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Handwriting: Poems

Handwriting: Poems

by Michael Ondaatje

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"Tumultuous, vibrant, tragic and over too soon." —Newsday

Handwriting is Michael Ondaatje's first new book of poetry since The Cinnamon Peeler. The exquisite poems collected here draw on history, mythology, landscape, and personal memories to weave a rich tapestry of images that reveal the longing for—and expose the


"Tumultuous, vibrant, tragic and over too soon." —Newsday

Handwriting is Michael Ondaatje's first new book of poetry since The Cinnamon Peeler. The exquisite poems collected here draw on history, mythology, landscape, and personal memories to weave a rich tapestry of images that reveal the longing for—and expose the anguish over—lost loves, homes, and language, as the poet contemplates scents and gestures and evokes a time when "handwriting occurred on waves, / on leaves, the scripts of smoke" and remembers a woman's "laughter with its / intake of breath. Uhh huh."

Crafted with lyrical delicacy and seductive power, Handwriting reminds us of Michael Ondaatje's stature as one of the finest poets writing today.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Richly sensual images.... [Ondaatje] contracts the narrative to a few concrete images, giving his verse a mysterious reticence." —The New York Times Book Review

"Poems that are virtual hybrids of the contemporary and the ancient." —Boston Book Review

"Smooth poetic lines.... Another finely polished Ondaatje gem." — Time Out-New York

"Extremely beautiful." —Robert Hass, The Washington Post

The Barnes & Noble Review
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.

—Jonathan Cook

Adam Kirsch
...Ondaatje...writes plainly about beautiful things. The center of gravity of the poems...[is] in the richly sensual images....[T]here is certainly beauty, and Ondaatje's delicate handling of it.
The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Ondaatje's first book of poetry or prose since his bestselling novel The English Patient (1992) offers Western readers knowingly attractive, nostalgic views of his native Sri Lanka. The poet playfully takes to the role of translator ("Aliganaya-`the embrace/ during an intoxicated walk'/ or `sudden arousal/ while driving over speed bumps' ") in a not-quite-wry langour--a departure from the exuberance of earlier work. Generally forgoing the first person, and settling into a short, refined line, Ondaatje disappears into the role of an observer, most sucessfully in poems like "Driving with Dominic in the Southern Province We See Hints of a Circus": "The Tattered Hungarian Tent/ A man washing a trumpet/ at a roadside tap/ Children in the trees,/ one falling/ into the grip of another." At times, the self-conscious need to explain interrupts the flow of images, as when bathing women encounter "An uncaught prawn hiding by their feet/ The three folds on their stomachs/ considered a sign of beauty," and the poet's engagements with the politics and violence of Sri Lanka--"there were goon squads from all sides"--can seem forced. But the terse form seems to push the poet towards moments of lapidary beauty. Ultimately, these calmly seductive visions form a surprisingly coherent emotional autobiography, representing Ondaatje's finest work as a poet.
Library Journal
Ondaatje is undoubtedly best known for his novel, The English Patient, on which the award-winning film was based. Good as that novel was, it is still a pity that more people havent read his poetry, which is deeply evocative and suffusedbut never overburdenedwith sensuous imagery. Here he revisits his Sri Lankan heritage, re-creating the past in sparkling takes: Once we buried our libraries/ under the great medicinal trees/ which the invaders burned; And in our Book of Victories/ wherever you saw a parasol/ on the battlefield you could/ identify the king within its shadow. Buddhas abound, as do Cormorant Girls, saffron, rice, cattle bells, and, of course, water. A poem picks up one image, then starts the next few lines with another, so that images glance off the page, refusing to settle down into straightforward storytelling. The result is a sort of mosaic of feeling and light that is affecting reading. For all poetry collections.Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Vintage International Series
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.30(d)

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Read an Excerpt

In the dry lands

every few miles, moving north,
another roadside Ganesh

Straw figures on bamboo scaffolds to advertise a family of stilt-walkers

Men twenty feet high walking over fields crossing the thin road with their minimal arms and "lying legs"

A dance of tall men with the movement of prehistoric birds in practice before they alight

So men become gods in the small village of Ilukwewa

Ganesh in pink,
                         in yellow,
in elephant darkness
His simplest shrine a drawing of him

lime chalk on a grey slate

All this glory preparing us for Anuradhapura

its night faith

A city with the lap and spell of a river

Families below trees around the heart of a fire

tributaries from the small villages of the dry zone

Circling the dagoba in a clockwise hum and chant,
bowls of lit coal above their heads

whispering bare feet

Our flutter and drift

in the tow of this river

Meet the Author

Michael Ondaatje is the author of three previous novels, a memoir and eleven books of poetry. His novel The English Patient won the Booker Prize. Born in Sri Lanka, he moved to Canada in 1962 and now lives in Toronto.

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