Handwriting is a collection of exquisitely crafted poems of delicacy and power – poems about love, landscape, and the sweep of history set in the poet’s first home, Sri Lanka.
The falling away of culture is juxtaposed with an individual’s sense of loss, grief, and remembrance, as Ondaatje weaves a rich tapestry of images – 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.
And, like the poets who “wrote their stories on rock and leaf/to celebrate the work of the day,/the shadow pleasures of the night,” in these poems Ondaatje writes of desire and longing, the curve of a bridge against a woman’s foot, the figure of a man walking through a rainstorm to a tryst.
Handwriting is a poetic achievement by a writer at the height of his creative powers. In it, we are reminded once again of Michael Ondaatje’s unique artistry with language and of his stature as one of the finest poets writing today.
Ondaatje's first book of poetry or prose since his bestselling novel The English Patient (1992) offers Western readers knowingly attractive, nostalgic views of his native Sri Lanka. The poet playfully takes to the role of translator ("Aliganaya-`the embrace/ during an intoxicated walk'/ or `sudden arousal/ while driving over speed bumps' ") in a not-quite-wry langour--a departure from the exuberance of earlier work. Generally forgoing the first person, and settling into a short, refined line, Ondaatje disappears into the role of an observer, most sucessfully in poems like "Driving with Dominic in the Southern Province We See Hints of a 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." At times, the self-conscious need to explain interrupts the flow of images, as when bathing women encounter "An uncaught prawn hiding by their feet/ The three folds on their stomachs/ considered a sign of beauty," and the poet's engagements with the politics and violence of Sri Lanka--"there were goon squads from all sides"--can seem forced. But the terse form seems to push the poet towards moments of lapidary beauty. Ultimately, these calmly seductive visions form a surprisingly coherent emotional autobiography, representing Ondaatje's finest work as a poet.