by Michael Ondaatje

Published by Alfred A. Knopf

1999, 75 pages

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Woven Words

Reviewed by Jonathan Shipley


Michael Ondaatje, to me, is a painter; an artist rendering vivid images, creating emotions raw and sincere. With his widely popular novel, The English Patient -- which won numerous Academy Awards as a movie -- under his literary belt, he returns to his first home, Sri Lanka, in a new book of poetry, Handwriting.

In "The Distance of a Shout," he writes, "Handwriting occured on waves/on leaves, the script of smoke/a sign on a bridge across the Mahaweli River." And from there he takes us on a powerful journey, delicate, within a skiff of words he takes us along a river of emotion and image.

The poets wrote their stories on rock and leaf/to celebrate the work of the day/the shadow pleasures of night/Kanakara, they said/Tharupiri...

Ondaatje writes of desire and longing, history and mythology, the curve of a bridge against a woman's foot, the figure of a man walking through a rainstorm to a tryst.

In the 10th century, the young princess/entered a rock pool like the moon/within a blue cloud/Her sisters/who dove, lit by flames/were lightning.

Ondaatje writes like a weaver. Words are his thread, the finished product his richly colored and detailed tapestry of intensity.

On the morning of the full moon/in a forest monestary/thirty women in white/meditate on the precepts of the day/until darkness.

Ondaatje writes about the unburial of stone Buddhas, a family of stilt walkers crossing a field, the pattern of teeth marks on skin drawn by a monk from memory. All his poems: beautiful.

Michael Ondaatje was born in Sri Lanka, moving to Canada in 1962. Living in Toronto, he has written some magnificent books, i.e. The Cinnamon Peeler, In the Skin of a Lion, and Coming Through Slaughter. And Handwriting is yet another volume that is sparse but tremendous in its piercing emotional clarity. | April 1999


Jonathan Shipley is a graduate of Washington State University and the editor of the literary magazine Odin's Eye. Shipley works for The Seattle Times and anticipates the day when he'll write his own novel for others to review.