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Poetry Canadian


by (author) Michael Ondaatje

Knopf Canada
Initial publish date
Apr 2000
Canadian, Places, Death
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Apr 2000
    List Price

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Handwriting is Michael Ondaatje's return to the place of his family, a remembrance, an honoring, and a lament of astonishing beauty. It is an irresistible work of poetic genius, and reaffirms Ondaatje's stature as one of the finest poets writing today.

He takes us through the sweep of history in the island of Sri Lanka, summoning up stories of war and love, of goon squads, kings and robbers, and of two millennia of culture, to create a tapestry of images, scents and gestures—the unburial of stone Buddhas, a family of stilt-walkers crossing a field, the pattern of teeth marks on skin drawn by a monk from memory—that reveal the longing for, and expose our anguish over, lost loves, homes, and lost ways of expression. He joins the poets of old who "wrote their stories on rock and leaf / to celebrate the work of the day,/ the shadow pleasures of the night." At the same time, his artistry as a poet, and the language of these poems, supersede all individual story-moments to give us a larger understanding of the human condition—he himself can be counted among those who "shared it / on a scroll or nudged / the ink onto stone / to hold the vista of a life."

About the author

Michael Ondaatje (born 12 September 1943) is a Sri Lankan-born Canadian novelist and poet of Colombo Chetty and Burgher origin. He is perhaps best known for his Booker Prize-winning novel, The English Patient, which was adapted into an Academy-Award-winning film.

He moved to England in 1954, and in 1962 moved to Canada where he has lived ever since. He was educated at the University of Toronto and Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, and began teaching at York University in Toronto in 1971. He published a volume of memoir, entitled Running in the Family, in 1983. His collections of poetry include The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left Handed Poems (1981), which won the Canadian Governor General's Award in 1971; The Cinnamon Peeler: Selected Poems (1989); and Handwriting: Poems (1998). His first novel, Coming Through Slaughter (1976), is a fictional portrait of jazz musician Buddy Bolden. The English Patient (1992), set in Italy at the end of the Second World War, was joint winner of the Booker Prize for Fiction and was made into an Academy Award-winning film in 1996. Anil's Ghost (2000), set in Sri Lanka, tells The Story of a young female anthropologist investigating war crimes for an international human rights group.

Michael Ondaatje lives in Toronto with his wife, Linda Spalding, with whom he edits the literary journal Brick. His new novel is Divisadero (2007).

Michael Ondaatje's profile page


  • Short-listed, Governor General's Literary Award - Poetry

Excerpt: Handwriting (by (author) Michael Ondaatje)

In the dry lands

every few miles, moving north,
another roadside Ganesh

Straw figures
on bamboo scaffolds
to advertise a family
of stilt-walkers

Men twenty feet high
walking over fields
crossing the thin road
with their minimal arms
and "lying legs"

A dance of tall men
with the movement of prehistoric birds
in practice before they alight

So men become gods
in the small village
of Ilukwewa

Ganesh in pink,
in yellow,
in elephant darkness
His simplest shrine
a drawing of him

lime chalk
on a grey slate

All this glory
preparing us for Anuradhapura

its night faith

A city with the lap
and spell of a river

Families below trees
around the heart of a fire

from the small villages
of the dry zone

Circling the dagoba
in a clockwise hum and chant,
bowls of lit coal
above their heads

whispering bare feet

Our flutter and drift

in the tow of this river

Editorial Reviews

"In Handwriting, he has chosen, with great deliberateness and passionate intelligence, to explore the poetic history of his birthplace, a history, as he acknowledged in Running in the Family, of continual colonization . . . Ondaatje has not chosen to repeat himself in Handwriting, but to push his art in new directions. The gain is all ours." —Calgary Herald

"Handwriting takes the reader on a fantastic journey to the author's childhood home in Sri Lanka, where we discover the remnants of a forgotten language and a homeland left behind." —The Windsor Star

"Michael Ondaatje defies the normal distinction between poet and novelist. His writing is consistently tuned to a visionary pitch." —Graham Swift

"His thrilling poems read like exquisite, unwritten Ondaatje novels." —The Independent
"This is a breathtaking collection. . . . If you're going to buy one book this year, buy this one. Ten years from now you'll still be reading it with pleasure." —Sam Solecki, Books in Canada

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