Fragmentation, Memory and the Loss of Self:
Michael Ondaatje’s book of poetry Handwriting
Cari Lynn Vaughn, 2000
To do Michael Ondaatje justice when writing about him, it appears as if one must use poetry to describe his poetry. Many of the reviews of Handwriting, which was published in 1998, are full of metaphors and poetic language themselves. Carmen Ellison claims that, “Michael Ondaatje’s writing has always been able to alter my relationship with words, and his new book Handwriting is no exception.” Jonathan Shipley wrote, “Ondaatje writes like a weaver. Words are his threads, the finished product his richly detailed tapestry of intensity.” By weaving in elements from many different places, times and styles, he effectively creates a work of art that is unique and timeless. Despite many efforts made by critics to label his style, no one has been able to peg him exactly. He has managed this because he fuses together many different things. Ondaatje effectively uses elements of eastern religion, biology, geography and biography in his poetry, specifically in Handwriting, to explore the themes of fragmentation, memory and the self.
Ondaatje’s books of poetry previous to his latest book Handwriting show a definite development in his style. His poems are fragmented and chaotic. The meanings aren’t very clear very often, but that does not make them any less enjoyable to read. The lack of clarity is due to Ondaatje’s shift in perspective. He is more of a maker of imaginative things, then a mirror to reality. Ondaatje, more than anything, is a poet of contradictions. His poetry constantly questions the meaning of tradition and the role it plays in our lives. Take the lines from his poem in Secular Love, “For it is the hour of magic, which no matter what sadness, leaves him grinning” (Secular Love 14). Despite his character’s sadness, the character is still grinning. These paradoxical moments puzzles and fascinates Ondaatje. The rest of the poem describes a day in the life of this man, a man who happened to have spent most of the day drunk. Ondaatje effectively captures the kind drifting thoughts and experiences that the drunken man with his fragmented sequences of images.
Ondaatje’s style has remained much the same over the years, but his themes have changed since trips back to Sri Lanka between 1993 and 1998. Elements of colonialism and Eastern Religion, which he grew, have always contemporary influence to create his unique voice, but it is only recently they have become the focus of his work. Though this most recent book is obviously influenced by his unusual childhood in Sri Lanka, the earlier work shows more of a contemporary influence. Growing up in a colonized country it seems only natural that he should be at home with postmodernism, which his work has often been labeled. His fascination with borders between literature and reality and between postmodern and poststructural makes it easy to put him in the postmodern box. With poem titles like, “The Space in Which We Have Dissolved—Does it Taste of Us?” (Secular Love 50), it is hard not to quickly pigeonhole him. It would be wrong to do so though because he poetry explores a lot of other issues as well.
Ondaatje’s fascination with mental illness and suicide shows that he can be just as at home with so-called confessional poetry as well. This is most evident in his long poem/novel The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and his novel Coming Through The Slaughter. It also shows up in more of his earlier works of poetry. He is admittedly drawn to self-destructive poets like John Berryman, Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath, but he has not followed the examples they set with their tragic lives. Ondaatje learned the emotionally charged poetry from them, but shifted away from the romantic self-sacrifice they are know for. This is more evident in his earlier poems, which are more focused on everyday occurrences, observations and problems.
You stand still for three days
For a piece of wisdom
And everything falls into the right place
Or wrong place
Don’t know whether
Seraph or bitch
Flutters at your heart
And look through windows
For cue cards
Blazing in the sky
This last year I was sure
I was going to die (Secular Love 23)
The image of someone so still, waiting for a cue of some sort to answer to an unasked question is powerful. While leaving a definite feeling with the reader, the poem leaves open the details for the reader to put the story together. The fragmented images do not reveal what the relationship is between the two people mentioned. What is the conflict? Are they a couple going through a tumultuous time? Is it an illness or is it a martial problem? The reader doesn’t know and they can only venture a guess. The poem requires the read the poem repeatedly in order to uncover the truth and make the connection between the words. Ondaatje doesn’t want to give away too much too soon. He wants the readers to thing—to create their own meaning. He uses these deliberate fragments, like images that are abruptly lost or unfinished sentences, in order to do this.
