Review of Handwriting: Poems

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Editor: Janet Witalec
Date: 2004
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Book review; Critical essay
Length: 1,277 words

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[(review date spring 2001) In the following review, Merritt compares the historical themes and narrative elements of Handwriting with those of Running in the Family.]

As in his 1982 memoir Running in the Family, the subject and setting of Handwriting, Michael Ondaatje's latest book of poems, is Sri Lanka, the author's birthplace and childhood home; here comparisons end. Contrasts, however, abound. Whereas the memoir is a diffuse, meandering affair, cobbled out of anecdote, inference and rumor; Handwriting--spare, imagistic, lyrical--is a deep spell woven of history, imagination, and the chiaroscuro of fairy tale. While the memoir recites seemingly endless accounts of the shenanigans and social rounds of the prominent, European-influenced families of "Ceylon"--horse racing, tennis tournaments, flirtations and affairs, dress balls, drunks--, Handwriting focuses on the "Buried" culture of the island, turning its treasures to light and peering into "Wells" in search of "the deeper levels of the self." Finally, as its title might suggest, Running in the Family concerns itself with inheritance: remembering (reinventing, really) a father largely lost to his son even in memory or discovering one's patronymic "chiseled in large letters" on the stone floor of a seventeenth-century church--an experience which, according to Ondaatje, "in some strange way removes vanity, eliminates the personal." Handwriting, dedicated to Ondaatje's ayah or nurse and redolent of the fluid and mesmeric language and lore common to poet, prayer house, and nursery, lacks vanity and is a genuinely transpersonal book. As society is to culture, as surface is to depth, as patronymic is to mother tongue: thus is the relation of Michael Ondaatje's 1982 memoir Running in the Family to Handwriting, his present collection of poems.

Sri Lanka (25,332 square miles) is located in the Indian Ocean to the southeast of India. Consulting a concise reference work, one learns, among other things, that the Sinhalese, from Northern India, conquered the island's aboriginal inhabitants in the sixth century B.C.E., establishing their...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100053101