he poems in Handwriting, Michael Ondaatje's tenth collection of poetry, read like tales embroidered on an ancestral wall tapestry, depicting an array of exotic sights and characters that seem timeless in their pseudo-mythical landscape. There is no trace here of a global technology or the vulgar consumerism that accompanies it in its gradual diffusion, sweeping local cultures aside in an ever-expanding hustle. The poems seem at first escapist--villages of stonecutters, monks spiriting away a tooth of the Buddha, statues of gods borne down the coast in catamarans--and perhaps they would be if written by a tourist. Ondaatje, although raised in London, was born to Dutch and Indian parents in former Ceylon (Sri Lanka since 1972), and that is where the mass of these poems was composed. He demonstrates a polished grasp of the vast tectonic historical shifts that bring cultures and languages up against one another, usually with less than pacific consequences. There are recurrent descriptions of pulling up sacred monuments and rushing them away before the arrival of a fresh horde of invaders. This is no less the case this century than ten centuries ago, as ideologies and religions continued to clash horribly on the island. The Subcontinent and Sri Lanka have, like many parts of the world, seen innumerable conquests and insurrections. As a result, they have also known the cultural displacements and interminglings that arrive on such seismic tides. Where armies tread, priests, astronomers, and accountants follow not far behind.
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.
The worlds that unfold in Handwriting may be geographically narrow--entire lives lived within a radius of a few miles, despite huge cultural waves that tumble over them--but they are historically profound; while a particular man may never see the world beyond the neighboring village, the island itself was acknowledged by ancient Greek and Roman cartographers and later by Persian, Armenian, and Arab navigators. Wisdom may not travel further from the village than its inhabitants in any given period, but it extends back into the darkness of antiquity. In the clouded glass of history, the poet wisely withdraws from augury and remains instead in the more sedate circumference of storytelling, giving thanks for what is known as well as how it is known.
I no longer guess a future.
And do not know how we end
Though I know a story about maps, for you.
The conditions of modernity, often taken for granted in the richer parts of the world, fail unexpectedly throughout the collection, electric lights winking out and leaving the jungle to its lush darkness, a symbolic darkness that counterpoints the bright costumes, jewelry, and grandeur that distinguish Sri Lanka, a darkness that holds a future as unsettled and wondrous as the past, when
That tightrope-walker from Karunegala
the generator shut down by insurgents
swaying in the darkness above us.
Ondaatje knows well the ways of devotion, be they to family, religion, or custom, that sustain cultures, and he uses them to articulate a vision both fertile and honest. This richly exotic collection is a fine expression of Ondaatje's ability to balance language delicately against the precarious shiftings of history that create worlds within worlds.
Copyright © 2000 Ernest Hilbert.
Photo credit © Adam Elder