Michael Ondaatje is so familiar a figure in contemporary literature-his first book, The Dainty Monsters
, appeared in 1967-that it is easy to take him for granted and to forget just how original a writer he is. But even a quick backward glance over his body of work reminds one that, while there are obvious continuities among the books, he is a writer who has refused to repeat himself. Each decade has at least one volume of poetry or prose that shows him going in a new direction-a direction that, with hindsight, we see as inevitable but that, at the time, none of us could have anticipated.
The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1969), as explosive today as when it was published, seems the work of a different writer than that of The Dainty Monsters. Coming Through Slaughter (1976) is grounded up to a point in the poetics of the final section of Rat Jelly (1973), but shows Ondaatje struggling, however indirectly, with the full implications of a nakedly self-expressive, even confessional, art that might lead to what, in a grimly humorous image, Secular Love (1984) describes as "doing the Berryman walk"-that is, suicide.
Whatever Ondaatje may have suffered in writing Slaughter, the experience seems to have had the effect of giving him the confidence to write more directly, more intimately about his parents ("Light" is his elegy for his mother), his Sri Lankan past (Running in the Family, 1982), and his relationships (Secular Love). Running in the Family is one of those works that redefine a genre, in this case memoir or autobiography, while Secular Love is an often dazzling lyric sequence that tells the story of a marriage but without relying on a sequential narrative.
Fifteen years later, it is obvious that on some deep level these works constitute a watershed in Ondaatje's development and demand to be read together. Like Slaughter, each explores the geographies of survival, and each could have as an epigraph Wallace Stevens's "After the final no there comes a yes", even if that "yes" is only the temporary affirmation of writing. Another relevant epigraph could be drawn from Czeslaw Milosz's Nobel lecture: "It is possible that there is no other memory than the memory of wounds." This idea is particularly relevant to a body of work like Ondaatje's, populated as it is with emotionally and physically wounded characters and animals, and among whose signature words are "wounds", "scars", and other kinds of traces marking an absence.
In the Skin of a Lion (1987) and The English Patient (1992), though relatively conventional novels, nevertheless surprised by the degree of their interest in history. Ondaatje had always been fascinated by nearly legendary characters like Billy the Kid and Buddy Bolden who existed on the margins of recorded history. But the interest in social history in In the Skin of a Lion, and in World War II and nationalism in The English Patient, signalled another shift in focus and concern.
Handwriting, Ondaatje's new sequence of poems, looks back to its predecessors, and especially to Running in the Family, in roughly the same way a relay runner looks back momentarily to his teammate for the baton before completely forgetting him. Like the memoir, it is set in Sri Lanka, and the narrative voice is often similarly subdued, nearly monotoned. But Handwriting swerves away for the most part from what could be called autobiographical concerns to a lyrical and multi-layered mosaic of a place and its complex histories. The most obvious exception to this is the three-part lyric, "Wells", the second part of which is an elegy for Ondaatje's childhood "ayah", Rosalin Perera. Even here, however, the personal aspect is flanked in a stunning triptych by poems about soldiers digging a well and "pulling what was lost/out of the depth." Their act mirrors what the narrator is doing in trying to resurrect a dead woman last seen nearly half a century ago:
No photograph of her, no meeting
since the age of eleven,
not even knowledge of her grave.
In Running in the Family, it was the lost and buried father who was pulled out of the depths of memory and history. Here it is the entire history of a people that is at stake as the allusions to various eras and periodic references to flight, soldiers, assassination, and war make clear:
There were goon squads from all sides
Our archaeologists dug down to the disappeared
bodies of schoolchildren.
The recent violent history of Sri Lanka is part of the book's more comprehensive tapestry, as it was in Running in the Family. With astonishing economy and a formal and stylistic minimalism hinted at in some of the memoir's lyrics, Ondaatje sketches two millennia of a culture in nineteen poems, each of which offers a different aspect and slightly different perspective on it.
At one end are poems like "All day desire" that could be translations of the Akam or love poems of the classic Tamil anthologies:
All day desire
enters the hearts of men
Women from the village of __________
move along porches
wearing calling bells
Breath from the mouth
of that moon
Arrows of flint
in their hair
This is the first poem in an eleven lyric sequence, and most of its concerns and images will be recalled before the sequence ends with "Where is there a room/without the damn god of love?" The diction and syntax are simple and direct; whatever music there is-"from the mouth/of that moon"-is unemphatic. The work of poetry is done by the enjambment in the stanzas, by the lack of connectives between them, and by the way the lack of punctuation creates a space for silence to seep in and expose the individual image, the silent white acting as a setting rather than a frame. This is more obvious in a poem later in the sequence:
One sees these fires
from a higher place
on the cadju terrace
they wander like gold
ragas of longing
like lit sequin
on her shifting green dress
"Cadju" and "ragas" (the sound evokes the sense in "like gold/ragas of longing") remind us that we are on foreign ground, strangers in a strange land. With the exception of Anne Michaels, I can't think of another contemporary Canadian poet capable of risking the shift from the strong and musically evoked simile of the second verse to the equally striking simile in the third.
