Michael Ondaatje Poetry

All by Michael Ondaatje, 2001 Featured Poet

Tin Roof (excerpts)

Every place has its own wisdom. Come.
Time we talked about the sea,
the long waves
‘trapped around islands’


The cabin
its tin roof
a wind run radio
catches the noise of the world.
He focuses on the gecko
almost transparent body
how he feels now
everything passing through him like light.
In certain mirrors
he cannot see himself at all.
He is joyous and breaking down.
The tug over the cliff.
What protects him
is the warmth in the sleeve

that is all, really


Tell me
all you know
about bamboo

growing wild, green
growing up into soft arches
in the temple ground

the traditions

driven through hands
through the heart
during torture

and most of all


small bamboo pipe
not quite horizontal
that drips
every ten seconds
to a shallow bowl

I love this
being here
not a word
just the faint
fall of liquid
the boom of an iron buddhist bell
in the heart rapid
as ceremonial bamboo

Griffin of the Night

I’m holding my son in my arms
sweating after nightmares
small me
fingers in his mouth
his other fist clenched my hair
small me
sweating after nightmares.


Griffin calls me 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?

Sweet Like a Crow

For Hetti Corea, 8 years old
‘The Sinhalese are beyond a doubt one of the least musical
people in the world. It would be quite impossible to have
less sense of pitch, line or rhythm’ PAUL BOWELS

Your voice sounds like a scorpion being pushed
through a glass tube
like someone has just trod on a peacock
like wind howling in a coconut
like a rusty bible, like someone pulling barbed wire
across a stone courtyard, like a pig drowning,
a vattacka being fried
a bone shaking hands
a frog singing at Carnegie Hall.

Like a crow swimming in milk,
like a nose being hit by a mango
like the crowd at the Royal-Thomian match,
a womb full of twins, a pariah dog
with a magpie in its mouth
like the midnight jet from Casablanca
like Air Pakistan curry,
a typewriter on fire, like a hundred
pappadans being crunched, like someone
trying to light matches in a dark room,
the clicking sound of a reef when you put your head into the sea,
a dolphin reciting epic poetry to a sleepy audience,
the sound of a fan when someone throws brinjals at it,
like pineapples being sliced in the Pettah market
like betel juice hitting a butterfly in mid-air
like a whole village running naked onto the street
and tearing their sarongs, like an angry family
pushing a jeep out of the mud, like dirt on the needle,
like 8 sharks being carried on the back of a bicycle
like 3 old ladies locked in the lavatory
like the sound I hear when having an afternoon sleep
and someone walked through my room in ankle bracelets.

The Cinnamon Peeler

If I were a cinnamon peeler
I would ride your bed
and leave the yellow bark dust
on your pillow.

Your breasts and shoulders would reek
you could never walk through markets
without the profession of my fingers
floating over your. The blind would
stumble certain of whom they approached
though you might bathe
under rain gutters, monsoon.

Here on the upper thigh
at this smooth pasture
neighbour to your hair
or the crease
that cuts your back. This ankle.
You will be known among strangers
as the cinnamon peeler’s wife.

I could hardly glance at you
before marriage
never touch you
– your keen nosed mother, your rough brothers.
I buried my hands
in saffron, disguised them
over smoking tar,
helped the honey gatherers . . .

When we swam once
I touched you in water
and our bodies remained free,
you could hold me and be blind of smell.
You climbed the bank and said

this is how you touch other women
The grass cutter’s wife, the lime burner’s daughter.
And you searched your arms
For the missing perfume

and knew

what good is it
to be the lime burner’s daughter
left with no trace
as if not spoken to in the act of love
as if wounded without the pleasure of a scar.

You touched
your belly to my hands
in the dry air and said
I am the cinnamon
peeler’s wife. Smell me.


