Michael Ondaatje is the man who put Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas in the desert. His prize-winning novel, The English Patient, was adapted into a Oscar-winning film, and in his latest literary endeavor Ondaatje returns to his original source of fame: poetry.
With his usual detailed grace, Ondaatje enters epic themes—the book's opening line is, “the enemy was always identified in art by a lion.” Vivid lyrical snapshots of his native Sri Lanka are prevalent, and as in his memoir Running in the Family, a ripe and dreamy romanticism clings about the proceedings. “Last Ink” begins: “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.” A sly sense of whimsy is never absent.
Handwriting is a conspicuous departure from the novelistic form, and perhaps his least traditional poetry volume to date. Because Ondaatje's prose is so rich, his poetry seems at times like one of his novels with the bones taken out—no distinct structures, just puddles of beauty, blood, and vital signs lacking orientation. This is, however, exactly what Ondaatje is after, the poetic moment where the grain and leaf of the world flourish into words. “The Distance of a Shout” encapsulates his mission: “Handwriting occurred on the waves / on leaves, the scripts of smoke / a sign on a bridge along the Mahabeli River / A gradual acceptance of this new language.”