Like most of the book, the poem offers the reader none of the familiar signposts either of the canon or of contemporary poetry in English. The closest it comes is in the identical metric of the last two couplets of the first quotation, each of which is a trochee followed by an iam and an anapest-a small trick of the metrical knife that Ondaatje occasionally uses to tighten up an ending, to bring a poem to a point ("Step" is another example). It's arguable that most of our assumptions about genre, poetic kinds, and symbolism are simply irrelevant here. Since the poems are written in English, it's obvious that we're not completely at sea, but it's also obvious as early as the Sinhalese words in the table of contents-Anuradhapura, Siyabaslakara-that some of our old maps, guides, and so-called theories about poetry and reading will be useless. With the exception of three accidental echoes of Hesiod ("words and days"), Wordsworth's "Intimations of Immortality" ("The Story"), and Milosz's "Ode to a Bird" ("Death at Kataragama"), the sequence successfully evades European literature.
I don't mean to imply by this that Handwriting is a difficult book. It isn't. And what difficulties there are reward the attentive reader with many of the traditional pleasures of poetry, including the pleasures of a poetic sequence whose unity depends on a common setting and a subtle structure based on recurring images, sound-patterns, and concerns. Jade, for instance, links the first and last poems; images of digging, burial, and depth recur; and several poems deal with the relationship between art/poetry and life. In a manner of speaking, Handwriting, like all original works, teaches us how to read it. It suggests that the reader pay attention to the words on the page; to the way the book as a whole provides a context for each poem; and to the repeated echoes of images, scenes, and characters among the poems. It asks for a surrender to its otherness, its strangeness. "The Medieval Coast" is short enough to serve as an example:
A village of stone-cutters. A village of soothsayers.
Men who burrow into the earth in search of gems.
Circus in-laws who pyramid themselves into trees.
Home life. A fear of distance along the southern
Every stone-cutter has his secret mark, angle of his
In the village of soothsayers
bones of a familiar animal
This wisdom extends no more than thirty miles.
The general location of the village is indicated by the two poems that surround it; the historical period is announced by the title. The stone-cutters, soothsayers, and circus in-laws are part of the book's gallery of artists-each with his version of a "secret mark" or signature-who give expression to a particular place, be it a coast, an island called Sri Lanka or even a country called Canada. The poem is a tessera in the book's overall mosaic.
Thinking of the book as a whole, it may be useful to keep in mind Frank Lewis's comment in Slaughter about Buddy Bolden's playing: "But there was a discipline, it was just that we didn't understand. We thought he was formless but I think he was tormented by order, what was outside it. He tore apart the plot-...." Part of the discipline in Handwriting is in the restraint evident in the careful selection of representative materials; part is in the refusal to offer a portrait of Sri Lanka (named only once) with a narrative inflected by one side or the other in the current civil war; and a not insignificant part may have been in Ondaatje's wrestle with his own metaphor-laden style-think of "the gate in his head" or The English Patient-to produce the spare, short, and often almost lapidary lines of these lyrics. The difference is as dramatic as the difference between early and late Montale or early and middle Merwin. Incidentally, there is a fascinating anticipation of this in Running in the Family in the scene in which it is discovered that the mother's handwriting has changed drastically over the years "to cope with a new dark unknown alphabet." In a sense, Ondaatje had to reinvent his style-his "handwriting"-and himself as a poet in order to deal adequately with the themes and concerns of this new book.
Those who have followed Ondaatje over the past three decades will also take pleasure in noting some of the subtle and subterranean continuities between Handwriting and its predecessors. No matter how original a book may be, if pressed it will reveal some echoes of its antecedents; think of Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49. For instance, every writer has his signature words; in Ondaatje's case, these include chaos, fence, wound, scar, bone, sickle, tightrope walker, and mirror ("There is no mirror in Mirissa"). There is also what I call his Francis Bacon moment when, in several works, he describes himself alone in a dark or darkening room writing the manuscript we are reading. Here he offers three variants of this, including "Last Ink", the book's closing movement. A particularly fascinating recapitulation and recasting of past material occurs in the haunting long poem, "The Story", in which a dead king's heritage to his son (think of Mervyn and Michael Ondaatje, think of In the Skin of a Lion) is a dangerous journey through a dark tunnel without any assurance that the son will survive. Finally there is the career-long concern with the complicated relationship between life and writing. This includes both moments of doubt about the value and permanence of "this mirror-world of art" and of confidence that without the poem "the repeated pleasure/of finite things" and historical events will be forgotten ("The Great Tree").
Yet, whatever claims the book may make for poetry, it makes them with images and lyrics that simultaneously remind us of how easily poems and other works of art disappear. The book is haunted by a desire for an ultimate language or art that will be radically coextensive with the landscape and life of the place and, therefore, not only inseparable from it but, by implication, indestructible. Otherwise all poetry is written in the shadow of elegy. In the end, despite its sensuous love poems and affirmative celebration of "finite things", Handwriting answers Holderlin's question, "what are poets for in a destitute time?", by pointing to elegy, a genre that both mourns wounds and preserves their memory.
This is a breathtaking collection, as fine as any that I have read in several years. If you're going to buy one book this year, buy this one. Ten years from now you'll still be reading it with pleasure and admiring both its beauty and wisdom.
Sam Solecki is a professor of English literature at the University of Toronto and a former editor of The Canadian Forum. His books include Spider Blues: Essays on Michael Ondaatje (1986), Prague Blues: The Fiction of Josef Skvorecky (1990), and, most recently, Imagining Canadian Literature: The Selected Letters of Jack McClelland (1998). The Last Canadian Poet: An Essay on Al Purdy will be published next year.