Buried 2. Part iv
What we lost.
The interior love poem
the deeper levels of the self
landscapes of daily life
dates when the abandonment
of certain principles occured.
The rule of courtesy – how to enter
a temple or forest, how to touch
a master’s feet before lesson or performance.
The art of the drum. The art of eye-painting.
How to cut an arrow. Gestures between lovers.
The pattern of her teeth marks on his skin
drawn by a monk from memory.
The limits of betrayal. The five ways
a lover could mock an ex-lover.
Nine finger and eye gestures
to signal key emotions.
The small boats of solitude.
Lyrics that rose
back into the air
naked with guile
Our works and days.
We knew how monsoons
would govern behaviour
and when to discover
the knowledge of the dead
hidden in clouds,
in rivers, in unbroken rock.
All this we burned or traded for power and wealth
from the eight compass points of vengeance
from the two levels of envy
I’ve never quite managed to make up my mind whether I like Ondaatje more for his prose or for his poetry. Both are stunning in their own right – and the choice, in the end, is probably irrelevant, except that it makes me hesitate in describing Ondaatje as primarily a prose writer, even though I suspect that for most people he’s the guy who wrote The English Patient.
Today’s poem will find resonance, I suspect with anyone who’s ever sat through a conversation about the loss of the magical past, about the incredible wealth of knowledge that once existed in our lands and was lost to the onslaught of Western Civilisation, about the wisdom of the ancients, and their exquisite craftsmanship.
This poem is lovely, because it captures so perfectly the sense of regret mixed with scepticism that most of us bring to these conversations. It is certainly true that there is much that has been lost, but even as bemoan it’s loss we are usually clear-sighted enough to recognise that this nostalgia of ours is also an exercise in mythmaking , that golden as the past was, it almost certainly wasn’t as golden as all that. This is an incredible poem because at one level it satirises that sense of nostalgia, but at another level it renders it more intimate. Ondaatje converts a lament for lost civilisations into a litany of a smaller, more personal loss – and in doing so he renders that loss more emotionally accessible.