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Handwriting: Poems – Michael Ondaatje



Posted September 2, 2016 by

Handwriting: Poems – Michael Ondaatje – 1998 


Reviewed by: Dave         Date: 2 December 2002

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: I’m Canadian and I’ve never read any Ondaatje fiction. (GASP)!

But in honor of the Canada Reads project I bought “In The Skin Of A Lion” and just haven’t read it yet. So, forgive me.  (And now, for the unforgivable)…

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

Bad idea.

handwritingI 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, let’s 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 don’t 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 Ondaatje’s “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 I’ve read so far. And I give it two stars 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 Handwriting’s 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.

ReadLit Team


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