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One Poem
By Michael Ondaatje



   
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Poet's Choice

By Robert Hass
April 25, 1999

Michael Ondaatje, who was born in Sri Lanka and lives in Toronto, has not published a book of poems in some years. During that interval he's made his reputation as a novelist with "In the Skin of a Lion" and "The English Patient," and one of the most brilliant and strange and readable of memoirs in this time of memoirs, "Running in the Family." The new book of poems, "Handwriting" (Knopf), is a departure from his rowdy and unpredictable early poems. It's extremely beautiful, for one thing, and much of it is set in Sri Lanka.

Here is a poem whose atmosphere reminded me of the old, wrecked Italian villa in "The English Patient." It ends by describing an old Ceylonese Buddhist monastery, which becomes, like the villa in the novel, the source of a meditation on the architecture of desire:

Step

The ceremonial funeral structure for a monk
made up of thambali palms, white cloth
is only a vessel, disintegrates

completely as his life.

The ending disappears,
replacing itself

with something abstract
as air, a view.

All we'll remember in the last hours
is an afternoon – a lazy lunch
then sleeping together.

Then the disarray of grief.

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

They walk those abstract paths
their complete heart
their burning thought focused
on this step, then this step.

In the red brick dusk
of the Sacred Quadrangle,
among holy seven-storey ambitions
where the four Buddhas
of Polonnaruwa
face out to each horizon,
is a lotus pavilion.

Taller than a man
nine lotus stalks of stone
stand solitary in the grass,
pillars that once supported
the floor of another level.

(The sensuous stalk
the sacred flower)

How physical yearning
became permanent.
How desire became devotional
so it held up your house,
your lover's house, the house of your god.

And though it is no longer there,
the pillars once let you step
to a higher room
where there was worship, lighter air.

From "Handwriting" by Michael Ondaatje (Alfred A. Knopf Inc).

Robert Hass, former U.S. poet laureate, is the author, most recently, of the collection "Sun Under Wood."

 
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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