Though perhaps best known for works of fiction like The English Patient and In the Skin of a Lion, Michael Ondaatje began his literary career as a poet, and his prose shares the imagistic quality and startling language of his verse. In his latest volume of poetry, Handwriting, Ondaatje returns to Sri Lanka, the place where he grew up (he now lives in Toronto), to muse on a set of themes familiar to his readers: love, belief, landscape, the borders between self and world.
Much of the book roams across a mythico-historical landscape of jungle, village, and temple, peopled by monks, poets, and others who drift from a world of ritual and rhythm toward a vague, denatured modernity marked by violence and forgetting. Other, parallel poems are about lovers, and a convergence coalesces between these two sorts of searchers: Both are involved in a kind of quest, an inner pilgrimage. This interest in the physical and spiritual forms of desire seeks to trace junctions between the pleasures of flesh and the yearnings of spirit "how desire bec[omes] devotional" and those poles of fulfillment and longing between which we move.
In a beautiful sequence of poems called "The Nine Sentiments," the poet follows the stillnesses and movements of desire its speaking and holding back, its moments of acting and reflecting. "Where is there a room," he asks at last, "without the damn god of love?" In the ongoing duet of earthly love and spiritual longing, we seem eternally torn between the immediacy of physical sensation and a hunger for divinity andorigins.
Ondaatje has developed a delicate, glancing poetics, one that touches gently on things and produces astonishing moments of Zen-like beauty. In its stitching together of short-breathed images, it reminds one of the calligraphy with which some of his characters are engaged. "There is only a path of blossoms/no flamboyant movement." The liquid tones, litany of exotic names and places, and soft flow of line breaks lulls and caresses, recalling similar evocations of heat and stillness in Ondaatje's prose work, like the descriptions of darkened rooms during the Sri Lankan monsoon season in his memoir Running in the Family.
But though his poetry can move quietly across the scrim of things, Ondaatje certainly does not avoid peering into their nature; indeed, much of Handwriting relates a yearning for moments of understanding, or even entering into, other entities. Hence, languages: the private ones in which we move and think, but also those moments of crossing, of "communion" to use a word with both spiritual and romantic connotations in which we seek a sharing or merging with the world or another person. There is the poet's recognition of apartness and his longing for transferral (or reincarnation) upon looking at a striking red woodpecker; and then, his fleeting encounters with a lover in a fan-cooled room during a storm. "The place bodies meet is the place of escape," Ondaatje writes. The book's final, arresting image, drawn by "the last ink in the pen," traces this nexus of longing: "The moment in the heart/where I roam restless, searching/for the thin border of the fence/to break through or leap."
Writing, like love and spirituality, is an effort to "break through." Poets, like Buddhist monks, seek to transmute experience into insight, not merely record it. Handwriting can be the waves, "the script of smoke," as well as a poet's actual writing on "rock and leaf" or paper. The world is full of such found, lived signs; writing strives to render them as something that can be shared. But the violent present always threatens.
Take two of Ondaatje's longer poems, which make curious references to burial. In the first, stone Buddhas are interred within the jungle during a time of war, to be unearthed centuries later by archaeologists. Later, those same diggers are seen exhuming the bodies of children killed in present-day sectarian violence (one thinks of Sri Lanka's ongoing ethnic struggles between Tamil and Sinhalese). The muting of these forms beneath the earth calls to mind the silencing of poetry, language, and speech by the sorrows of war "the tongue removed" and yet the divine slumbers on, peaceful and untouched, to be "pulled" forth to transform the world, again and again.
Indeed, Ondaatje's haunting images remain with us long after they first drift from the page to hover in a suddenly sharpened field of vision and thought. In his reflections on "the repeated pleasure of finite things," he gives us inscriptions on pages which, like those on "rock and leaf," will not soon fade away. Everything is transitory, but through the act of writing we "hold the vista of a life," constantly reenact our fleeting presence in the world for ourselves, for others.