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Authors: Michael Ondaatje

Handwriting

BOOK: Handwriting
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Acclaim for
MICHAEL ONDAATJE’s

HANDWRITING

“His thrilling poems read like exquisite, unwritten Ondaatje novels.”


The Independent
(London)

“[
Handwriting
has] a subtle rhythm that carries like jazz.”


The Hartford Courant

“Smooth poetic lines.… Another finely polished Ondaatje gem.”


Time Out New York

“Poems that are virtual hybrids of the contemporary and the ancient.”


Boston Book Review

“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,
Books in Canada

“A heady realm where memory, earth and meter meld into the purest elegance.”


Harvard Crimson

“[Ondaatje is] among the best lyric poets in the world.… [
Handwriting
is] a bright, lingering dream of a book.”


Eye Magazine
(Toronto)

“Seductive visions.… Ondaatje’s finest work as a poet.”


Publishers Weekly

FIRST VINTAGE INTERNATIONAL EDITION, MARCH
2000

Copyright
© 1998
by Michael Ondaatje

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. Originally published in hardcover in Canada by McClelland & Stewart Inc., Toronto, in 1998, and subsequently in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, in 1999.

Vintage is a registered trademark and Vintage International and colophon are trademarks of Random House, Inc.

The Library of Congress has cataloged the Knopf edition as follows:
Ondaatje, Michael, [date]
Handwriting : poems / by Michael Ondaatje. — 1st ed.
p. cm.
eISBN: 978-0-307-94882-3
1. Sri Lankans—Canada—Poetry. 2. Sri Lanka—Poetry. I. Title.
PR9199.3.05h36 1999
811′.54—dc21 98-1731

www.vintagebooks.com

v3.1

for Rosalin Perera

“For the long nights you lay awake
And watched for my unworthy sake:

For your most comfortable hand
That led me through the uneven land …”

CONTENTS
1
A Gentleman Compares His Virtue to a Piece of Jade

The enemy was always identified in art by a lion.

And in our Book of Victories

wherever you saw a parasol

on the battlefield you could

identify the king within its shadow.

We began with myths and later included actual events.

There were new professions. Cormorant Girls

who screamed on prawn farms to scare birds.

Stilt-walkers. Tightrope-walkers.

There was always the “untaught hold”

by which the master defeated

the pupil who challenged him.

Palanquins carried the weapons of a goddess.

Bamboo tubes cut in 17th-century Japan

we used as poem holders.

We tied bells onto falcons.

A silted water garden in Mihintale.

The letter
M
. The word “thereby.”

There were wild cursive scripts.

There was the two-dimensional tradition.

Solitaries spent all their years

writing one good book. Federico Tesio

graced us with
Breeding the Race Horse
.

In our theatres human beings

wondrously became other human beings.

Bangles from Polonnaruwa.

A nine-chambered box from Gampola.

The archaeology of cattle bells.

We believed in the intimate life, an inner self.

A libertine was one who made love before nightfall

or without darkening the room.

Walking the Alhambra blindfolded

to be conscious of the sound of water—your hand

could feel it coursing down banisters.

We aligned our public holidays with the full moon.

3 a.m. in temples, the hour of washing the gods.

The formalization of the vernacular.

The Buddha’s left foot shifted at the moment of death.

That great writer, dying, called out

for the fictional doctor in his novels.

That tightrope-walker from Kurunegala

the generator shut down by insurgents

stood there

swaying in the darkness above us.

The Distance of a Shout

We lived on the medieval coast

south of warrior kingdoms

during the ancient age of the winds

as they drove all things before them.

Monks from the north came

down our streams floating—that was

the year no one ate river fish.

There was no book of the forest,

no book of the sea, but these

are the places people died.

Handwriting occurred on waves,

on leaves, the scripts of smoke,

a sign on a bridge along the Mahaweli River.

A gradual acceptance of this new language.

Buried

To be buried in times of war,

in harsh weather, in the monsoon

of knives and stakes.

The stone and bronze gods carried

during a night rest of battle

between the sleeping camps

floated in catamarans down the coast

past Kalutara.

               To be buried

for safety.

To bury, surrounded by flares,

large stone heads

during floods in the night.

Dragged from a temple

by one’s own priests,

lifted onto palanquins,

covered with mud and straw.

Giving up the sacred

among themselves,

carrying the faith of a temple

during political crisis

away in their arms.

               Hiding

the gestures of the Buddha.

Above ground, massacre and race.

A heart silenced.

The tongue removed.

The human body merged into burning tire.

Mud glaring back

into a stare.

        *

750 AD the statue of a Samadhi Buddha

was carefully hidden, escaping war,

the treasure hunters, fifty-year feuds.

He was discovered by monks in 1968

sitting upright

buried in Anuradhapura earth,

eyes half closed, hands

in the gesture of meditation.

Pulled from the earth with ropes

into a surrounding world.

Pulled into heatwave, insect noise,

bathers splashing in tanks.

Bronze became bronze

around him,

colour became colour.

        *

In the heart of the forest, the faith.

Stone columns. Remnants of a dagoba

in this clearing torn out of jungle.

No human image remains.

What is eternal is brick, stone,

a black lake where water disappears

below mud and rises again,

the arc of the dagoba that echoes a mountain.

Bo Tree. Chapter House. Image House.

A line of stones

the periphery of sleeping quarters

for 12th-century monks,

their pocket of faith

buried away from the world.

Dusk. The grass and stone blue.

Black lake.

Seven hundred years ago

a saffron scar of monks

moving in the clearing

and at this hour the sky

almost saffron.

               A saffron bird.

In the bowl of rice, a saffron seed.

They are here for two hundred years.

When war reaches them

they carry the statues deeper

into jungle and vanish.

The pocket is sewn shut.

Where water sinks

lower than mud, they dig

and bury the sacred

then hide beyond

this black lake

that reappears and

disappears. A lake unnamed

save for its colour.

The lost monks

who are overtaken or are silent

the rest of their lives,

who fade away thin

as the skeletons of leaf.

Fifteen generations later armed men hide

in the jungles, trapping animals,

plucking the crimson leaf to boil it

or burn it or smoke it.

Sects of war.

               A hundred beliefs.

Men carrying recumbent Buddhas

or men carrying mortars

burning the enemy, disappearing

into pits when they hear helicopters.

Girls with poison necklaces

to save themselves from torture.

Just as women wear amulets

which hold their rolled-up fortunes

transcribed on ola leaf.

The statue the weight

of a cannon barrel,

bruising the naked shoulder as they run,

hoisted to a ledge,

then lowered by rope

into another dug pit.

Burying the Buddha in stone.

Covered with soft earth

then the corpse of an animal,

planting a seed there.

                         So roots

like the fingers of a blind monk

spread for two hundred years over his face.

BOOK: Handwriting
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