Posts filed under ‘Michael Ondaatje’

Late Movies with Skyler

Michael Ondaatje


All week since he’s been home
he has watched late movies alone
terrible one star films and then staggering
through the dark house to his bed
waking at noon to work on the broken car
he has come home to fix.

21 years old and restless
back from logging on Vancouver Island
with men who get rid of crabs with Raid
2 minutes bending over in agony
and then into the showers!

Last night I joined him for The Prisoner of Zenda
a film I saw three times in my youth
and which no doubt influenced me morally.
Hot coffee bananas and cheese
we are ready at 11.30 for adventure.

At each commercial Sky
breaks into midnight guitar practice
head down playing loud and intensely
till the movie comes on and the music suddenly stops.
Skyler’s favourite hours when he’s usually alone
cooking huge meals of anything in the frying pan
thumbing through Advanced Guitar like a bible.
We talk during the film
and break into privacy during commercials
or get more coffee or push
the screen door open and urinate under the trees.

Laughing at the dilemmas of 1920 heroes
suggestive lines, cutaways to court officials
who raise their eyebrows at least 4 inches
when the lovers kiss…
only the anarchy of the evil Rupert of Hentzau
is appreciated.
And still somehow
by 1.30 we are moved
as Stewart Granger girl-less and countryless
rides into the sunset with his morals and his horse.
The perfect world is over. Banana peels
orange peels ashtrays guitar books.
2 a.m. We stagger through
into the slow black rooms of the house.

I lie in bed fully awake.The darkness
breathes to the pace of a dog’s snoring.
The film is replayed to sounds
of an intricate blues guitar.
Skyler is Rupert then the hero.
He will leave in a couple of days
for Montreal or the Maritimes.
In the movies of my childhood the heroes
after skilled swordplay and moral victories
leave with absolutely nothing
to do for the rest of their lives.

I love how this poem evokes the charm of old movies, confounding our nostalgia for the films of our childhood with our nostalgia for that childhood itself, making the “perfect world” of the movie a metaphor for the deeper escapism of memory, in which everything is simpler, more innocent [1]; a world at once archaic and familiar, otherworldly yet achingly real.

But what makes this poem particularly special to me is the way it conjures up the intimate experience of watching a late night film on television – so different from the experience of watching a film at the theater. The mythology of cinema is always (or mostly) about the big screen, yet how many films have I seen staying up late into the night, either alone or with company, patiently finding something to do in the commercial breaks, one eye on the TV for when the film comes back, feeling the midnight pangs of hunger steal over me, leaving me with a craving for popcorn and chocolate? It’s an experience that Ondaatje’s poem does justice to, capturing the feel of cinema not as high art or grand spectacle but as an integral, almost ordinary part of our homes and our lives.

[1] Idealism at the heart of what is essentially deceit, being, of course, the main theme of The Prisoner of Zenda, perhaps explaining its popularity among film makers. IMDB lists nine films with the title The Prisoner of Zenda, including an animated feature, a spoof starring Peter Sellers, a 1937 version starring Ronald Colman, Douglas Fairbanks and David Niven, and the version Ondaatje is talking about (don’t miss the trailer).

July 16, 2007 at 11:30 am 2 comments


Michael Ondaatje


Griffin calls to come and kiss him goodnight
I yell ok. Finish something I’m doing,
then something else, walk slowly round
the corner to my son’s room.
He is standing arms outstretched
waiting for a bearhug. Grinning.

Why do I give my emotion an animal’s name,
give it that dark squeeze of death?
This is the hug which collects
all his small bones and his warm neck against me.
The thin tough body under the pyjamas
locks to me like a magnet of blood.

How long was he standing there
like that, before I came?

Another Ondaatje – how could I leave this one out?!

I came across this poem while looking for something nice to send (in an email message) to a friend who was overworked and tired (at the other end of the world). Just the idea of a hug that would collect all of one’s bones and put their warm neck against you is heartwarming.

To a Sad Daughter – in which he captures so many nuances and revels in the details and his love for his daughter and Bearhug – just this fleeting moment and surge of love. Both wonderful poems.

Some good links on the minstrels.


August 18, 2006 at 11:03 pm 23 comments

Buried 2. Part iv

Michael Ondaatje


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
from love
back into the air

naked with guile
and praise.

Our works and days.

We knew how monsoons
(south-west, north-east)
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 [1], 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.


