Critical Essay on "The Cinnamon Peeler"

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Author: Tamara Fernando
Editor: David A. Galens
Date: 2004
From: Poetry for Students(Vol. 19. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 1,545 words

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In reviewing Michael Ondaatje's 1991 collection of poetry, The Cinnamon Peeler: Selected Poems, poet Cyril Dabydeen, referring to the "seemingly distinctive personae" that each poem in the collection seems to have, writes in World Literature Today that "Ondaatje essentially creates a mythos about himself." This "mythos"--the creation of new identities--characterizes much of Ondaatje's writing. His best-known example is the nameless, faceless, and nation-less burn victim in his Booker-prize winning novel The English Patient. As an immigrant to Canada from the South Asian island nation of Sri Lanka, Ondaatje has been ascribed a variety of often-conflicting identities as an immigrant writer. W. M. Verhoeven, writing about Ondaatje's ethnicity in Mosaic, a Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, cites Arun Muhkerjee's complaint against Ondaatje for pandering to the mainstream and not writing enough about "his otherness." On the other hand, critic Tom Marshall, writing in his text Harsh and Lovely Land: The Major Canadian Poets and the Making of a Canadian Tradition, casts Ondaatje as an exotic outsider by calling his work "a heady mixture . . . strange and intriguing to Canadians." In the Canadian magazine MacLean's, Brian Johnson simply ignores the question of his ethnic and national identity by proclaiming him "a writer without borders." It is precisely this sense of borderlessness, or displacement, that fuels Ondaatje's work. Like many postcolonial and/or immigrant writers whose identities are indeterminate, Ondaatje is obsessed with identity, and his characteristic myth-making is one method by which his art dissects notions of identity. In his poem "The Cinnamon Peeler," he creates a mythical identity, the cinnamon peeler, through which he explores the issues of identity and displacement.The cinnamon peeler's narrow and inescapable identity offers a sharp contrast to the nebulous, anonymous narrator who daydreams of being him.

This poem itself takes the form of a daydream; the narrator wonders aloud to his lover what it would be like if he were someone else. With this first line, tensions and anxieties of identity and displacement are revealed in the sharp contrast drawn between the actual identity of the narrator (which is never revealed) and the person he dreams of becoming--a cinnamon peeler, one who has a specific and defined place in society.

Cinnamon is a spice that is native to Sri Lanka, a country where, in traditional societies, a man's profession...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420052872