Cover image for Handwriting : poems
Handwriting : poems
Ondaatje, Michael, 1943-
Personal Author:
First U.S. edition.
Publication Information:
New York : A.A. Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 1999.

Physical Description:
78 pages ; 22 cm
Geographic Term:

Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
PR9199.3.O5 H36 1998 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



Handwriting is Michael Ondaatje's first new book of poetry since The Cinnamon Peeler. It 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.

Author Notes

Michael Ondaatje was born in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) on September 12, 1943. He moved to Canada in 1962 and became a Canadian citizen. He received a B.A. from the University of Toronto and a M.A. from Queen's University, Kingston, and taught English at York University. He has written several volumes of poetry, novels, and other works including There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do, The Dainty Monsters, Rat Jelly, Coming through Slaughter, Running in the Family, In the Skin of a Lion, Anil's Ghost, and The Cat's Table.

Ondaatje has won numerous awards including the Canadian Governor General's Award in 1971 for The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and the Booker Prize in Fiction for The English Patient, which was adapted into a film in 1996.

(Bowker Author Biography) Michael Ondaatje was born in Sri Lanka. He now lives in Toronto.

(Publisher Provided)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Ondaatje's poetic sensibility is everywhere present in the novel that made him famous, The English Patient (1992), just as his feel for the enchantment of stories infuses his newest poems. He notes that these elegant and somber new works were written in Sri Lanka and Canada, but it is the former that is most evident in setting and tone, although his spare and meticulously balanced syntax owes much to the poetry of ancient China. As the title suggests, the emergence of the art of writing piques Ondaatje's interest, and he sees it everywhere: "Handwriting occurred in waves, / on leaves, the scripts of smoke." War haunts his imagination, too, and in a pair of stunning poems, "Buried" and "Buried 2," he contrasts the serenity of the Buddha with the turmoil and devastation of violence as he envisions the earth gathering in monks and warriors. Desire itself, Ondaatje perceives, is full of darkness and danger, but we are attuned to the beauty of shadows, the coolness and warmth of jade, and in that we are blessed. --Donna Seaman

Publisher's Weekly Review

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 langourÄa 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 LankaÄ"there were goon squads from all sides"Äcan 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. (Mar.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Ondaatje is undoubtedly best known for his novel, The English Patient, on which the award-winning film was based. Good as that novel was, it is still a pity that more people havent read his poetry, which is deeply evocative and suffusedbut never overburdenedwith sensuous imagery. Here he revisits his Sri Lankan heritage, re-creating the past in sparkling takes: Once we buried our libraries/ under the great medicinal trees/ which the invaders burned; And in our Book of Victories/ wherever you saw a parasol/ on the battlefield you could/ identify the king within its shadow. Buddhas abound, as do Cormorant Girls, saffron, rice, cattle bells, and, of course, water. A poem picks up one image, then starts the next few lines with another, so that images glance off the page, refusing to settle down into straightforward storytelling. The result is a sort of mosaic of feeling and light that is affecting reading. For all poetry collections.Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



In the dry lands every few miles, moving north, another roadside Ganesh Straw figures on bamboo scaffolds to advertise a family of stilt-walkers Men twenty feet high walking over fields crossing the thin road with their minimal arms and "lying legs" A dance of tall men with the movement of prehistoric birds in practice before they alight So men become gods in the small village of Ilukwewa Ganesh in pink,                          in yellow, in elephant darkness His simplest shrine a drawing of him lime chalk on a grey slate All this glory preparing us for Anuradhapura its night faith A city with the lap and spell of a river Families below trees around the heart of a fire tributaries from the small villages of the dry zone Circling the dagoba in a clockwise hum and chant, bowls of lit coal above their heads whispering bare feet Our flutter and drift in the tow of this river Excerpted from Handwriting by Michael Ondaatje All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.