Night and its forces
step through the picket gate
from the blue bush
to the kitchen

Everywhere it moves
and we cannot sleep we cannot sleep
we damn the missionaries
their morals thin as stars
we find ourselves
within the black
circus of the fly
all night long
his sandpaper
tabasco leg

The dog sleepwalks
into the cupboard
into the garden and heart attacks
I’ve had a dog dream
wake up and cannot find
my long ears

Nicotine caffeine
Hungry bodies
Could put us to sleep
But nothing puts us to sleep

(Inner Tube)

On the warm July river
head back

upside down river
for a roof

slowly paddling
towards an estuary between trees

there’s a dog
learning to swim near me
friends on shore

my head
back to the eyebrow
I’m the prow
on an ancient vessel,
this afternoon
I’m going down to Peru
soul between my teeth

a blue heron
with its awkward
broken backed flap
upside down

one of us is wrong

in his blue grey thud
thinking he knows
the blue way
out of here

or me


It becomes apparent that I miss great occasions.
My birth was heralded by nothing
but the anniversary of Winston Churchill’s marriage.
No monuments bled, no instruments
agreed on a specific weather.
It was a seasonal insignificance.

I console myself with my mother’s eighth month.
While she sweated out her pregnancy in Ceylon
a servant ambling over the lawn
with a tray of iced drinks,
a few friends visiting her
to placated her shape, and I
drinking the life lines,
Wallace Stevens sat down in Connecticut
a glass of orange juice at his table
so hot he wore only shorts
and on the back of a letter
began to write ‘The Well Dressed Man with a Beard’.

That night while my mother slept
her significant belly cooled
by the bedroom fan
Stevens put words together
that grew to sentences
and shaved them clean and
shaped them, the page suddenly
becoming thought where nothing had been,
his head making his hand
move where he wanted
and he saw his hand was saying
the mind is never finished, no, never
and I in my mother’s stomach was growing
as were the flowers outside the Connecticut windows.

Late Movies With Skyler

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 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.

The Diverse Causes

for than all erbys and treys renewyth a man and woman,
and in lyke wyse lovers callyth to their mynde olde
jantylnes and olds servyse, and many kynde dedes that
was forgotyn by necylegence

Three clouds and a tree
reflect themselves on a toaster.
The kitchen window hangs scarred,
shattered by winter hunters.

We are in a cell of civilized magic.
Stravinsky roars at breakfast,
our milk is powdered.

Outside, a May god
moves his paws to alter wind
to scatter shadows of tree and cloud.
The minute birds walk confident
jostling the cold grass.
The world not yet of men.

We clean buckets of their sand
to fetch water in the morning,
reach for winter cobwebs,
sweep up moths who have forgotten to waken.
When the children sleep, angled
behind their bottles, you can hear mice prowl.

I turn a page
careful not to break the rhythms
of your sleeping head on my hip,
watch the moving under your eyelid
that turns like fire,
and we have love and the god outside
until ice starts to limp
in brown hidden waterfalls,
or my daughter burns the lake
by reflecting her red shoes in it.

Last Ink

In certain countries aromas pierce the heart and one dies
half waking in the night as an owl and a murderer’s cart go by.

the way someone in your life will talk out love and grief
then leave your company laughing.

In certain languages the calligraphy celebrates
where you met the plum blossom and moon by chance.

— the dusk light, the cloud pattern,
recorded always in your heart

and the rest of the world – chaos,
circling your winter boat.

Night of the Plum and Moon.

Years later you shared it
on a scroll or nudged
the ink onto stone
to hold the vista of a life.

A condensary of time in the mountains
— your rain-swollen gate, a summer
scarce with human meeting.
Just bells from another village.

The memory of a woman walking down stairs.


Life on an ancient leaf
or a crowded 5th-cnetury seal

this mirror-world of art
— lying on it as if a bed.

When you first saw her,
the night of moon and plum,
you could speak of this to no one.
You cut your desire
against a river stone.
You caught yourself
in a cicada-wing rubbing,
lightly inked.
The indelible darker self.

A seal, the Masters said,
must contain bowing and leaping,
“and that which hides in waters.”

Yellow, drunk with ink,
the scroll unrolls to the west
a river journey, each story
an owl in the dark, it’s child-howl
unreachable now
— that father and daughter,
that lover walking naked down blue stairs
each step jarring the humming from her mouth.

I want to die on your chest but not yet,
she wrote, sometime in the 13th century
of our love.

before the yellow age of paper

before her story become a song,
lost in imprecise reproductions

until caught in jade.

whose spectrum could hold the black greens
the chalk-blue of her eyes in daylight


Our altering love, our moonless faith.

Last ink in the pen.

My body on this hard bed.

The moment in the heart
where I roam restless, searching
for the thin border of the fence
to break through or leap.

Leaping and bowing.