Handwriting: Poems

Michael Ondaatje

Reviewed by: Dave   dcymbalisty@hotmail.com      Date: 2 December 2002

   Two Hearts

Here in Canada the name Michael Ondaatje elicits homage, and his readers are a dedicated, faithful lot. This year, his 1987 book "In The Skin Of A Lion" was selected (by Canadians) as the book all Canadians should read, or in other words- "thee great Canadian novel" in a national project known as "Canada Reads."


Confession: Iím Canadian and Iíve never read any Ondaatje fiction. (GASP)!


But in honor of the Canada Reads project I bought "In The Skin Of A Lion" and just havenít read it yet. So, forgive me.


(And now, for the unforgivable)...


I thought Iíd start off with delving into some of his poetry first.


Bad idea.


I picked up his "Handwriting" (poems written between 1993 and 1998, dealing mostly with a recollection of his homeland, Sri Lanka) and I think I approached the book with as open or non-judgmental of an attitude as is possible.


But poem after poem I waited for some image or experience to provide meaning beyond the mere succession of words and snatches of unfinished thought, and nothing really worked for me. I finished the volume convinced that no reader can fully appreciate what is going on in these poems unless perhaps they happen to live within a ten mile radius of the events and scenes these poems describe.


Everything is in free verse, not a rhyme in the lot.


Note the following example, complete with a title nearly as long as the poem itself:


Driving with Dominic in the Southern Province We See Hints of the 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


Now come on, letís be serious, I could compose such a sequence in my own head in the time it takes to light a cigarette and blow out the match... and I donít even smoke!


I realize that Ondaatje fans will find those comments offensive, and it may be arguable that I am just too "dense" to appreciate Ondaatjeís "delicacy and power" and "whimsical precision and authority" that the dustjacket promises to those that read beyond it... but, at the same time, I am not easily convinced of my own stupidity. I think I DO know good poetry when I see it. And I do not judge Ondaatje AS A POET, especially since I have not read his other nine or ten published books of poetry, but I am singling out "Handwriting" as the only thing Iíve read so far. And I give it two hearts for its occasional beauty:


The curve of the bridge


against her foot


her thin shadow falling


through slats


into water movement


I welcome a rebuttal from any Ondaatje experts and/or fans BASED ON THIS BOOK without praising it by pointing to his other stuff. Answer this question for me: How did you surmount Handwritingís seemingly deliberate obfuscation?


Will this book keep me from reading that other stuff of his? Not at all. In fact, I look forward to finding his other work as memorable as this was forgettable.


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