The fragmentation that is in Ondaatje’s poetry is also a refection of the fragmentation that he sees around him and that he feels. The self is connected to many things, but the self becomes fragmented, pulled in a million different directions by education, relationships, culture and many other things. War and colonization are the most dramatic of these reasons because they affect the most people at a time. Although colonization isn’t as violent as war perhaps, it can be just as influential. It slowly replaces the old culture, the old self.
Ondaatje describes the long history of colonization in Sri Lanka in his poem “The Distant Shout.” He talks about warriors and monks coming down to Sri Lanka as far back as the Middle Ages, changing the culture that was originally there. In the time before colonization, “Handwriting occurred on waves, on leaves, the scripts of smoke, a sign on a bridge along the Mahaweli River” (Handwriting 6). Even the language and communication has been changed by the arrival of other cultures to the area. It takes some time for the natives to accept the language brought by the invaders and settlers. It takes time for the self to change, but the self’s roots, its identity, is never completely gone. Some of the old culture remains, so there is a great deal of confusion. Everything down to daily activity becomes mixed with another culture and this creates a new way fo life.
Colonization may slowly wash away the old culture and the old self, but war tears apart the self more violently and traumatically than anything else. In times of war everything is often destroyed—even things that were considered sacred. During war Buddha is not sacred and neither is human life. Ondaatje explores this in his poem, “Buried,” which describes monks from a temple burring the statues of Buddha from their temple. He writes, “To be buried in times of war, in harsh weather, in the monsoon, of knives and stakes” (Handwriting 7). This burial of the Buddha statues is about more than just trying to keep these statues from being destroyed by the enemy. The statues are no just bronze figures; they are symbols for the very culture that is being threatened. In the violent monsoons of the weather and war, they have been buried for protection. The monks, who are burying them, are, “giving up the sacred, among themselves, carrying the faith of a temple, during a political crisis” (Handwriting 7). Ondaatje goes on to vividly show how these monks have successfully kept the Buddha hidden away from the enemy as the massacre continues above the ground. The monks have kept fragments of their culture and themselves, despite the horrible destruction around them.
Ondaatje explores the effects of war and colonization in these poems with more metaphors and imagery than sound or form. Images in Handwriting leave memorable impression on the reader like patterns of teeth marks drawn on the skin my a monk from memory, a family of stilt walkers crossing a field of leaves, and the unburial of the bronze Buddha statues. Take the continuing image of Buddha for example:
750A.D. state of Samahadi Buddha
was carefully hidden, escaping war
the treasure hunters, fifty year feuds
He was discovered by monks in 1968
Sitting up right
Buried in Anuradapura earth
Eyes half closed, hands
In the gesture of meditation
Pulled from the earth with ropes
Into the surrounding world.
Pulled into the heat wave, insect noise
Bathers splashing in tanks.
Bronze became bronze
Colour became colour
Ondaatje uses no rhyme scheme and no identifying sound patterns in the poem above. His poems often read like prose, except for the lines being broken up into verses, and his prose often reads like poetry, except in novel form. He flows seamlessly from one form to another. Ondaatje blends these two different types of writing in order to create a new hybrid. He shows us that poetry extends beyond form and into something much more abstract. Poetry, to Ondaatje, is a matter of perspective. Poetry is more about see the world through metaphors then it is about expressing metaphors through a certain style or form.
Even though the reader feels as if he or she are feeling there in the jungle with him, witnessing the discovery, the poem is really about much more. Instead of hitting the reader over the head with meaning, he drops hints and lets the reader piece it together. His poetry can be appreciated for its simplicity in style, but there is no lack of meaning. Words may be few, but they are carefully chosen and placed in the poem to create just the right effect. His poem, “The First Rule of Sinhalese Architecture,” demonstrates this beautifully.
Never build three doors
In a straight line
A devil might rush
Deep into your house
Into your life
The method is Zen-like and as Shikha Malaviya says, “The Zen like quality of his words allows them to roll and linger in our minds, down to the last syllable.” In the Zen tradition, Ondaatje manages to convey a very powerful message in very few words.
Many of the images and themes in Handwriting also appear in his novel Anil’s Ghost. The image of the Buddha, which appears in both books, is particularly strong because its represents the native culture of Sri Lanka. The imposing presence of war that runs throughout his poetry also runs throughout his prose. In an interview, Ondaatje explained how though they complimented each other; the difference was mostly in perspective. “The poetry, by its nature, is more enigmatic and aphoristic. The novel is much more detailed, tactile, of the present, as opposed to the past, forensic in a sense. But it’s a different image in Handwriting. One of the metaphors was the burial and stealing of Buddhist statues, how they get stolen, buried, unearthed and resold. Like human life, a metaphor for human life. The poems are more archeological in that way, and an archeological sense perspective of war.”
Ondaatje’s archeological perspective on war, rather than a political or personal perspective, keeps his exploration of the topic fresh and interesting. He continues to use the image of Buddha in a sequence where the Buddha statues are stolen from the spot where it has been buried for the second time. “Four men steal the bronze, Buddha at Vehergala, and disappear from their families” (Handwriting 15). The theft of the statue represents the theft of Sri Lanka’s religion and cultural identity. The poem goes on to describe how the thieves carry the Buddha under the false pretenses of protection. The thieves have their own agenda though, and are contributing to the demise of their culture. “He climbs, behind the bronze, slides his arm around, with the knife, and removes the eyes” (Handwriting 15). The thief in the poem, ironically enough, is the one who is blind, not the Buddha. This sort of confusion and blindness makes it very unclear who is the enemy in the war, or what they are fighting for, and it really does not matter in the end. War is the real enemy.
War, to Ondaatje, is meaningless. It breaks apart culture, his sense of self, which is full of meaning. Everything is sacred to the people who lived there, and Ondaatje shows this in his poem “The Medieval Cost.” He gains with the image of a village of stone cutters and a village of soothsayers, which are very beautiful and vivid images, but buried with in the layers of description is a sense of sacredness. The line, “Every stone-cutter has his secret mark, angle of his chisel” (Handwriting 20) demonstrates how the Sinhalese took pride in the details. Nothing in life was unappreciated or useless. He end the poem by talking about how the soothsayers read fortunes in animal bones and how, “This wisdom extends no more than thirty miles” (Handwriting 20). He shows in that line how local customs, rituals and wisdom are kept sacred by not sharing them. By remaining secret, they remained a mysterious and special.
Ondaatje keeps this sense of sacredness of his culture and of himself in his open-ended style. He simply gives you this quick picture, almost a snapshot, and does not elaborate. “I see the poem or novel ending with an open door,” Ondaatje said in an interview. “The characters are emotionally and physically isolated from the war and the politics surrounding them, but they are probably the most affected by it.” There is a public truth to the war and a private truth. There are various truths, just as there are various memories of the same event.
Remember is always a verb in Ondaatje’s poetry. It isn’t something that just happened in the past, it is something that is constantly happening. The memory is something that shapes a person, but is not to be completely trusted. A memory may not always be the truth, and truth may not always be remembered. This particular idea is fully explored in his remarkable memoir Running In The Family, but it also plays a large part in his poetry. As Ondaatje says in his first poem in Handwriting, “We begin with myths and later include actual events.” Memory is only what a person perceives to be happening, and their perception is unmistakably affected by past experiences. This is not to say people are completely isolated from one another. One some level, we all experience the same emotions. The universal feeling that Ondaatje chooses to explore in this case, is loss.
