Home » Twenty years after his last poetry book, Michael Ondaatje returns to the form — sort of. Why he couldn't stay away

Twenty years after his last poetry book, Michael Ondaatje returns to the form — sort of. Why he couldn't stay away


It's always an event when Michael Ondaatje comes out with a new book. The Canadian/Sri Lankan writer is, after all, incredibly popular and critically acclaimed at the same time — which of us hasn’t read his “In the Skin of a Lion” (1987) or “The English Patient” (1992) and been enraptured by his writing?

I still clearly remember the first time I read him: it was  “Coming Through Slaughter” (1976), the fictionalized life of New Orleans jazz musician Buddy Bolden and Ondaatje’s first book of long-form prose. I remember how the words and form evoked jazz, saying something about the act of creating. There was a photo in the edition I read in which Bolden's face was maddeningly obfuscated — that fading picture reinforcing ideas about the vagaries of life and art and what remains.

Ondaatje’s iconic status both in Canada and in Sri Lanka shows itself in some delightful ways. He has had many honours, of course: “The English Patient” won the 1992 Man Booker Prize and then, in 2018, was named the Golden Man Booker, the best book of all the prestigious prize’s winners; it was also made into an award-winning movie. He has won the Giller Prize, Canada’s Governor General’s Award, among many others — and then there are the more peculiar ones such as, in 2016, a new species of spider discovered in Sri Lanka, Brignolia ondaatjei, being named after him. The CBC reported at the time that it was a goblin spider, “a reddish-brown colour around 2 mm in length.”

“That was very exciting. That’s my main achievement, I think, in my life so far," joked Ondaatje over the phone. “I especially liked the bit where the scientists said … their favourite novel was ‘Anil’s Ghost.’ It was a lovely little pat on the back.”

And so the announcement that a new volume of Ondaatje poetry was imminent has caused great excitement, particularly since it’s been almost 20 years since his last one, 2006’s “The Story.” He has published since then, of course: the 2018 novel “Warlight,” a wonderful historical novel with a Dickensian feel, is his most recent.

So what accounts for the delay? 

“Well, I’m not quite sure,” said the writer. He’s busy, just beginning to do publicity in Canada for this book, “A Year of Last Things,” and in the U.S. in April.

Ondaatje talked about the long unfolding of his work, a pattern emerging in how he writes. His first few books were poetry and then “I gradually trespassed into prose with ‘Coming Through Slaughter,’ which some people still don’t feel is (fully) a novel.” He began writing between the two forms at various times, feeling that he had written the best prose that he could and then that he couldn’t write poems any better than he’d already written. And so the delay, it seems was, in ways a crisis of form.

The way a reader is meant to approach “A Year of Last Things” seems clear from the cover, with the word {poems} under the title. Yet, Ondaatje said, when he wrote it he simply knew that he wanted to write in a new voice. “I did not know it was going to have prose in it; I did not know it was going to be about my life as a teenager or as a kid.”

The voice — the form — that emerged was novel to the book. It became a “gathering of a life and a form of a life that was not chronological.” He had the idea of writing a story about a boy in Sri Lanka for a long time, but it wasn’t one he thought he was going to write.

That story now exists as “Winchester House,” and is written as prose. As we talked, Ondaatje recalled his boyhood friend Skanda and his other classmates; they went to the same boarding school and had shared memories. “It was good to be in the company of them when I wrote it, because it wasn’t just about myself; it was about a kind of semi-demonic school.” 

It’s the only piece that has a photo with it: of boys in front of a school, on a playing field. “(I)n the background is a one-level building, looking as anonymous as an old cafeteria,” Ondaatje writes. “On the far-left of the building was the Housemaster’s bedroom where you were sent to be caned. The rest of the long narrow building was a dormitory, where two rows of twenty beds were separated by a narrow aisle that led ominously to the Housemaster’s door.” 

As with the Bolden photo, not everything is as it seems. “It was a silenced past … with its memory of fear and trauma …” The story ends with a gut-punch when his old friend meets the Housemaster again. I won’t spoil it, except to note that Ondaatje reflected, “It’s strange, because we have to be forgiving, in a way.”

Throughout the book he writes about other parts of his life: romances, travels, relationships. There's an intimacy that reveals itself — he references his wife, his long friendship with Canadian poet Stan Dragland, even his cat, Jack. Intimacy is also invited by referencing “we” or the second person “you.” 

“Books don’t just represent yourself,” said Ondaatje. “You think at first you’re writing a poem of affection and the reader is also a participant. So the ‘you’ in a poem is someone who is beside you. And I think that’s what tends to happen even in poems by (Argentine poet Jorge Luis) Borges, they’re telling a story, but the important thing is the reader becomes part of the story and adds to that story.” 

The poems go back and forth in time, too, to other writers and their works, to movies, to friends. That resonance and reflection gives richness to this volume. It’s a reminder that art is a living thing — that it doesn’t stand still or become static, but resonates as part of a canon.

Ondaatje said he wasn’t reading much fiction over the previous three or four years but was instead discovering poets from Europe and elsewhere. “Raymond Carver, who I knew as a short-story writer, but then I discovered these wonderful poems by him.” Or Borges who “when he writes uses every form he can to discover himself.”

He calls them “amphibious writers,” because “they swim, they walk,” metaphorically of course, possessing many talents as poets, musicians, artists. Canada has a lot of them — George Bowering, Steven Heighton, Margaret Atwood — who write in various forms.

He also mentions Heighton in his acknowledgments, as a “river poet,” and a collection he wrote with Eric Folsom in which they were “talking about the sound of waterfalls and when they went silent, what does that mean.” It's a term that echoes in the Canadian canon again, in Margaret Laurence’s “The Diviners,” part of her Manawaka series, and the river that flows both ways. 

The first poem in Ondaatje's volume, “Lock,” begins: “Reading the lines he loves/he slips them into a pocket/wishes to die with his clothes/full of torn-free stanzas/and the telephone numbers/of his children in far cities.”

In those lines and in saving bits of paper, the important ones, are echoes of an interview he did with the Guardian in 2018. The reporter recounted that Ondaatje “unfolds from his wallet a Robert Frost quotation and reads it out in self-affirmation: ‘What we do when we write represents the last of our childhood. We may for that reason practise it somewhat irresponsibly.’”

When I reminded him, Ondaatje laughed. “That’s a great quote. I’ll have to remember that one, it’s quite wild — perhaps I’m in that childhood state now.”

“Lock” is written, it seems, with a wisdom garnered with age: “until we reach that horizon/and drop, or rise/like a canoe within a lock/to search the other half of the river,/where you might see your friends/as altered by this altitude as you.” As Ondaatje’s latest volume of poetry begins, so does it end: the final poem, “Talking in a River” features a lock being opened again and a canoe floating away. 

The bookending of those two poems wasn’t planned. “It’s really an accidental discovery of form, when you’re trying to shape the book. The poems were not written in the same order they appear.” Instead, he said, putting the poems in order was like creating collage — the way they’re placed has an effect, but also aids in discovery.

“You leap from when you’re young, to when you’re 30, to when you’re 60, and discovering a version of yourself in a way.”

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