August 17, 2006 at 11:02 pm 1 comment

To a Sad Daughter

Michael Ondaatje


All night long the hockey pictures
gaze down at you
sleeping in your tracksuit.
Belligerent goalies are your ideal.
Threats of being traded
cuts and wounds
–all this pleases you.
O my god! you say at breakfast
reading the sports page over the Alpen
as another player breaks his ankle
or assaults the coach.

When I thought of daughters
I wasn't expecting this
but I like this more.
I like all your faults
even your purple moods
when you retreat from everyone
to sit in bed under a quilt.
And when I say 'like'
I mean of course 'love'
but that embarrasses you.
You who feel superior to black and white movies
(coaxed for hours to see Casablanca)
though you were moved
by Creature from the Black Lagoon.

One day I'll come swimming
beside your ship or someone will
and if you hear the siren
listen to it. For if you close your ears
only nothing happens. You will never change.

I don't care if you risk
your life to angry goalies
creatures with webbed feet.
You can enter their caves and castles
their glass laboratories. Just
don't be fooled by anyone but yourself.

This is the first lecture I've given you.
You're 'sweet sixteen' you said.
I'd rather be your closest friend
than your father. I'm not good at advice
you know that, but ride
the ceremonies
until they grow dark.

Sometimes you are so busy
discovering your friends
I ache with loss
–but that is greed.
And sometimes I've gone
into my purple world
and lost you.

One afternoon I stepped
into your room. You were sitting
at the desk where I now write this.
Forsythia outside the window
and sun spilled over you
like a thick yellow miracle
as if another planet
was coaxing you out of the house
–all those possible worlds!–
and you, meanwhile, busy with mathematics.

I cannot look at forsythia now
without loss, or joy for you.
You step delicately
into the wild world
and your real prize will be
the frantic search.
Want everything. If you break
break going out not in.
How you live your life I don't care
but I'll sell my arms for you,
hold your secrets forever.

If I speak of death
which you fear now, greatly,
it is without answers.
except that each
one we know is
in our blood.
Don't recall graves.
Memory is permanent.
Remember the afternoon's
yellow suburban annunciation.
Your goalie
in his frightening mask
dreams perhaps
of gentleness.

Okay, okay, so I'm getting sentimental in my old age. But I really like this poem. Poems to Daughters are an interesting micro-genre in themselves. There's Yeats, of course. And this gritty Carver version:

It's too late now to put a curse on you – wish you
plain, say, as Yeats did his daughter. And when
we met her in Sligo, selling her paintings, it'd worked –
she was the plainest, oldest woman in Ireland.
But she was safe.
For the longest time, his reasoning
escaped me. Anyway, it's too late for you,
as I said. You're grownup now, and lovely.
You're a beautiful drunk, daughter.
But you're a drunk. I can't say you're breaking
my heart. I don't have a heart when it comes
to this booze thing. Sad, yes, Christ alone knows.
Your old man, the one they call Shiloh, is back
in town, and the drink has started to flow again.
You've been drunk for three days, you tell me,
when you know goddamn well drinking is like poison
to our family. Didn't your mother and I set you
example enough? Two people
who loved each other knocking each other around,
knocking back the love we felt, glass by emptly glass,
curses and blows and betrayals?
You must be crazy! Wasn't all that enough for you?
You want to die? Maybe that's it. Maybe
I think I know you, and I don't.
I'm not kidding, kiddo. Who are you kidding?
Daughter, you can't drink.
The last few times I saw you, you were out of it.
A cast on your collarbone, or else
a splint on your finger, dark glasses to hide
your beautiful bruised eyes. A lip
that a man should kiss instead of split.
Oh, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus Christ!
You've got to take hold now.
Do you hear me? Wake up! You've got to knock it off
and get straight. Clear up your act. I'm asking you.
Okay, telling you. Sure, our family was made
to squander, not collect. But turn this around now.
You simply must – that's all!
Daughter, you can't drink.
It will kill you. Like it did your mother, and me.
Like it did.

– Raymond Carver 'To My Daughter'

And I suppose if you really wanted to, you could include those glorious Eliot lines in Marina. (O my daughter!). But the Ondaatje remains my favourite, blending as it does such a wealth of real feeling – love, humour, warmth, sadness, defeat. What I love about Ondaatje's poetry is the way ever so often such a beautiful little gem of a line will peek through ("ride / the ceremonies / until they grow dark"; "I'll sell my arms for you / Hold your secrets forever") and that talent is on full display here.

For more commentary on the poem, see Minstrels.

March 23, 2006 at 11:56 pm 10 comments