His sense of loss and grief for his past is something that he experiences personally, but it is a sense of loss that anyone who has been through a war or colonization might feel. Take these lings from this poem for example: “What we lost, the interior love poem, the deeper levels of the self, landscapes of daily life” (Handwriting 24). Ondaatje relates his personal loss with the cultural loss in Sri Lanka. There is a physical “I” in this poem, like in many of Ondaatje’s poems, which is connected with the collective psychic “one.” This shows up again in another poem, where he writes, “The last Sinhala word I lost was vatura, the word for water” (Handwriting 50). He didn’t just lose the word; he lost a word that embodied his cultural identity. He lost his sense of self, because the sense of self and its cultural identity are very much connected.
Ondaatje delves deeper into this lost identity and lost self in the middle section of Handwriting, entitled “Nine Sentiments.” He paints a picture of a lush and beautiful world, a paradise. A place where, “All day desire, enters the hearts of men” (Handwriting 33). He uses the images of lovers, of the king’s elephants crossing the river to war, of a woman walking across a bridge and of an old book of poisons. These images are all little slices of the life that was once thriving in Sri Lanka. In sentiment four, Ondaatje pauses to realize that all these memories are just memories. “I hold only your shadow, since those days, I drove, your nature away” (Handwriting 41). Colonization and war may have changed his culture, but he too is changed. When he left his native country he pushed those memories away, and now he is trying to pull them back to him. He is now embracing his childhood and his culture in order to find a way to define himself.
This need to understand himself returns Ondaatje to the question in part three: What is left without a culture to shape and mold the self? What is left to define the self if everything has been changed or destroyed? When the cultural identity is taken away, there is an emptiness that is left, and Ondaatje mourns this emptiness as he would morn the passing of a family member. It is part of himself that has died and he must learn to live without it.
The mourning of his culture’s losses and his own personal losses in “The Story” continued the idea of him leaving home. He describes the departure from his family bonds as, “leaving what was lost and needed, so the child’s face is a lake, of fast moving clouds and emotions” (Handwriting 60). Ondaatje is this lost child, filled with shifting emotions and introspective wandering. He is this child, now all grown up, returning home for, “A last chance for the clear history of the self, All our mothers and grandparents are here, our dismantled childhoods, in the building of the past” (Handwriting 60). He is like many people who grew up, left and came back home. Ondaatje imagines that his experience is a universal one.
Ondaatje then uses the ruins of a temple in his poem “Step” to represent the ruin of his life, and everyone’s lives in Sri Lanka. He paints a picture of what the temple looked like and what went on at this ancient temple. Funerals, worship, love, and life in general flowed through the temple until it was destroyed. Everything passes over this one particular step that he focuses on, “And though it is no longer there, the pillars once let you step, to a higher room, where there was worship, lighter than air” (Handwriting 71). There once was a sense of something sacred in the temple and with it, a sense of identity and selfhood. Now that the old identity has been destroyed, Ondaatje finds that he must create a new identity with the fragments of the old one in order to move on.
This new identity begins to form in his last poem of the book Handwriting entitled “Last Ink.” Ondaatje comes to an eventually acceptance of the loss that has filled the previous pages. He describes the contradictions of beauty and death and then compares it to, “the way someone in your life will talk out of love and grief, then leave your company laughing” (Handwriting 60). Things change and in order to survive, one must change with them. He goes on to talk about the different stories that have been written down on something like an ancient leaf or a crowded fifth century seal. These stories continue on, in some form, even if what they were originally written on has been destroyed. The passion of life will find a way to continue, rather it is told or not. Ondaatje ends the poem and the book by saying, “The moment in the heart, where I roam restless, searching, for the thin border the fence, to break through or leap.” He is searching for that new sense of self and is ready to leap into that new life at last.
Ondaatje in a poet full of, “introspective wandering” (Handwriting 60), who is constantly pushing the boundaries of how we perceive literature, and in essence, life. He is a poet-philosopher who uses words to explore the issues and interior landscapes of the human heart. Though not always the easiest to understand or unravel, his work is important to the poetry world, and to anyone who appreciates the beauty in life. In the end, Handwriting reason more like a postmodern novel than a traditional collection of poetry, and that is fine with Ondaatje. Poetry and prose are merely extensions of one another. Each is another version of the truth, of memory and each expresses the endless journey that the self goes through.