Where Poets Were Kings: An Appreciation of Michael Ondaatje's Handwriting

By J.S. Porter

The poet comes from afar. He travels a great distance. Perhaps he rides a camel.

A star shines. The weather must be right, cloudless.

The poet puts on his gown. He selects an ancestral pen…Perhaps he smokes his pipe; perhaps he sips his wine. Spirits for a Spirit. He chooses the adjectives of gold and the adverbs of silver. He abandons himself to the heat of the day and the cool of the night.

Is the poem made then? No, it’s given. What is made is the cradle for the poem, the rocking of its movement, the blankets for its protection.

A child is about to be born. Given by the stars, delivered by the camel, written by the ancestors…

This is the way poetry once was, at least in our imaginations…This is the way poetry is in Michael Ondaatje’s Handwriting. The writer escorts the reader into Sri Lanka’s strangeness and ceremony. Words like dagoba and parampara ring in the ear. The reader can make the sounds even though he doesn’t know the meanings that the sounds make. The meanings are unimportant. The gates of Ondaatje’s word-kingdom do not open to disrespectful assault and do not respond to reductive analysis.

Ceremonial…The poet dresses up and the poem is dressed up. The poet wears beads of shell around his neck. The poem has bangles and veils, silken scarves and pearl necklaces; it makes sounds as inaudible as light rain.

Ceremony. Devotion. This is the world that Michael Ondaatje conjures in Handwriting. Custom. Ritual. And don’t forget, Reverence. These words are invisibly capitalized. These words stand in a space to themselves.

You might think handwriting is personal, but it isn’t. The hand that writes picks up a pen held by ancestors thousands of years ago. The hand that writes is not an I. The hand is a we. Ondaatje sheds the egocentric I in favour of the ancestral we. That’s the first thing you notice about the book. It’s written by a we. By culture. By tradition and many hands. The aggressive maker of Billy the Kid and Buddy Bolden falls into his childhood history and geography; he returns to the mother.

Solitaries spent all their years
writing one good book…

Ondaatje has spent years writing one good book. He concerns himself with the delicate, the precious, the transitory.

In certain languages the calligraphy celebrates…
     where you met the plum blossom and moon by chance

—the dusk light, the cloud pattern,
recorded always in your heart

and the rest of the world—chaos,
circling your winter boat.

He honours “the intimate life,” the “inner self.” He is no libertine who makes “love before nightfall” without “darkening the room.” He lets his words breathe; he creates space around them.

He embodies the will to keep, the will to remember, and the will to restore in his soft-skinned poems. The three wills of writing. Words, a necklace or a ring. Words, a memory-box. Words, an ossuary.

In Ondaatje’s book, monks come and go. Buddhas are kept from harm; they are buried in stone. Stilt-walkers walk into myth. The community begins in myth, and then lets events happen. Temples. Bells. The things that last. Smoke. The things that disappear. Trees. Flowers. The things that grow. Old women and young girls. The things that die.

Handwriting conjures another time and place. Another time. Sometimes BC, sometimes AD, sometimes now. Another place. Sri Lanka. Where girls have poison necklaces “to save themselves from torture,” where every stone-cutter “has his secret mark,” and “angle of his chisel,” where Buddhas are buried 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.

When a Buddha is buried, you need the earth and an animal and a plant to surround him so that the poet can make a poem.

Much is lost in Handwriting. Elegies, a form Ondaatje excels in, are poetic acts of love, mourning and loss. Losses such as:

     The interior love poem
     the deeper levels of the self
     landscapes of daily life

Courtesy is gone. Knowledge is lost…the gestures between lovers…reverence for a master, “Nine finger and eye gestures/to signal key emotions.” And “The small boats of solitude.” These things are gone, and yet restored by Ondaatje’s book. He remembers, he keeps, he restores. Much is lost, much is mourned, in the kingdom where poets were once “as famous as kings,” but much is also honoured and loved.

Last update: