has been noted elsewhere, the author's verse often resembles prose while working as poetic language, renovating, reinventing, and personalizing history--in this case Sri Lankan history. This is the subject that provides the thematic ground of this collection, much of which is set in the exotically foreign landscape of Sri Lanka's distant past. Ondaatje has plowed this terrain before, most notably in such poems as "Uswetakeiyawa," "The Wars," and "Sweet Like a Crow," and at more sustained length in his poeticized "fictional memoir," Running in the Family (1982).

Alongside some of his more inscrutably personal and linguistically arresting work--"White Dwarfs," "Pig Glass," "Claude Glass," "Tin Roof"--the poems in Handwriting evince a decidedly lapidary texture, even as they are syntactically more subdued and less immediate, and tonally less playful. The Ondaatje who once remarked that "the stories within the poems don't matter, the grand themes don't matter, the movement of the mind and language is what is important," is less apparent here than he has been in volumes past. It can be no coincidence that one of the longer poems in the collection is titled "The Story."

There remains, of course, the sheer love of language, but that affection is less soaringly lusty and stirringly intense than it is respectfully muffled, torchlit, and burnished. And Ondaatje's logophilia is leavened here by a concomitant concern for content and the evocative richness of multiple meanings. Indeed, considered in the context of the author's oeuvre, Handwriting contains some of the most technically deliberate, serenely elegant verse that the poet has written. These are poems that are the product of a decidedly mature artistic sensibility wed to an equally powerful artistic vision. There is much lushness and sensuality here, much oceanic stillness and deep-forest quiet, much complexity of heart married to depthlessness of mind. There is also--if such a thing is possible in a poem--a sense of overdelicateness, even abashedness.

A few sharp lines rip through the fabric of language. In "Buried," Ondaatje writes tensely: "Above ground, massacre and race./A heart silenced./The tongue removed./The human body merged into burning tire./Mud glaring back/into a stare." In "Buried 2," he creates the same uneasy tone: "The heat of explosions/sterilized all metal./Ball bearings and nails/in the arms, in the head./Shrapnel in the feet./Ear channels/deformed by shockwaves./Men without balance." Yet elsewhere, the quality of darkly edgy violence typical of Ondaatje's work is decidedly restrained. As is the presence of the pop cultural referents he often and fondly deploys. (He does incorporate, in "Nine Sentiments," a line from a Van Morrison song.)

More indicative of these poems are references to monks and Buddhas, plum blossoms and lotus stalks, bamboo and bells, jungle temples and monasteries, and, as the author describes it, "traditions and marginalia" from Tamil love poetry. Ondaatje presents such material through the generous use of simple, listlike concretion, as in these lines from "Buried 2":

 

[A] Dilo Oil tree, a Pig Lily,/a Blue Dawn Bonnet flower/Parrot trees. Pigeon Berries./Alstonia for the making of matchsticks/Twigs of Moonamal for the cleaning of teeth/The Ola leaf on which to compose/our stanzas of faith/Indigo for eyelids, aerograms/The mid-rib of coconut palm/to knit a fence/Also Kalka, Churna/Dasamula, Tharalasara...

 

At last, what the author achieves here is a form of poetic expression (as described by "The Distance of a Shout") in which "Handwriting occurred on waves,/on leaves, the scripts of smoke,/a sign on a bridge along the Mahaweli River./A gradual acceptance of this new language." To appreciate fully the lavish inventiveness of that language is to ache with the astonishment of its beauty, a beauty timeless, catholic and profound, a beauty that, like music itself, is self-explanation enough.

 
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