For half the day blackouts stroke this house into stillness so there is no longer a whirring fan or the hum of light. You hear sounds of a pencil being felt for in a drawer in the dark and then see its thick shadow in candlelight, writing the remaining words. Paragraphs reduced to one word. A punctuation mark. Then another word, complete as a thought. The way someone’s name holds terraces of character, contains all of our adventures together. I walk the corridors which might perhaps, I’m not sure, be cooler than the rest of the house. Heat at noon. Heat in the darkness of night.
This is the first paragraph of the only prose poem Death at Kataragama in the bundle Handwriting, the recent collection of poems by Michael Ondaatje. I love Ondaatje’s work. For me, The English Patient remains a masterpiece and it is part of my personal canon.
This prose poem is an exception because most poems mainly consist of much white around short clusters of one or two sentences. In the quotation he gives the recipe itself: “Paragraphs reduced to one word. A punctuation mark. Then another word, complete as a thought.”
This perfectly describes his way of writing. Ondaatje is always a poet, even when he writes novels. Even when he puts loose thoughts on paper.
Often the short fragments are real gems:
That great writer, dying, called out
for the fictional doctor in his novels.
Sometimes though, I find them too fragmented. As if it were ideas jotted down in a notebook. Still, the collection forms a whole. It is as if the poet lowers himself into a bath of warm memories, images, words, and the sensuality of Sri Lanka. I often missed the connotations, but a lot can be guessed. It is a bundle to return to from time to time, like when you cannot resist opening the box of chocolates.